The power of my prayer list

I’m still discovering all the benefits of praying for others

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By Ed Block


In John Hassler’s 1990 novel North of Hope, a kindly pastor, Monsignor Adrian Lawrence, tells the protagonist, Father Frank Healy, “I am currently praying for 705 departed souls.” Frank replies, “That’s too many, Adrian.”

Though few of us probably have as many intentions as Monsignor Lawrence, many of us have lists of family and friends for whom we pray. I keep my list in my Book of Hours, but I also have a list that is updated monthly.

I am part of a prayer network organized by the parish that my family attended where we used to live. I have been praying for years with and for people from that parish. Every month I receive a list of the living for whom members of the prayer network are asked to pray, and another list of those “born to eternal life.” Many of the names on the living list appear, in time, on the born-to-eternal-life list. I add both to my personal list and pray for each person every morning.

Praying for others, even those I’ve never met, gives me a personal sense of the mystery and efficacy of prayer. The New Testament assures us that our prayers are heard: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24).

C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which I’ve read several times, has helped me understand the power of prayer. (Letter VII is particularly good.) For instance, I like what Lewis says about the need to pray for things both great and small: “Perhaps, as those who do not turn to God in petty trials will have no habit ... to help them when the great trials come, so those who have not learned to ask Him for childish things will have less readiness to ask Him for great ones.”

We believe on faith that our prayers are heard. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “We know that God hears the prayer inspired by steadfast faith.” But what constitutes an answer? We all know of instances when tumors unaccountably disappear or longtime alcoholics dry out and never drink again. But were these events the result of prayer? Again, from my own experience: One person for whom I was praying got the job of her dreams; another, the husband of a former student, recovered from a dread disease. Did these things happen because of my prayers? I really don’t need to know. The joy of the news, in each case, was its own reward.

I had been apprehensive about prayers of petition ever since I read an article by Michael Novak titled “Gimme is dead.” But C.S. Lewis reassured me that the Gospels encourage prayers of petition as much as prayers of gratitude or praise.

I generally start by praying the psalms of the day, most of which are prayers of praise, gratitude, or wonder. In that way I balance the prayers of petition with those of thanksgiving, praise, or contrition. Praying for those I don’t know, and whose intentions are equally unknown to me, “de-centers” selfish prayers and underlines the mystery of prayer. I must have faith I will be heard.

Lewis says unequivocally: “Of course I pray for the dead. I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden.” Praying down the list of those born to eternal life gives me a sense of the impermanence of life, but also the enduring power of memory, faith, and God’s abiding love.

I find that praying for people I don’t know, or know little, is a way of expanding my spiritual horizons. In doing so I also find myself in good company. For years Dorothy Day kept lists of people for whom she prayed.

Some months ago the parish list came with a special plea. One of those for whom we were asked to pray was a longtime member of the prayer network. Though I didn’t know the person, I felt a bond because — unbeknownst to either of us — we had been praying together for years.

Like Monsignor Lawrence’s, my list is always threatening to lengthen excessively. But as I pray for all those people — although never the 705 that Monsignor Lawrence tried to pray for — I realize, in a small way, another meaning of “the communion of saints.”  CD

The world can pray for you
A number of Religious communities, dioceses, and Web sites have been using the Internet to connect people from all corners of the world who wish to pray for and with each other. Some sites receive hundreds of prayer requests each day. The Catholic faith community Catholic Online and the interfaith Web site Beliefnet are good places to start.

Copyright (2008) U.S. Catholic. Reproduced by permission from the April 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic. Subscriptions: $22/year from 205 West Monroe, Chicago IL 60606; 800-328-6515 for subscription information or visit uscatholic.org.

Ed Block

Ed Block teaches at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has been a member of the prayer network of St. Therese Parish in Milwaukee for many years.