A Broader Notion of Prayer
If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we’ll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11: 1-44.
It’s definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming, even though he knew Lazarus was ill. His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews were just trying to stone him. Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis.
Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all love each other—so the sisters must wonder why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse, and their dear friend didn’t appear. Martha’s complaint, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.
Later, Mary weeps; her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is “greatly disturbed,” but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd (“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us—no matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.
Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: “Father…I knew that you always hear me.” Then from the depth of his inmost being tears the wrenching cry, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.
None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must be irritating. Prayer doesn’t always convey the polite emotions. Martha’s distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the psalms (See Ps. 88, 120, 137). No one consults a Bible or a book of prayer—all of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.
How does the gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes—when the gas guage nears “empty” or the thermometer spikes over 102–we may use “arrow” prayers, brief, direct beams to God’s heart. They may be simple as “Help!” “Please!” or “Thanks.” In short, they tell God we’re at the end of our rope. We’ve exhausted our limited resources. We don’t know what to do. We desperately need God’s intervention—or appreciate it.
Sometimes, our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We’re too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then, we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father’s assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Or Jesus’ words at the last supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we’re going through. “Do not let your hearts be troubled….I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14: 1, 3). Water often calms and refreshes; Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-8).
To be continued…
Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press