Prayer.....What Is It Anyway?
A few hours later I received a text message from my friend. Her mom was to be admitted immediately for surgery. My heart sank. They don't usually call for immediate surgery unless it's critical. But there was still a glimmer of hope. I prayed. At 8 the next morning another text came in. - mom in icu after heart op.... cancer last stage.....doc says to prepare for worst. Half of what was left of my "hope" rope snapped. Anguish for my friend.....that's all I felt. God....she has gone through so much....please don't let this happen - I pleaded silently. I rushed down to the hospital after work that day. We hugged and I held her for a while as she cried. I wish I could take away her pain and tell her that everything is going to be alright. Helplessness is not a nice feeling. We want to feel in control. But life is designed in such a way that it humbles us. In times like this we can only cast ourselves upon God and stand by each other in love and solidarity. A nurse I spoke with later, told me with grimm face, that the patient was very sick. I know what that means..... but I prayed anyway. She passed away early the next morning.
Prayer...what is it anyway? For whose sake do we pray, and what we hope to gain from our prayers? Are we asking for something from God, or just seeking to unburden ourselves, to place our concerns before God and our community? Is our prayer mostly a message of concern we send to the one we're praying for, intended to encourage our friend or loved one who knows that we are praying for him or her? Can a prayer for healing “work” if the sick person does not know that we are praying?
Why God answers some prayers but not another is a question asked in every generation. It hovers over hospital beds, and kitchen tables, and silent rooms where someone lies awake and alone in the dark. It will not go away.
Despite the questions, we go on praying for the sick. We say or sing or whisper the words, even in tongues - sometimes skeptically and sometimes tenderly and sometimes desperately and sometimes choked by tears. The question of what prayer is and why we pray has many possible answers, or perhaps it's more accurate to say, it does not subscribe itself to a set of clear cut answers. But I particularly like what one rabbi said about the emotional power of such prayer. For him, a prayer offered on behalf of the sick, or by the sick person himself or herself, is an act of connecting directly with the eternal source of comfort and love. Commenting on a verse from Psalm 32, Greenberg says this: "one who trusts in Adonai (God) will be embraced by hesed (lovingkindness)". The truth is: when you are sinking, when you are totally wrapped up in your own fear and pain, it is still possible to break out. God’s loving presence surrounds you at all times; God shares your pain as only an infinite consciousness can. God feels your hurt, kisses your wound compassionately. The divine steadfast love enfolds you even when the longed-for miracle does not come.”
Rabbi Greenberg’s words are neither naïve nor simpleminded. They are grounded in the belief that a sick person can be lifted out of fear, pain and isolation by offering or hearing words of prayer – ancient, sacred words that link the lone individual to a reality beyond the self. When the medical arts have reached their limit, prayer remains to sustain the soul -- to remind us, if we allow ourselves to believe it, that we do not suffer alone. It is possible, even in the midst of illness, to sense that you are cared for, that you are held in the embrace of a God whose love encompasses you forever.
“When my first wife was utterly ridden with cancer cells,” writes Martin Marty, “.....emaciated and all, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking, ‘Oh God, reverse these cells and give me a healthy-bodied spouse again.’ That was simply out of the range of this mode of conversation. What she and I prayed for was that love would be stronger than death, that nothing would separate us from the love of God, that we would be given strength for the day when it came – and when it came, we had it.”
And perhaps that is ultimately what the prayer for healing is all about, and why no visit to the sick is complete without a prayer. We pray when we have done everything we can and there is nothing else that we know how to do. We pray when our own resources are exhausted and we need another source of strength. We pray as an expression of human love and attention, in the hope that pain and solitude can be eased. We pray in the hour of extremity, so that we can go on to face whatever we will have to face. We offer words of prayer when those are the only words we have left.
Rabbi Steven Moss, a chaplain at Sloan Kettering Hospital, writes this: “I recall once being asked to pray Psalms for a seven year old boy who was in a coma. As I prayed the ancient words, I knew I was not sure of the reason as to why I was praying. Was I asking for the child to come out of the coma and live a vegetable-like existence? Was I praying that the child would miraculously awaken from the coma and be totally cured of cancer? Or was I petitioning God to mercifully take this child’s life? In truth, I was asking for all three answers, as well as for none at all. For, by this act of prayer, I was not saying to God that I wanted one answer over the others; for each, in human, real-life terms, had its own difficulty. By this act of prayer, I was doing the only thing I knew to do at this desperate moment, which was to place this boy’s existence in God’s presence, through my presence of love and care for this child.”
That basically sums up how I felt when I prayed for my friend's sick mom, especially towards the final stages. Sometimes, I'd stop midway and give up trying to articulate anything because I was so confused and do not know what exactly to ask. None of them are believers either, so that makes it a little more complex. But reagardless, I always end by placing her and her family in God's presence.
Portions of this article are taken from Rabbi Marder's sermon - A Prayer for Healing. In my next post, I will be sharing another article (also from Rabbi Marder) that explores what faith is, especially in times of crisis and desperation. It is one of the best commentary I've read on the subject of faith and it came at the right time as I'm seeking to make sense of the past week.