Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Mystery of Prayer

As many of you know, our church community, and many people around the world recently finished a novena asking for God's grace and mercy through the intervention of Blessed John Paul II. Specifically we asked that Susan of Whymommy fame be healed from the cancer that just won't realize that it's up against a too formidable foe. Throughout the nine days of the novena, my mind and heart kept circling the same, central question -- do I REALLY believe in miracles? Do we understand what it is that we are asking for? And, if we do, do we dare to ask for it?

Van Morrison, echoing my beloved W.B. Yeats, calls prayer "the inarticulate speech of the heart." Prayer is inarticulate inasmuch as God doesn't need our fancy words or formulae to know what we need. He knows the deepest cries of our souls, the most profound depths of our need before we do. Similarly, it's impossible to adequately describe or to summarize such a profound spiritual experience as the novena was for me and, I think, for all those who participated. For one thing, it's easy to sound trite or silly when talking about such things. In another way, I'm wary of even trying to talk about what the novena meant for me -- after all, this fight is not my fight; I am not the protagonist here -- I am simply a bystander, even one filled with love and hope.

On the other hand, I know that many people from all over the world joined in our chorus of prayer for our friend. One may know Susan personally, as I am privileged to do, or one may know her through her writing-- writing which is so immediate, honest, eloquent, and luminescent that it regularly inspires a shock of recognition, a thrill at the sheer beauty of her words, or a profound grief in the face of her suffering. In some ways, I feel that I must attempt to provide some insight into what the novena was like, from the standpoint of one of those praying, in order to solidify and make manifest in words the circle of love and caring and, oh! just ardent desire and longing for God's grace and mercy.

So -- some images:

  • One friend calling me the first day of the novena to ask whether she could come if she wasn't sure she believed in the power of prayer, and the reply that bubbled out of my mouth without any forethought -- "you believe in the power of love, though. Please come." And she did -- for all nine nights.
  • Being asked later whether I believed that a miracle could happen and shocking even myself with my answer -- "Absolutely." The ferocity of that answer startled me so much that I immediately felt I should qualify it with all sorts of explanations and rationalizations. But that was just fear talking -- fear of being seen as weird, fear of being wrong, fear. I actually DO believe that miracles are possible and that a miraculous healing is possible for Susan.
  • Encountering signs of God's presence throughout the novena that spoke to the situation -- I call them "Godsmacks" -- when you realize that He really is talking to you, in your particular situation. They're exceedingly rare, in my experience -- maybe because I'm not such a good listener. But during the novena, again and again, I and others experienced these Godsmacks
-- One night, I opened the missalette at random and found the story of Jesus curing the ten lepers.
-- Another friend, on another night, opened the same missalette to another random reading and found the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
-- On the last day of the novena, I opened my Magnificat to the the story of Jesus arriving in Gennesaret and the people all around bringing Him their sick, carrying them on mats and placing them in His path, in the hope that they would be able to just touch His cloak, believing that just that would bring healing. And it did.
  • As I was meditating on this story of Gennesaret, I kept repeating the phrase "we're bringing Susan to you on our mats, oh Lord. Please heal her." This struck me, and frightened me. I realized that we are asking that God set aside the natural order of things. That He actually come into the world in a material, immediate way and DO something amazing. That's a scary thing to ask. I really had a hard time with it, but then I looked at the Tabernacle in the chapel and I thought, "This IS something I can ask. God DOES make Himself manifest ALL THE TIME. He's actually HERE, right NOW. So ASK without fear."

  • And then, on perhaps the most devastating night of the novena, a woman whom I have never before seen came into the chapel in the middle of our silent prayer. Afterwards, a friend and I were in the little vestibule outside the chapel, talking about what was happening, when this woman appeared beside us. She asked about the purpose of the novena. When my friend explained, this woman said that she was gifted with visions. And I thought, "Oh no! She is "one of those" Catholics." I am sorry to say that I was embarrassed because my friend is not Catholic and I didn't want her thinking that Catholics were all crazy.
  • But my embarrassment quickly changed to wonder when this woman explained that she had been given a special prayer while on a pilgrimage to a church in Philadelphia. Another person approached her and told her that "The Lord told me to give this prayer to you."
Our interlocutor then told us that she had prayed this prayer intensely for the healing of a friend's sister, who was suffering from lung cancer and metastatic brain cancer. During a surgery to remove four tumors, we were told, our storyteller told us that she had prayed this prayer, which she gave to my friend, unceasingly for hours. In a post-surgery call to her friend, she was told that, despite a pre-surgical MRI showing four tumors, the surgeon could not find them. The cancer had been healed -- both the brain cancer and the original lung cancer. The woman is alive and well -- in fact, our friend said, "I just talked to her yesterday." Then she said, looking keenly at us:

"God can do anything."

Such conviction. Such sureness. It put me to shame. She related another story of a miraculous healing. Again, she forcefully said:

"God can do anything."

So this is the question: Do we believe that God can do anything? Or will we try to corral Him, confine Him to our understanding of the way the world is? Will we be embarrassed to believe in miracles, to ask for miracles, to let our scientific, post-Enlightenment, non-mystical way of looking at the world convince us that miracles are not only rare, but actually impossible?

I don't know.

I am certain, however, that I am praying for a miracle. I don't know what the will of God in this situation is -- I don't have an out-of-universe, eternal, omnipotent viewpoint. I do know, however, that God IS working a miracle in Susan. She herself, as I've told her, is the miracle, and the gift. And when I see how much love shines through her, again I say:

God can do anything.

1 comment:

  1. Wow - the friend's sister, who was suffering from lung cancer and metastatic brain cancer - what a perfect example to always remember the power of prayer/hope/etc.

    Thx for sharing.