Keeping your promise

Please pray for me.

It’s a simple request. Yet sometimes we may have a misconception about whose prayers are more powerful. We may think a more devout person can do a better job of praying.

We may feel God does not hear all prayers equally. That perception was shattered on the night of March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis, newly elected, stood before a vast crowd of strangers and humbly said, “I want to ask you a favor ... I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me.” With those words, Pope Francis let us know any person in any crowd is capable of praying for another person. During his trip to Israel, Pope Francis asked Muslims, Jews and Christians to pray for him. The Holy Father’s request for prayers acknowledges that God can hear the stranger on the street as well as he can hear the pope standing on a balcony in Rome.

With this understanding in mind, we need to take seriously the power and the obligation we have when we tell someone, “I will pray for you.”

What does that really mean? How well do we keep this promise? Certainly, that may depend on the seriousness of the need, our relationship with the individual who needs our prayers or our own prayer habits. In many cases, life gets busy and we forget about our promise to pray until we see the person again or hear an update on the situation. Then we nod our heads and say, “Well, I have been praying.” What we actually may mean is, “I will try again to remember to pray for this need of yours, but I have so many other things on my mind.”

Our intentions may be the best. We truly want to pray for others in need. Sometimes it is the only thing we can do for a grieving family, a sick child or the victim of a job loss. Yet, in a busy world, how can we keep our promise to pray? Read on to find out.

hold close

The infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke tells us, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). Surely she prayed for her son. We, too, can hold other people and their intentions close to our hearts. For this purpose, many religious traditions use the prayer-box concept. A small box or tube charm can hold a prayer intention on a chain around our necks or on our wrists. These small boxes, available online from catalogs or in jewelry stores, are generally reserved for very special intentions.

Obviously, we do not give the same priority to every intention we may hold in our hearts. I prayed much more passionately for my sister when she had cancer than I would pray for a friend’s cousin who I have never even met. Yet, when we promise to pray, we should pray. We may naturally hold one or two very special intentions closer to our hearts. For all the other intentions we have promised friends and relatives we would remember in our prayers, a larger prayer box can be helpful. Each time you make a promise to pray write the intention on a slip of paper and add it to the box. A general prayer can be said every day to remember all the intentions in our prayer boxes. Once or twice a day we can also randomly pull out one or more of the notes and concentrate on those intentions in a special way.

Lord's Prayer

The prayer Jesus taught us, known as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer, is so fundamental to our faith that sometimes we may overlook this most obvious choice when we are looking for a way to raise our petitions to God. Yet the Our Father, taught in Matthew 6, includes three lines that are perfect for asking God to hear our concerns.

“Your will be done ...” God’s will is always good. But because God allows free will and evil in the world, sometimes the good that God wishes for us does not happen. By praying that God’s will be done, we are praying for good things.

“Give us today our daily bread ...” Daily bread refers to all our physical needs. Often our prayers for another may concern some physical need.

“Deliver us from the evil one.” Often, sickness, war, tragedy and so much other pain can be attributed to evil such as greed, hatred, pollution or poverty in our world. When people ask us to pray for them they are often hoping that they will be protected or freed from some evil.

Thus, whether we are praying for God’s goodness to prevail, for some physical need, or for some evil to be avoided, the Our Father is a perfect prayer to use when we have promised to pray on someone’s behalf. We can repeat the prayer as soon as possible after the prayer request has been made and use it regularly in our prayer time.

If the intention is one that deeply stresses or worries us, we can find relief for our anxiety by praying the Our Father while we take deep calming breathes and slowly say each word of the prayer on an exhale. This is a wonderful way to release our worries and place them gently in the hands of our heavenly Father.

Pray by touch

Just as sometimes a hug, a squeeze of the hand or a pat on the back can say more than words, a woman who was nameless in the Gospels taught us we can pray by touch. She was the one who reached out and touched the tassel of our Lord’s cloak as he passed in the crowd. The simple physical contact with Jesus cured her.

Once I saw a man in church walk up to a statue of the Pieta and place his hand over the limp hand of Jesus. It was a beautiful prayer. He then reached up and placed his hand in Mary’s outstretched hand. In a similar way, we can pray by touch — placing our prayer intentions in the hands of our Lord or a favorite saint.

A church I visit occasionally for morning Mass has a statue of St. Joseph that people pass as they are returning from communion. Every morning, one man stops and places his hand on St. Joseph’s foot. I wonder if this man is simply greeting a friend or reminding St. Joseph of some special prayer intention.

When my son was searching for a job, a dear priest friend told me, “I will place his name under my statue of St. Joseph.” The priest said he touched the St. Joseph statue every morning and asked this patron saint of workers to give good employment to all those whose names were at his feet.

I used this same strategy when prenatal tests showed potential problems with my unborn granddaughter. I placed her name under the statue of St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, and touched it often throughout the day to remind St. Thérèse to tell Jesus of my worries for my unborn grandchild. My granddaughter was born beautifully healthy. Touch can be a powerful tool.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Sometimes I think we make praying more difficult than it needs to be. We try to give God detailed instructions about what we want him to do, failing to remember he is God and he knows better than us what needs to be done.

We may present our requests over and over through novenas to favorite saints, lighting candles and endlessly moving rosary beads through our hands. Is all this necessary? Please do not misunderstand; I find great comfort in these many forms of prayer, especially when overwhelmed by a great sadness or worry. It is good to ask the saints and the Blessed Mother to join us in our prayers and to put in a good word for us with our great God.

Yet, when teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus said, “Do not babble like the pagans who think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:7). When we babble endless words at God, telling him all the details of what we want him to do for those in need, we truly are like the pagans, for we are not trusting that God is wise enough and loving enough to know what to do. As Jesus continues, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8).

We may be praying passionately for a loved one to get a particular job when, in fact, God has something much better in mind. Rather than telling God what to do, we really just need to tell Jesus of the problem and trust he will fix it in his own time and in his own way.

UNCONVENTIONAL

Certainly our prayers for another person or a special intention do not have to follow any conventional norms at all. In St. Luke’s Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic (Lk 5:17-26), we hear of men who climbed to the roof and lowered their paralyzed friend down in front of Jesus. The Gospel tells of no words exchanged between the men on the roof and Jesus, yet Jesus cured the man who was placed in front of him. In the same way, we may want to climb to the top of a high hill to cry out our prayer to Jesus or place the picture of the loved one in need in front of a picture of our Lord.

Praying to God is an extremely personal practice and, while always maintaining respect for the divine, each of us must find the way that seems most natural and meaningful for us. Whether we write a letter to God on behalf of someone in need, make a special sacrifice or create a prayer trigger for ourselves, we must believe our prayers are not in vain. We must have the faith of the leper who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (Mt 8:2). Yet, we also must accept and understand that while all prayers are heard, many are not answered in the way we might hope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “Do not be troubled if you do not receive immediately from God what you ask him, for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer” (No. 2737).

BLESSING

Some people may think the act of blessing is reserved for an ordained priest or deacon. But any of us has the power to pray for God’s blessing upon another individual. We are invited to do this during special liturgical celebrations when we are all asked to extend our right hands and join in prayers for a newly married couple, commissioned members of a parish council or the catechists who will teach our children.

When my first child was born, a priest encouraged me to bless him every night before I put him down for bed by simply making the sign of the cross with my thumb on his forehead and saying, “God bless and keep you.” I did that with all four of my children until the day they moved away from home. Even today when they drive away from our house after a visit, I always extend my hand and pray that God blesses them as their car disappears around the corner. In the same way, we can whisper a blessing in our hearts or say it out loud when we hug a friend, squeeze a hand, or pat the shoulder of someone who has asked for or needs our prayers.

continue praying

St. Paul tells us to, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). How is this possible unless we live in a monastery where our primary work is prayer? One way to pray without ceasing is to dedicate our daily work or activities as a prayer for a special intention. Fasting or sacrifice is another way to pray continuously. These practices are not just reserved for Lent. We can give up desserts, a favorite TV show, soda, beer or cigarettes as a way to pray for another. One woman I know gave up chocolate as a way to remember her daughter in prayer. Every time she passed up a piece of chocolate candy or a fudge cake, she was reminded to whisper a prayer for her daughter.

MAKE TIME

Our promises to pray will remain unfulfilled if we do not make time for prayer each day. The Gospels tell us Jesus often set aside time for prayer. In the Gospel of Mark we are told, “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk 1:35). Luke also confirms, “At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place to pray” (Lk 4:42). It is not surprising Jesus prayed at dawn. Many good Jews did. Psalm 5 declares, “In the morning you will hear my voice; in the morning I will plead before you and wait.”

Morning has always been a preferred time to pray in many religious traditions. Yet, sadly, today, more people may set their alarms early to go to the gym than to pray. How much more important is it to get up early to pray, especially if we are praying for some great need?

If morning is not a convenient time to pray how about after work? Matthew tells us after a full day of preaching and feeding 5,000, Jesus dismissed the crowds, sent the disciples ahead of him in the boat and, “went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Mt 14:23). We, too, can pray after a busy day at work by turning off the car radio and praying as we drive or stopping for a few minutes at a park, church, hospital chapel or other quiet place.

For many of us, the days are busy from early morning until late at night. When do we pray then? Pray during the busyness. A good friend prays while she waters her garden. When my children were young I taped prayers on the wall above the washing machine so I could pray as I sorted and folded clothes. Any mindless, routine task offers the chance to pray. We can repeat the “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” and “Glory Be” as we wash dishes, mow the lawn, walk the dog, rock the crying baby, vacuum the house, wax the car or wait in line.

TRIGGERS

Several years ago our parish introduced a “parish vision” that asked that we be a more prayerful people. I was part of a team that conducted a survey of how our parishioners prayed. We felt that by sharing the way we prayed, we could all become more prayerful. The survey responses that impressed me the most were those who used very routine activities as a trigger or reminder to pray. They included:

• Praying for the emergency personnel and the one needing their assistance whenever an ambulance, fire truck or police car passed with sirens on. This included prayers for loved ones they knew who did this kind of dangerous work.

• Praying for the sick — both those we know and those who are unknown in the hospital — whenever passing a hospital.

• Praying for whoever is calling before answering the phone.

• Praying at a red light or during a commercial on television.

• Praying for the safety of construction workers and all those who may be in danger when passing a construction site.

We can also devise our own triggers to help us remember a special intention.

Enlist Help
Technology allows us to send our prayer requests to those who dedicate their lives to praying. Here is just a small sample of the many beautiful websites where we can post a special prayer intention.

Biblically speaking
Scripture
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Throughout Scripture, it is made clear that God asks his children on earth to pray for one another. Here are some examples:

Susan M. Erschen writes from Missouri.