Part 1 of a series on intercessory prayer: Your own spiritual health comes first
“I’ll pray for you.” Why? How? When? For how long? Can you imagine asking that of someone promising to pray for you? Can you imagine being asked those questions whenever you say “I’ll pray for you”?
If we don’t see the value of those questions and if we don’t know how to answer them, then how can the words “I’ll pray for you” be anything other than an empty gesture? How can the promise to pray be any more sincere than greeting a co-worker in the hallway, asking “How are you?” and then rushing by without waiting for an answer?
Jesus told us not to “pray more” or “pray better” but to “pray always and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1) Which demand is more difficult—the “always” or the “not lose heart”? For a wise and brief guide to praying always, see the classic, “The Practice of the Presence of God.” We’re continually in God’s presence, and we pray always when we choose to live in awareness of God’s constant presence.
The more painful challenge is to pray without “losing heart.” A firm commitment to prayer attracts the attention and resistance of our spiritual enemies. Progress in the Lord invites a counter-attack. We’re also inclined to lose heart when it appears that we have been disappointed, deceived or deluded in prayer (as I have written of previously HERE).
Here’s the lesson: Establishing the habit of frequent, fervent and faithful prayer for others requires that we first practice good spiritual hygiene ourselves. What’s that include?
Fruitful intercession requires that we be right with God in our mind, heart and practice. Mind: We must know the Scriptures and the authentic teaching of the Church, and we must guard our thoughts against worldly distractions and diabolical lies. Heart: Love of God and neighbor, which always requires a cross and always offers a resurrection. Practice: Daily prayer and worship (including Mass as often as possible), clean living, remaining in a state of grace, frequent Confession (at least once a month), the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, regular Christian fellowship (what Saint Ignatius Loyola would call “friends in the Lord”).
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, let’s add one more—something I’ve seen so often in my own life and most frequently in my priestly ministry. We need a compassionate, objective humility regarding our own wounds and weaknesses. Living in this fallen world is painful, and our own foolishness, the malice or carelessness of others, and just plain bad luck will inevitably hurt and scar us.
The grief, pain, anger and confusion from those wounds provide an opening for spiritual enemies to worm their way into our hearts, where our defenses may have been breached. Our spiritual enemies infect our wounds with self-pity and distrust of God. From being adopted children, we settle for being spiritual orphans. We cut a deal with the devil for some quick (but illusory) pain relief—“just this once.” Any doctor will tell you that infected wounds bring fevers, and, left untreated, result in death.
Our commitment to “pray always and not lose heart,” therefore, requires placing ultimate trust not in our own wisdom, goodness, fidelity or efforts, but in the goodness of the living God, whom we cannot control, and whom we can never fully understand.
Those who would persist in intercessory prayer must understand the powers he is invoking and confronting. Like patient Job, the intercessor must expect to be spoken to by God through the might of the storm, being reminded that God’s majesty and wisdom are beyond our grasp. Like the prophet Elijah, the intercessor must be willing to listen for God coming to him as a “small, still voice.” Like the crucified Jesus, the intercessor must expect to behold the bleak view from the hill of Calvary, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And like the apostles Peter and John, the intercessor must enter the empty tomb of Christ, and believe, without fully comprehending, that the crucified Christ is risen, reigning and returning.
The life of the faithful Christian, one who would be an intercessor for others, follows in the footsteps of Christ, in the company of the saints both living and dead, surrounded by choirs of angels, and watched over by the Queen of Heaven. This is a solemn undertaking—one that both demands and offers more than the casual words “I’ll pray for you” suggest. Confessing his own weakness and limits, counting on the sufficient grace that is always available to those who ask for it, the intercessor orders his life so that Christ might find him to be both a faithful friend and fruitful channel of prayer.
When I write next, I will speak of discernment and informed intercession. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.