I recently read this reflection on intercessory prayer by the Rev. Lori Erikson, a Deacon in The Episcopal Church.
Ever since author Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with serious cancer this past summer, he’s drawn nearly as much attention from Christians for his illness as he has for books like God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
The evangelically atheist author (and that’s not nearly as much of a contradiction as it sounds) doesn’t want anyone’s prayers but has been deluged with them anyway. He didn’t appreciate “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day” on September 20 and most certainly doesn’t belong to the Facebook group Christians Praying for Christopher Hitchens. But people around the world keep praying for him anyway, some with pure motives and some with what is no doubt a certain amount of schadenfreude (that indispensable German word indicating pleasure in the misfortunes of others).
The controversy over whether to pray for atheists highlights just one of the many theological issues relating to prayer. Think about intercessory prayer, for example. As a Christian, I’m for it, particularly when people are praying for me. But what does it mean, exactly, to pray for someone? Do we need to remind God to pay attention to Aunt Beth who’s going to have surgery on Tuesday? If we don’t, will Aunt Beth suffer as a result? And what about praying for a new job or for help with financial difficulties? Why should God pay any attention to a middle-class American when there are millions of desperately poor people in the world who need help so much more?
Or think of that staple of the news media, that lucky fellow who has escaped harm in the tornado, hurricane, or other disaster-du-jour. “God answered my prayers,” he says, looking appropriately soulful. His sentiments, of course, imply that God didn’t bother to answer the prayers of all the people who are now in the hospital or awaiting burial.
I may sound flippant, but I honestly struggle with these issues. I remember when our son nearly died from meningitis and it was enormously comforting to hear of people praying for him. At one point a friend visited him in intensive care, and when she came out of the room she told us that she could feel the energy of all those prayers enfolding him. How could I not hope that those prayers were helping Owen as much as the beeping machines and bustling nurses? For in times like that, the unseen world can seem far more real and vivid than the ordinary one, the one with grocery stores and cable news and people arguing over whether to pray for atheists.
Most of all, I think of how it changes me to pray for someone, how it forces me to focus on something other than myself, even for just a few seconds or minutes. That’s a good thing, surely, to be pulled out of the solitary dance of self-obsession.
So maybe we are to pray for each other not because God needs the reminder, but because we do. And maybe those prayers form a web of protection around someone who is vulnerable, allowing divine energy to concentrate itself and re-weave what was broken.
Most days, I just try to live in the mystery of it all, praying for Christopher Hitchens and Aunt Beth and whoever else needs to be put back together. Rather than look to theologians for guidance, I prefer to follow the lead of the poet Mary Oliver:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
— Lori Erickson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many national publications. She writes about inner and outer journeys at http://www.spiritualtravels.info and serves as a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, Iowa.