When my friend stands next to me and says, “I’ll pray for you,” I do not know what to think. I have a slight head cold. I am on the last day of my cold, the day where you feel more or less better but your voice is gravelly and you’re blowing your nose at every opportunity. I do not think I need to be prayed for, not for this. “I’m mostly better,” I say. “I’ll pray for you anyway,” he says.
I believe in prayer. I am not sure when this happened. I used to look at headlines in magazines that said things like “Prayer Study Shows No Effect on Health,” and feel slightly smug. Four years later, I look at those same headlines and feel exasperated. Clearly, I think, someone is missing the point.
I believe in prayer, but when B. stands next to me and says “I’ll pray for you,” for the moment all I can feel is a desire that he’d pray for someone else, or at least over some other part of my life. It’s not that I don’t want to be prayed for. When I’m breaking up with my boyfriend, when my grandfather is in the hospital, when I’ve just lost my job, when I am furious with God and can’t pray myself, at these times I want to be prayed for. In the middle of the night, when a loved one was frighteningly late returning from a journey, I have called this same friend and begged him to pray.
Prayer is not a panacea as far as I am concerned, and perhaps this why I do not wish B. to pray over my cold. This is also why I roll my eyes at those newspaper headlines. Whether prayer is statistically significant is simply not a factor I find worth considering.
I know a little child who was molested. The day I found out, I came home almost in tears and furious. I couldn’t decide what to be angry at: the human who did the molesting, or the society that could breed such an evil, the bureaucracy that prevented me from doing much of anything besides report it and hope someone somewhere would do their job, myself for being helpless, or God for bloody everything. I settled on a blend among all of these things, but mostly I was angry at God. This was a child whom I cared for, whom I loved, even- whom I had prayed for.
More or less, I manage to not be furious at God for hurricanes and cancer and earthquakes and AIDS. I believe in the will of God, but I do not believe that the will of God involves a perfect fairyland with no death. I believe in the will of God as a great Pattern of which death is an inextricable part. That death is necessary for life is something that any neo-pagan or oncologist can tell you. I can accept death as part of the will of God. But I rage because while I believe death to be part of the will of God, evil never is. I can accept lightning strikes, but not child molesters.
Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has jurisdiction in the providences of the human heart, and very much I want her to step in and say, “Whoa now, Adolf, maybe you better be thinking less about scapegoats and more about good economic incentives to get the German economy up and running . . .”
At the same time, I recognize (however sulkily) that we must invite God into our hearts, because if she could interfere in our choices without our permission, life would be pretty much meaningless.
I live right next door to the hospital, and I hear the sirens go by at all hours. The sirens are my muezzin; they call me always to prayer. I pray that the medics are strong and do their job well, and can sleep that night without regrets. I pray that their patient feels safe and cared for and loved. I pray that the patient’s family is loved, and that if their loved one dies, that everyone else will bring casseroles. I pray for all of these things because I believe that any act of pure love is an expression of the will of God. If God wills a person to die, she also wills them to die while being cared for and loved.
I do not know if God will always act to save a person’s life, but my faith tells me that she will always act to surround them with love. Even as I believe God cannot enter us without our permission, I also believe that no matter how tightly locked the gates, she can stand outside of them and whisper. I imagine her whispering to the medics, whispering to the terrified patient, whispering to the grieving family, and whispering to all their friends so they bring lots of casseroles. And if one chooses to let her in, she can do much more than whisper.
Love is the essence of God, and this, in the end, is how I explain my prayer to my more skeptical friends, the ones who don’t offer to pray for me when I have a cold. If God is real, then my prayer, an act of love, invokes God, the greatest love of all. But even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, my prayer is still an act of love. And an act of love never goes amiss. Even if no ears hear it, even if no God responds, I have exercised my soul to love just a little better. Love, I find, takes practice; it is not simply an emotion one has. Prayer stretches my capacity to love. When I pray regularly, I find it that much easier to forgive, to hold my sharp tongue, to take the time to make casserole.
I believe any act of love to be an act of prayer. Children teach this to me best. “She hit me!” says one small child. “I know,” I say. “But it was an accident, and she said she was sorry, and look, she’s almost crying. She really is sorry. When someone hurts you, and then is truly sorry, it is your turn to forgive them.” The small child says, “My mother says- sorry isn’t enough!” I look at them and say, “Sometimes when you’re sorry for something, you also need to do a little of work to make it right, like if you spill milk you need to help clean it up. But really and truly, if your friend hurts you and then is sorry, it must be enough. It is enough.”
Maybe this is lying, because I know that there will be times in these children’s lives when sorry isn’t enough, times when they will beg forgiveness and not receive it. But my reassurance to them is a prayer- that they will be lucky, that they will be forgiven.
And here I am back next to my friend, who has offered to pray for my cold, even though I didn’t want him to pray over it. I didn’t want it because I don’t see my cold as against the will of God, but also because I cannot bear to believe that B.’s prayer would cause God to cure my cold, or that my prayer will cure the person in the ambulance. If I believed that, I would have to ask myself why God is not busy curing more important things: like child molestation. Like hurricanes. Like cancer. I do not have enough faith to do this. Perhaps B. does, and I am envious.
I am standing here because B. showed up at my door and said he didn’t have a way to get home and I said “I’ll drive you,” before he had the chance to ask. That act was my prayer for him, and he accepted it for what it was. So now here I am in his driveway, and with thanks I accept his prayer for me and my cold, because no matter my opinions about the will of God for the rhinovirus, his prayer for me is an act of love and, therefore, an expression of the will of God.