I’ve seen them hanging by magnets on refrigerator doors. I’ve spotted one in a friend’s kitchen on an erasable white board, scrawled in colored markers. They’re tucked away on journal pages. Some of them are noted mentally, where they risk being forgotten. Some are so engraved on the heart that they can never be forgotten.
What are they? They are people’s prayer lists. A prayer list, of course, is that quintessentially Catholic device, that practical answer to all those people who ask you to pray for them. It goes beyond just that, of course, to include the suffering friend who would never ask for prayer and the injured child you noted in the morning paper as well as your own child studying for final exams.
If our prayers consist of thanksgiving, petition, contrition and praise, then this is our hands-on little guide to petition, our way to recite and remember who and what we want to “lift up.”
I knew a priest who said he did not ask God for many things at all but made an exception for a friend’s small child with a terminal illness. I wish I would have pressed him on his reasons for his nearly nonexistent prayer list, but I didn’t. Perhaps he believed, rightly, that God knows what is in our hearts and what our needs are. Maybe he would say our job in prayer is to listen to God, not to badger the infinite with problems that God already knows all about.
I once might have shared that philosophy. My job in prayer was surrender, not demand. The “Suscipe” of St. Ignatius summed it up: Give me only your love and your grace.
But then someone would get sick, or my child would be struggling, and my heart would shout out to the heavens with petitions. So what’s the answer? Is there a conflict in these two attitudes?
No, I don’t think so, and I come down firmly on the side of the humble, dog-eared prayer list.
Our first prayer must always be, “Thy will be done.” Do we know the best outcome for the friend suffering from cancer? Do we understand God’s will in allowing the vibrant young man to become a quadriplegic? We pray for understanding and acceptance of God’s will.
But in addition to that? Holding our friends, our family, our world deep in our prayer brings us into communion with them. It’s integral to being part of one body in Christ. Our list reminds us of others’ needs and urges us to help in practical ways if we can. Prayer doesn’t take the place of action; it inspires action.
A wise person said that prayer doesn’t change God, but changes the one who prays. Our prayer list makes us more sensitive, attentive and open to the needs of the world.
Beyond that, how much our sincere wishes and positive thoughts reverberate in the universe, energizing the environment and reaching the ear of a healing God who knows what kind of healing we and others need and responds in wisdom and love far beyond our humble and human pleas.
Servite Sister Joyce Rupp writes about how often in the Gospel people do not come to Jesus with their requests for healing, but “they were brought by someone who cared about them.”
Isn’t that exactly what we do with our prayer list? We bring our loved ones to Christ. We have no idea of the outcome, but we know that Jesus hears prayer and that somehow, in the mystery of God, our prayer makes a difference.