What is Prayer? (II)


for the Pastoral Care Group at  St George’s, Dunsborough

 23 April, 2015

On February 13 in 2008, I was on my way to a meeting south of Melbourne. I remember because I caught a taxi at 9 a.m. and heard on the taxi radio the Prime Minister’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people, and I was very moved.

Our meeting was at the Community of the Holy Name, a community of Anglican nuns, and lasted three days. Mother offered me a lift to the airport coach to save the cost of a taxi on the way back. Sister Jenny, who I hadn’t met, jumped at the chance to volunteer to drive me to the coach stop. She talked non-stop. She wanted to know about my back, why my mobility was limited, and why I was putting up with pain.

Surely I should be able to fix it by prayer. I told Sister I had prayed, and as far I was concerned, I had been completely healed. I could walk – which was in doubt before my operation in 1969, and I had had 30 years of rich living as a husband and father, a school chaplain, a parish priest, head of an inter-church organisation (YouthCARE). In fact, I rather resented what Sister was saying, and in my mind, I christened her Sister Grinch.

She insisted that I should go to a healing service with Margaret Court when I got home. We parted, not very happily, because everything she said to me about prayer was rubbing me up the wrong way.

I know the theory: we are God’s children. God wants the best for us. There is nothing good that we cannot ask from God, and God will give it. Simply have faith. The implication of Sister Grinch’s sermonising was that I didn’t have enough faith. That may be true, but it was certainly not for her to judge me. If God doesn’t give what we ask, then there must be a reason: God must be teaching us something. Again, that may be true, but I experience life as more random than that. I believe God is in control of the big picture, but I don’t expect to work out the reason for everything. I’d go mad as a pastor trying that approach on the kids I buried who had committed suicide; or the boy in Special Ed. whose body simply gave up living on his 14th birthday.

God is not like Santa Claus, granting our wishes simply because we ask. Rae and I prayed hard that our son would be OK, that he wouldn’t have a problem, but he’s still struggling with mental and physical illness at 33 years old.

So our personal experience has coloured our ideas of prayer. In a nutshell, prayer for me is not about curing people from problems, prayer is a way of drawing closer to God and to the people prayed for. Of course, I’ve seen some extraordinary healings, and I celebrate those. But they don’t seem to be God’s usual way of working with people.

So I see prayer a bit differently:

Firstly, it is not primarily about asking God for things. We pray because Jesus prayed. We pray because, as we follow Jesus, prayer keeps us close to Father, Son and Spirit. Prayer keeps us, as St Paul says, in Christ.

 Secondly, prayer is recognising that we live in a broken world, as Jesus did. Jesus had the courage both to face the crowds of the sick and lame in Capernaum, and to move on to other villages and towns, leaving behind many not healed. He forgave those who betrayed him, and those who nailed him to the cross. He gazed on the world with love. That gaze can be our prayer too.

Thirdly, prayer is offering ourselves in love and service to that broken world, as Jesus did. Prayer is often only holding out our heart – but our heart is powerful. The gift of our solidarity with the suffering can be transformative. There is nothing I can say to someone dying of liver cancer. It is painful and quick, often only a few weeks from diagnosis to death. But I can gaze with love on the person – not look away – and stand with the person in prayer, and that can be the gift that truly heals, that opens up for that person a new wholeness in their last pilgrimage on earth.

Sometimes the prayer of solidarity turns into something practical that only I can do. Instead of telling God to do something, the prayer empowers me to act. A word, a card, a recommendation, an insight, a hug. But these practical prayers are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible heart of prayer, the 90% that is mystery, is the solidarity, the standing with the suffering person.

Of course, there’s much more to prayer than that. When teaching kids or adults new to the faith, I use a mnemonic:


A for Adoration. All prayer starts in praise and worship.

C for Confession. We can only pray when we acknowledge the distance between us and God.

T for Thanksgiving. Our whole life should be Eucharistic, one big Thank You to God; and

S – and note it’s last – for Supplication. We ask God to help those who suffer. This is the portion of prayer we’ve been discussing today, and only really scratching the surface of intercessory prayer or Supplication.

We can’t help praying as Christians, because we can’t help loving. Prayer is a way of loving a person or people in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that!

* * * *

Handout : Click here:  What is prayer

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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