The efficacy of petitionary prayers

Judge Robert Bork, whom President Reagan nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, came into the Catholic Church at 76 years of age, thanks in no small part to the intercessory prayer from his wife, Mary Ellen. Shortly after his reception into the Church, Father Richard John Neuhaus, himself a convert and editor of First Things, sent him a congratulatory note stating that “[Now] all of the saints [can] get some rest from Mary Ellen’s importuning.” (National Catholic Register Jan. 13-26, 2013).  

This homey and mildly humorous anecdote, of course, does not prove anything. At the same time, it does suggest a quartet of dispositions that are needed in order for intercessory prayer to be effective. They are: 

1) Persistence, because the intercessor must continue to pray without ceasing. 

2) Hope, because the intercessor believes that the prayers will ultimately be answered. 

3) Love, because that is what animates the intercessor to will the good of the beloved. 

4) Humility, because the intercessor knows that only God answers prayers. 

These were the very dispositions that St. Monica demonstrated in her prayers for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine. 

It has been the common consensus of mankind throughout the ages that prayer can be effective. Thus Alfred Lord Tennyson is addressing a believing readership when he has the dying King Arthur make the following request: 

“Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer 

“Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice 

“Rise like a fountain for me night and day” (“Morte D’Arthur”). 

C.S. Lewis, in his insightful article “The Efficacy of Prayer,” recounts an experience that continued to astonish him and caused him to think deeply about the mysterious potentialities of prayer. He got up one morning intending to travel to London and to prepare for the trip by getting his hair cut. The morning’s mail, however, made it clear that the London trip was no longer needed. Therefore, he decided not to get his hair cut. But an unaccountable nagging began in his mind, almost like a voice saying: “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” His “voice” finally won out over his practical judgment. The very moment he opened the door of the barber shop, the barber said to him, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” The barber was a Christian who was experiencing many troubles. As C.S. Lewis notes, “If I had come a day or so later, I should have been of no use to him.” 

Lewis was confronted with more dramatic indications of the relationship between prayer and healing. He describes observing a woman whose thighbone was eaten through with cancer. Three people were needed to move her in bed. The doctors predicted death in a few months. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking easily. The technician who took the last X-ray photos said: “These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.” 

There have been numerous “scientific” studies purporting to prove or disprove whether there is a causal relationship between intercessory prayers and healing. The results have varied. The difficulties such studies face are invincible. God answers prayers, but in ways that may not be either predictable or observable. Christ prayed three times in Gethsemane that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not. Yet, no Christian would maintain that Christ’s prayers, in general, were not effective. God the Father has his own prerogatives. God did answer Israel’s prayers for release from the tyrannical hand of the Pharaoh. But his answer, as described in Exodus, was not what the chosen people expected — requiring them to wander in the desert for 40 years and suffer many hardships. God may or may not answer our prayers the way we envision. 

It should be of no surprise, then, that Jesus required us to pray “Thy will be done.” Our main concern should not be whether God answers our prayers exactly the way we want them to be answered, but whether we are prepared to accept the way he does answer them. 

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.