As I've mentioned before, the late Henri Nouwen is one of my spiritual heroes. I was introduced to his books back in my college days by a number of people, including a couple who'd actually had the opportunity to meet him -- in one case, take a class taught by him. They related what I suspected from reading his work; that there was something palpably holy about him that drew people to him. People wanted to be physically close to him; people wanted to hear his voice. And whether the person was a graduate student wanting to keep the lecture conversation going or a developmentally disabled person wanting a hug, Nouwen responded with kindness and attention.
And yet this priest -- beloved around the world, eloquent communicator of God's love, someone people longed to hear and even to touch -- could himself feel lonely and disconnected from others. A friend related once finding Nouwen on his doorstep in deep emotional distress: "Please hold me," Nouwen said. And so that is what the friend did, for a couple of hours.
I thought of this incident this morning while I was praying. I'll tell you a little bit about my intercessory prayer time: It's usually precipitated by my spiritual director, a.k.a. my little dog, who presses into my rump every morning around 5-ish until I get up and let him out -- sort of like a lab rat pressing a bar for a piece of kibble. (And, in a reversal of Pavlov's experiment, I feel and obey.) Well, once this little drama acts out, getting back to sleep is impossible, so as I'm lying there in bed too sleepy to get up and too awake to doze off again, I pray for all the people in my life.
No matter how old one is and how highfalutin' one's prayer practice, intercessory prayer is just a variation on the prayers many of us lisped as tiny tots at the side of the bed: "Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and Grandma and the kitty." The list gets longer over time, and in fact I find that it's no longer a list as much as a set of circles, some of them overlapping, that I trace in prayerfulness day after day. Some people are my friends; some, frankly, are my antagonists, and I pray for them because that's pretty much what's left for me to do with them. Some of my petitions are personal and specific -- people I know by name, or at least by screen name (which makes for some interesting petitions), whose situations I have some insight into; other people and situations I simply entrust into God's hands. There are times when I even wonder what "pray for" means in these latter instances, where all I have to hang onto conceptually is a name or a face on the evening news or the scream of an ambulance; all I know is it's what Christ expects us to do.
Does intercessory prayer "work"? Well...I don't try to overthink this, but I know that when I find out someone has been praying for me, it helps me. A few years ago, shortly after I'd returned to the church, I was having a tough time in the guardianship duties I have for one of my relatives, and that in turn was translating itself into scary health problems and a general state of upset. When I found out that my congregation's intercessory prayer group was keeping me in its prayers, it felt like a set of rescuers grabbing onto me and pulling me out of the water before I drowned. Awhile ago I found out that there are people regularly praying for those of us in the ministerial training program I am now a part of; to me it was another sign that, whether we feel like it or not on any given day, as members of the Body of Christ we're uplifted by and enfolded in unseen hands.
As a person of faith, "How do I live Christ into the world?" is a compelling, ongoing question for me. Some of us seem called to a living-out/pouring-out on a large scale -- the Francises and Claires, the Bonhoeffers, the Gerry Straubs (see my May 15 entry) of the world. Others of us -- perhaps because God knows it's all we're capable of, perhaps because it's all we're willing to let God do in and through us -- live out our faith and our self-giving in smaller ways.
Maybe intercessory prayer is a way to respond to "Please hold me," for all the people who are never going to physically show up on our doorstep, but who need holding nonetheless. Some mornings it frankly doesn't feel like the most, or the best, I can do for Christ or for my neighbors. But I believe it matters; I don't always understand how, but it does. So I'll keep doing it.