The buzzer sounded so loud and harsh that John could hear it through the thick wooden door to the rectory. “What am I doing here?” he thought to himself as he saw the face of the gruff old priest appear in the tiny side window.
Not many in the parish would approach Fr. Wilfred’s door unless some kind of important business required a visit. And John had no such business. But over the previous month or two, he had prayed for the parish often, and speaking with Fr. Wilfred seemed like a good first step toward finding a way to serve.
Over the next two years, John and Fr. Wilfred enjoyed many conversations about ministry in the parish. During some conversations, the priest listened as John spoke about his call to lay ministry. During other visits, John listened to Fr. Wilfred’s concerns about his failing health or the problems in the parish. As the months went by, John realized that the most important thing he could do for this parish was to pray for Fr. Wilfred every day and to continue their visits. John’s final visit was to Fr. Wilfred’s wake. He was stunned by the greeting from another priest of the parish: “Thanks for coming. Fr. Wilfred thought of you as one of his best friends.”
What moves you to pray and reach out to others? How do you pray for the difficult people and situations in your life? Do you complain? Do you plead for God’s help in mending what is broken? Do you recognize God’s invitation to love at the root of all your concerns? How often do you cross the threshold of prayer in order to grow in the depth of God’s love for the people in your life?
Mark’s Gospel tells us that following Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13). For Jesus, prayer was the beginning of his ministry and the ongoing foundation for all that he did to reach out to others. Mark’s story also reminds us that Jesus was no stranger to the struggles we face in prayer. Yet he persisted in seeking intimacy with the Father in prayer. He also drew strength from these honest conversations with the Father as he prayed for his disciples and for all of his followers.
The Scriptures also give us many glimpses of Jesus going beyond himself to intercede for others in prayer. Some of these examples illustrate the connection between intercessory prayer and healing. For example, Jesus took a deaf man aside, put his fingers in the man’s ear, looked up to heaven in prayer, and then restored the man’s hearing (Mark 7:31-35). On another occasion, Jesus went to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, where he thanked his Father for raising Lazarus even before it happened (John 11:41-44).
Still more examples show Jesus praying for his disciples when they misunderstand or fail him. Before Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus told him, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). And finally, near the end of his life on earth, Jesus prayed with intense concern and unending affection for all of his future followers: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).
Praying for others is such an enduring reality for Jesus that he is described in Scripture as sitting at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Romans 8:34). So even now, Jesus prays as “a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), offering the eternal sacrifice of prayer and praise. “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). This means that Jesus is already praying for you and beckoning you to join him in prayer for the people you encounter in your daily life. Will you spend time before Jesus? Will you accept this gift of prayer? Will you offer all the people in your life to God, even the troublesome ones? Will you choose to draw new strength to love and new graces for connecting others to Jesus?
Surrendering to the Gift of Intercessory Prayer
Perhaps you have already prayed for others and have experienced only frustration and disappointment. Perhaps you find yourself avoiding intercessory prayer because of the raw and painful emotions that surface. Paul encourages all of us to persevere in prayer beyond our spiritual and emotional poverty: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:26-27).
Therese learned a lot about surrendering to the gift of intercessory prayer when she prayed for her new co-worker, Fr. Eddie. At the time, she didn’t really know him very well, and she sensed a strain in their relationship, probably because the projects they had begun tackling together were demanding and innovative. Fr. Eddie was also undergoing treatment for early-stage lung cancer. A few days after a round of chemotherapy, he was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. When Therese walked into the ICU, she was shocked. Fr. Eddie’s face and hands were so swollen and distorted that he was unrecognizable. There was a maze of tubes and monitors, and a prolonged drug-induced coma made conversation impossible.
To make matters worse, Fr. Eddie was in a hospital hundreds of miles from his home and most of his friends. So Therese felt called to pray in Fr. Eddie’s hospital room once or twice a week. First she would say hello to him, in case he could hear her. Then she would sit in a chair and pray for him. It was often a raw and troubling experience, but it was also an opportunity to delve into the depths of intercessory prayer. Therese sensed the Spirit interceding through sighs, through Hail Marys, through music and pleading, and through Scripture readings. Weeks and weeks went by, which included at least two medical complications that almost took his life.
Through e-mails and cards from mutual friends and encounters with Fr. Eddie’s former colleagues who joined her in prayer at his bedside, Therese witnessed the body of Christ praying together. Finally, Fr. Eddie was slowly weaned from his tracheotomy tube and drug-induced coma and began to recover. It was then that Therese realized that she had gone from a casual relationship with a co-worker to accepting Fr. Eddie as a brother and friend in Jesus. Through this adversity and through prayer, their relationship had been strengthened. She could truly say with Paul,
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
The truth behind intercessory prayer is that we join in God’s work to overcome all obstacles to his love for us and for others. We might use psalms, readings from daily Mass, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, silence, tears, our own descriptions of others’ needs, or worship music. The possibilities are endless but the decision is the same. We submit ourselves and others to God in prayer because it is difficult to love and offer support without first bringing another before God. And by choosing prayer, we trust God to change our hearts and make us more capable of reflecting his love and connecting others to Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Read more about growing in the spiritual life in John and Therese Boucher’s latest book, Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones: Eight Ways to Love as Jesus Loves Us (The Word Among Us Press, 2015). Available at wau.org/books