Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Petitionary Prayer

Tomorrow morning my father has surgery to remove a cancerous bladder--a complicate surgery that may take anywhere from 4 to 7 hours to complete, with subsequent hospitalization for up to two weeks. I flew into Buffalo yesterday, just ahead of the major winter storm sweeping through the country, to be with my parents during the procedure and for a few days afterward.

Of course, friends have been calling or stopping in throughout the day. This morning Luigi called. Luigi is a former grad student of my father (a retired geology professor) who left geology to become a Catholic priest serving a mission in Peru. I sat nearby reading The New Yorker while my father talked to him. I looked up when my father became abruptly quiet.

"Well," my father said. "You know, that's something...I just don't know. I can't know. And so I don't have any beliefs about that. And that's okay with me. I'm at peace." The Catholic priest was asking the agnostic scientists about death, about what might lie beyond. Luigi, who is one of my parents' many "adopted" kids, accepted my father's response with his usual grace. He said something else, and my father replied, "I appreciate that."

A prayer had been promised.

Just a few minutes later, a neighbor knocked on the door. He'd heard about my father's surgery and wanted to express his concern. After a few minutes he said, "He's such a wonderful man. I'll light a candle for him at St. Peter St Paul's."

I've been assured by my pastor that she and many others are praying for my father. Many friends and relatives have offered up their prayers.

To be honest, I've had a troubled relationship with petitionary prayer ever since a time in college, when I was still flirting with a fundamentalist/charismatic Christian group. I was attending one of their meetings, and during an unstructured moment, someone in the group--call him Joe--mentioned that he had an injured thumb. One of the group leaders immediately grabbed me (since I was standing nearby) and asked me to join him in praying for this kid's thumb. He placed one hand over the damaged digit, raised his other hand, closed his eyes, and--with me standing there nonplussed, began this heartfelt prayer that went something like this:

"We ask you, Lord, to touch Joe's thumb, Lord, to just let your healing power flow out upon his thumb, Lord. We know that you are gracious, Lord, that you are the great physician. We ask that you reach out this night, Lord, to your servant Joe, whose thumb is hurt, Lord..."

And so it went. A part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me wanted to blurt out, "That's absurd! Don't you think God has better things to do?" Another part--the budding philosopher--wanted to trot out the problem of evil, and ask why this guy expected God to miraculously intervene to heal a bruised thumb when He doesn't intervene to save starving children, to prevent rapes and murders, to save people buried alive during earthquakes, and on and on. In fact, I wanted to say, a God who did respond to the thumb prayer would be despicable, given that He doesn't respond to the anguished cries of so many others whose need is so much greater.

I still have trouble making sense of a theology in which God responds to human prayer requests in cases where, in the absence of such prayer requests, He would let those prayed for rot. It seems to me there is a strong argument for the view that either petitionary prayer is needless or it is useless. Either God cares enough to intervene and has the power to do so, or He does not. If the former, petitionary prayer is needless. If the latter, it is useless.

That said, I have read theological and philosophical arguments that strive to overcome this prima facie case against petitionary prayer, often with considerable subtlety.

But in a way, all of this misses the point. And--as is so often the case--the point is about love.

Luigi is far away, and he loves my father, and love expresses itself in tangible ways. As Simone Weil put it (I don't have the text here in Buffalo, so this is just a paraphrase), "The only way we can really show love for that which is eternal in persons is by caring for their tangible needs here below." Luigi cannot perform the surgery. He cannot do much to heal my father's diseased bladder or promote his body's recovery from the trauma of surgery. He cannot even bring a casserole to the house.

But he can pray. He can pray for healing. He can will that powers greater than he is might reach into this mortal coil, nudge the quantum forces that underlie my father's flesh, steady the surgeon's hand, and so move him back towards health.

The neighbor who came by this morning cannot do much for my father's health. But he loves my father and wants to show how much he cares for my father's health. A visit is nice, but it isn't directed towards healing, which is what my father needs. And love responds to needs. The neighbor can't remove the cancer. Be he can light a candle and say a prayer.

And tomorrow, when I sit for hours in the surgical waiting area, unable to do anything else for my father, I will pray. And if any of you want to do the same, I won't laugh or call your gesture absurd.


  1. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

    I have been in the waiting room with my father in surgery several times. It is an odd feeling - a feeling of role reversal. I stroked my dad's head and comforted him as best I could, like the many times he comforted me when I was afraid in the middle of the night as a child.

    I share your thoughts and concerns about prayer. I think that the prayer I believe in is an act of compassion - an attempt to identify with this other person, trying to realize that he is not so "other" after all. It's an attempt to share the experience with him.

    I also feel that if I were in surgery, I would be comforted to know that others were thinking of and praying for me. Therefore, a sincere prayer on the other's behalf can insure that this feeling of comfort is based in truth, in what is actually happening.

    And of course, we never know. How can it hurt to pray and actively care for someone in our thoughts and feelings? If I worry too much about doing it just right, then I refer back to my philosophy of life - "Don't shoot yourself in the other foot."

    I hope that all goes well and I pray that your dad feels OK!!

  2. Hi Eric: I am praying right now for your dad, for his doctors, and for you and the rest of the family.


  3. For those who may want to know, my father's surgery went as well as could possibly be expected. The surgeon used such phrases as "a perfect surgery" and "no complications." Also, there was no sign of any spread of the cancer beyond the bladder. All very good news to end several very stressful and exhausting hours of waiting.

  4. For those interested, this post was featured in a pastor's blog confessions about his/her own struggles with prayer over at Hacking Christianity.

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  6. My commiserations for a very difficult time. My nearest and dearest went through cancer surgery 5 years ago, it was massively traumatic. She has recovered but has been affected for life. About this petitionary idea. I do ask God for help, guidance, and so on. But I expect nothing. I think that is the key.

    I have been meditating every day this year. Sometimes I pray for help and sometimes it seems to come. But I think all I can honestly petition for is to know the the divine will. If I am in accordance with this will, all will be well, regardless of what happens, even if these things are what people understand to be bad. I think it is learning about being unconditionally loving, not about wanting outcomes. That is the meaning of surrender - not 'I want things to be this way'.

    I wish for your loved one's speedy recovery

  7. If someone said, "Dad, I will be thinking about you." Do you think your agnostic father would feel the same love? Because you imply that the words of course work no more magic than expressing love.

    Hope the surgery went well.

  8. Prayer to God only makes sense in the context of faith: of opening oneself up to the perfection that lies at the ground of all being. Such a state entails trust and the recognition that all’s for the best. In such a state it is natural to be joyful and thankful, and it makes little sense to petition anything. Except for moral strength that is. For nothing good can ever be lost, and the only thing that can be wasted is an opportunity for doing good.

    Faith, the realization not only of the presence of God but also of the fact that one is a child of God, is a treasure of immeasurable value. One sees that nothing that is actually bad can ever happen, because all is in the hands of God who is the source of all truth and all love and all beauty.