I had a lovely, cozy chat with a friend recently. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Yes, to be sure it comes with its dangers and evils, but if we’re careful about how we use it, there are also many benefits, such as the wonderful ability to spend time with someone who is actually 415 km away.
We are girls, this friend and I (well, women, actually, as we are grown-ups, but ‘girls’ sounds friendlier and less theologically portentous) so our conversation ran from the silly to the serious, and from commiseration to encouragement. Having these moments to check in keeps our friendship going – relationship maintenance.
To someone seeing only the surface of our conversation it might have seemed trivial and bordering on gossip at times. We shared about other people in our lives, their interesting news, what they’ve been up to, their difficulties. During that conversation I realized that talking about other people isn’t always gossip.
Gossip is avaricious – it is concerned with gleaning information about others not connected to me in a meaningful way; it delights in prurient details; there is no empathy, no fellow-feeling, no charity. A gossipy conversation is full of exclamations, like: “No! Really? I don’t believe it! Then what did she say?” The person doing all the exclaiming is stockpiling information, is happy the news is shocking, and is probably delighted that someone somewhere is behaving badly – but even more delighted that she knows all about it.
Here’s how the conversation with my friend went: “Oh no! How terrible! I will definitely pray for them. Oh, poor them!” As full of exclamations as it was, the difference is easy to spot: my friend’s response was not to ask for all the gory details, but a promise to pray.
There it was – an act of charity, the impulse to help, the response of one loving heart to another in need. Right away I felt the communion we all have as the Body of Christ. Two people – they could be strangers – are connected in prayer through Christ. Though the one doesn’t know the other is praying for her and though they live far apart, God’s generosity is such that prayer is not bound by the laws of time and distance. One benefits from God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers, the other benefits from turning to God no matter how briefly.
Over a meal at Madonna House one evening, the conversation was about the blessing the poor - Madonna House in that instance - are in the world: they provide us the opportunity to give, to be generous, to respond. I think there is a similar dynamic to intercessory prayer in that those who are in need call others to be generous, to respond. If that is true, then it is a good thing to ask for prayer – don’t be miserly! Give your family and friends plenty of opportunity to be generous.
It is spiritually intimate to offer supplication on another’s behalf. We stand before God in their place, holding them in our heart. We may not know the details, but it is as though we had those details in our hands and we stretched our hands out to God, asking for His help. The beautiful thing is though we may not be able to be specific, God doesn’t need us to be. How many times do we pray for “a special intention”? Those prayers are as efficacious as the ones that give all the particulars. It isn’t the facts that are important, but the act of praying itself.
What struck me during that online chat was how concrete an act it is to pray for someone. My friend could have offered to think good thoughts or to send positive energy my way. She could have made sympathetic noises and laid on the usual platitudes – all of which would have been empty gestures, after which we could have moved on to another topic. But her promise to pray is a real thing, an action with profound effect. We know God hears and answers prayers. Scripture is full of examples, from Abraham on through to the first Christians. Think of St. Monica praying for Augustine, or the roses of St. Therese. If we pay attention we see examples all around us, so it is no small thing to say, “Gosh, I’m really sorry to hear that person is having a hard time right now. I’ll pray for her.”
Here’s something I learned from a friend I consider to be quite a prayer warrior: when he promises to pray for someone, he does it right away. He doesn’t want to make a liar of himself, and knows he is likely to forget if he puts it off, so he says a quick prayer on the spot. Praying a novena or offering a Mass or saying a rosary are all really, really good… but only if you are able to actually do it! Life gets busy and intentions get waylaid, so offer a brief intercession immediately. If you have the opportunity later to do more, then do so with all generosity. Nothing is ever wasted in the Divine economy.
The heart of a woman is attentive to the needs of others. It is written into us to be concerned about the personal, the relational, the heart. When that instinct goes awry we turn to gossip and banter about the misfortunes of other people. When we are in right relationship with God, that instinct inspires true compassion and charity.
Sisters, pray for one another.
(I wonder if in heaven we will know and be able to thank all the people who have prayed for us. I hope so!)