Friday, November 22, 2019

The Prayer for Mercy

Pain is unpleasant, yes, but it is an unexpected gift. Without it, we’re unable to detect danger, even if it’s present. It may not always feel like it, but medically speaking, pain is a gift, and I would submit to you that spiritually speaking, pain is a gift as well.

The messiness in our lives is either the offspring of pain or the catalyst for pain. But even when we come to understand that messes and suffering are certainties in a sinful world, it doesn’t make them any less painful. If I know somebody is going to punch me in the face, it’s still going to hurt. Just because I know it’s coming doesn’t mean it won’t be painful; it simply means I’ll be prepared. If we look carefully, though, we’ll find that quite often our wounds become great sources of wisdom.


He said not: Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted; but He said: Thou shalt not be overcome. God willeth that we take heed to these words, and that we be ever strong in sure trust, in weal and woe. For He loveth and enjoyeth us, and so willeth He that we love and enjoy Him and mightily trust in Him; and all shall be well.

We tend often to assume, even those of us who ought to know better, that the Christian life should be serene and untroubled, and that God, if he answers prayer, should do as we ask, and "take away" our suffering and our distress. This is not what we learn from Scripture, nor from the lives of those who seek to live by it. If we have lived much at all, and are honest with ourselves, we know it is not so in our own lives, either.

Suffering seems to be a part of what it is to be human, at least in this life, on this broken world. It cannot be otherwise, even though all the  wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful seem ultimately to be directed towards staving that off that for as long as possible.

As Christians we are followers of Christ, as Paul explained: "Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5.1-2) Jesus himself pointed out that "whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.27)

But there is more to this than a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of pain. As I have experienced it, certainly, pain can act as a call to prayer like nothing else. The Psalmist knew this: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees… It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119.67-68,71)

The trouble, of course, with prayer in suffering is that a conventional understanding of prayer won't work, mostly. What are we to pray for? That our affliction be "taken away"? And if it is not, what then? A few brave and compassionate souls might ask that their suffering might somehow be subtracted from that of ones for whom they pray, something like Charles Williams' idea of "substitution and exchange". But that implies, perhaps, a knowledge of others' sufferings, and the capacity to enumerate them, that may just not be there. Great pain, physical, emotional, or spiritual - especially perhaps spiritual - has a way of wiping all else from the mind of the sufferer. The whole world becomes one's pain; or one's pain becomes one's whole world. I don't really know which it is.

This is where, once again, contemplative practice comes in; and where the great benefit of already having a contemplative practice begins to show itself. One cannot very easily learn, I think, even so simple a practice as the Jesus Prayer in the midst of one's pain. But I have found that even in the worst of times I can cling to the Prayer as to a bit of floating wreckage in a storm - and it is here that, perhaps, the strangest thing of all takes place. For even in the most consuming pain one's loves and one's concerns are still there, in the depths of the heart: it's just that they are no longer visible, as it were, to a conscious mind almost entirely overwhelmed with distress. But if even the least splintered plank of prayer remains afloat - or perhaps if it does not, to the tormented mind - then the work of the cross still goes on in the  darkness. The prayer of the heart touches, even then, the existence of those whom we, however obscurely, love, though we no longer even know their names. The mercy of God is limitless, because it is Christ: and the prayer for mercy is always answered (Luke 18.35-33). 

2 comments:

  1. "a bit of floating wreckage in a storm" --- yes!

    It is that, and of course, it is so much more than that!

    I had a minor surgical operation earlier this year. As I was being wheeled down to the operating room, I was "tempested and travailed" ---- assailed by innumerable fears and worries --- what if the anaesthesia fails? what if something goes badly wrong?

    I quietly recited to myself, perhaps slightly aloud, the Gloria in excelsis in the English version most commonly used in Roman Catholic churches in the States from the 1970s until the recent liturgical revision. Definitely kept my hope afloat!

    Then as a kindly nurse said some reassuring thing, before the anaesthesia kicked in, I made the sign of the cross upon myself, turned to the nurse, and said, "Science and God, not necessarily in that order!" She said, "Sounds good to me!"

    Forgive the long comment. All this, by way of saying I enjoyed this post. Thank you, as always, for all that you do.

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  2. Thank you, Thomas, once again - I think I like your nurse!

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