Ashes to Ashes: One’s Prayers

I suppose it is to be expected that any Christian will find his efforts at daily prayer to be ambushed, beleaguered, and booby-trapped with all the devices hell can muster in order to harry the operation, since the prayers of Christians are among the activities hell most dreads. There is an awful painting of poor St. Anthony of Egypt being yanked and pitchforked and dragged about by a whole platoon of demons.

But, short of this battle with principalities, most of us would admit to finding our prayers somewhat heavy-sledding a good bit of the time. I myself am always bemused by the sight of a good Catholic kneeling in front of the tabernacle, her face (it is more often she than he, alas) suffused with a seraphic light, ecstasy radiating from every pore. How does one gain this exalted state? (Yes, I know: “prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action.” T. S. Eliot was clearly familiar with the battle.)

But to speak only of the somewhat lowly matter of plain petition, leaving aside the high reaches of contemplation and the unutterable states testified to by the masters of prayer: What course does one steer between—on the one hand, getting mired down in the longueurs that would seem to be required if we are to do any sort of justice in our prayers on behalf of someone who is, say, in extremis and, on the other hand, capering along blithely, scarcely lingering for a moment on behalf of that same person, since there are so many people we’ve got on our list and we have to catch the 7:50, forsooth?

Well, for one thing, of course, we need to keep it in mind that the whole Church is praying, and that the agonies of the world do not rest upon my feeble shoulders alone. Nonetheless, one wants to do one’s part, so to speak, with some rag of integrity and true participation. I cannot answer the following questions otherwise than by listing the questions that attend virtually every entry in the book where I write down the names of those for whom I feel some responsibility to pray.

Here, for example, is a young man, a “cradle” believer, living in sin with his woman. To what pitch of fervor ought I to rise in plucking the sleeve of the Most High on his behalf? Or here is an absolutely splendid Catholic couple, heroically saintly parents, one of whose grown children has got into the deepest sort of (perhaps lifelong) trouble. Here, too, is a young homosexual who is trying (I think) to lead a celibate life. Here is a woman in the last stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, all dignity having long since vanished from her bedside. Here are half a dozen young priests with God-only-knows-what onerous, boring, and vexatious responsibilities as their daily lot. Here is an old friend who disappeared several years ago in New York City, and our best guess is that he is now a street person. Here is a youngish couple whose marriage has broken up, the husband turning out to be virtually paralyzed when it comes to living even remotely realistically, much less earning a living for the family. Here is a man approaching 40 who has suffered unrelieved and excruciating agony in his head from a swimming accident for at least 20 years. A worldwide search for doctors, faith healers, alternative-medicine practitioners, and prayer warriors has yielded nothing. Here is an old and beloved friend, a widower and atheist, whose teenage son blew his own head off.

And then there is everyone with cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, strokes, and just plain aging. Oh—and my best high-school teacher, long since sunk in a black hole of depression, whom nothing can help, it seems.

We have been enjoined to pray. For most of us, I suppose, it is a matter of just getting on with it.

  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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