Say a little prayer for me
If you’re struggling to talk to God, make use of the friends who can hold you up
By Alice Camille
Years ago I listened to a friend speak earnestly about her prayer practices. She talked about the time of day at which she normally prays and the place in her home set aside for this purpose. She told me about the manner of prayer she prefers, how she got into the habit of it, what she’s learned from her years of regular contemplation, and how much prayer has added to the graces in her life. Then she looked at me as if to invite me to share my own experiences.
“It’s not like that for me,” I stammered, embarrassed. I admitted that I find praying very hard, that I’m sort of rotten at it, that my sorry struggles in prayer are more like mud wrestling with an ape than the exalted experiences she had been describing. My friend’s eyes went wide. Because she has a charism for prayer — an inspired proclivity for it — it never occurred to her that other people might not be enjoying the same experience.
But evidently it occurred to Jesus that some folks will have more trouble along the spiritual path than others. He spends a lot of time in Luke’s Gospel praying, talking about praying, teaching his disciples to pray, and inviting them to pray with Him. When the disciples ask for more faith, He tells them they don’t need more. They just need faith. When the 10th leper returns to give thanks for the healing he received, Jesus confirms the necessity of the spirit of gratitude for true healing. Through the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus reminds us that the prayer of asking is not only valid but required as a sign of our steady confidence in God. In another parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus says the quality of our prayers is not measured by personal virtue but by the depth of our humility before God.
In this month of Sundays, even beginners in the spiritual life can gather together the threads of these four lessons and go far: Any faith is enough if it’s real. A healed heart is a grateful heart. Asking God for what we need is in itself a sign of faith. In our dealings with God, confessing sin is better than bragging about virtue.
A graying amateur like me appreciates such simple guidance. I am bringing my mustard seed of faith to prayer just by showing up, no matter how reluctant, ill prepared, or distracted I am in the moment. I come to prayer because, as Peter once said plainly, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” This is not a declaration of helplessness. Naturally I do have other avenues of recourse that I employ when appropriate. There are certain things I expect from myself: an honest effort, a bit of courage, and some clean laundry once in a while. I seek and need other things from family as well (love, acceptance — and sometimes clean laundry), and friends (time to chill out and play), and the community of faith (challenge, example, and a reason to hope).
But then there are those needs that can’t be answered in any other way or from any other source. I can’t do anything about cancer, natural disasters, this week’s horrifying headlines, or the pain in the face of a stranger I saw at the supermarket. Nor do I want to take to my family or friends, once again, the fear that rages like a wildfire across my life on a regular basis. Sometimes the only conversation left to have is the one between God and me.
And sometimes even that requires assistance. For this reason I’ve always liked the story about Moses at the battle of Amalek. Moses doesn’t wage the war against Amalek, mind you; Joshua does it for him. This has to do with the delicate issue of age, perhaps. Since Moses dies at the age of 120, and he spends 40 years wandering the desert wilderness with the Israelites, one presumes that Moses is over 80 when the fighting occurs. A good enough reason to leave all this warfare to the whippersnappers.
But Moses doesn’t just retire to his tent as the armies engage. Instead he climbs to the top of a hill with his aging brother, Aaron, and Hur, described elsewhere as a grandfather and elder. These three fellows may not be doddering, but they are within shouting distance. Moses means to intercede for Joshua’s troops by raising the staff of God in intercession over the battlefield. But war can take a while, and even a vigorous man can’t hold up his arms all day. While Moses keeps the staff in the air, Israel gains the advantage. But whenever Moses lowers his arms to rest, Amalek advances. This military strategy has obvious limitations.
Aaron and Hur come up with an elegant solution. First they put a rock under Moses so that he can sit down. Next they place themselves on either side and support his arms. Together, the three old men do what any one of them could scarcely do by himself. What a lovely image for the community of faith!
My spiritual limbs being naturally weak, I deeply appreciate the community of faith wherever I go. I rely on the assembly at the Sunday Eucharist and look for more intimate support groups at gatherings, both sacramental and social. I apprentice myself to spiritual giants whenever I spot them. I make use of spiritual direction, pastoral care, the lives of the saints, and good books by people who seem to be further down the road of holiness than I am.
When it comes time to pray, I recognize that I need my parish, but I also engage the celestial community of saints to help me do the work of prayer. When we’ve got so many sisters and brothers in Christ to support our failing arms, why not make full use of them? Especially the saints who, consigned to eternity, certainly have the time. What else have they got to do besides participate in the burgeoning reign of God anyway? What else would they want to do?
Maybe I’m particularly strong on this point because I’m frail on so many others. I know I won’t be one of those saints who wears out her knees in the chapel, or coughs through her last Rosary on a bloodstained pillowcase that smells like roses. I admire that person and want to enlist her support. I’ll light a candle to get her attention while I rock back and forth for an agonizing few minutes of asking God to pardon my distraction, but I have so much to do and none of it is getting done while we’re here yammering about it.
Perhaps it’s the cry of a workaholic, but I must admit the sheer physicality of Moses’ prayer is what I love the most. I can’t bear to say long prayers, repeat looping mantras, uncross my legs and put my feet flat on the floor, or — yikes — empty myself of all thoughts whatsoever. These kinds of prayer styles make me despair of communicating with God at all.
But holding up a stick — well, I can do that. Which is another way of saying, it’s something to actually do. In that regard, I like “doing” prayers: walking the Stations of the Cross, moving through a labyrinth, or making a pilgrimage to a holy place outright. I even hiked to the top of honest-to-goodness Mount Sinai once. Ascending Moses’ mountain to reach God made spiritual sense to me in a way talking prayers rarely do. This may make me a spiritual director’s worst nightmare, but these are my limitations and it’s a real poverty to be so spiritually dense.
But what was it Jesus said about the spiritual life? Any faith is enough, the attempt of prayer is itself an act of faith, gratitude is a good sign, and humility is the best attitude. I think I’ve got the raw material here to make something of my poverty. I’ll try. But I’m counting on you to pray for me.