Shepherds, you that go
Up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
If by chance you see
Him I love most,
Tell Him that I sicken, suffer, and die
-St. John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle”, Stanza II
As a student friar with limited external ministries, I have the privilege of being able to devote more time to private prayer than some of my more active and apostolically engaged brethren. It is a tremendous blessing and responsibility to pray, as one consecrated to God, for those God has brought into my life—family, longtime friends, folks I meet through happenstance at our priory or on the streets of Washington.
Recently, I had a prayerful encounter with a stranger on the DC Metro. Identifying me by my Roman collar as a shepherd (in my case, a shepherd in potency)–as one who goes up through the sheepfolds to the hill of contemplative prayer–a middle-aged gentleman sat down beside me and spoke quite candidly about both his love for Jesus and his struggles with chastity. He was on the Metro that day to take an HIV test at a local health clinic. The fear in his voice was palpable. He was afraid for himself, but he spoke more about how he feared the poor decisions he had made affected his child and the child’s mother. Clearly this man was living in sin, but also repentant and aware of how his indiscretions had caused pain in the lives of those he loved.
We both disembarked the subway car at the same stop, and we paused before departing to wish each other farewell. I assured the man I would pray for him when I returned home to my priory. He asked if he could lead us in a prayer and, taking my hands into his own calloused hands, he led us in an Our Father. Afterwards, he opened his eyes, focused them on me and said, “And how, sir, do you pray for people?”
What a difficult question to answer! How do you pray for people? At that moment, the man probably didn’t want to hear the most truthful answer: I pray imperfectly! As Saint Paul says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26). I could not dare to presume to know what would be best for this man and his family. For there is only one perfect intercessor at the right hand of God, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:34). Yet Christ gives us the Holy Spirit, who intercedes through us, helping us to direct our intercessions to the Father.
It was then that I recalled what St. John of the Cross has the bride ask the shepherds to tell to the Bridegroom in his mystical poem, “The Spiritual Canticle.” In response, I told the man that in my prayer that evening, I would tell the Lord about a beloved son of His I met, a sincere believer in His power and mercy. This man was sick, suffering, and dying, perhaps physically and certainly spiritually. I would simply tell the Lord about this man’s problems as he told them to me, and leave it to Him, confident in the power of Jesus to bring about the greatest good. I then reminded (or perhaps revealed to) him that this in fact is the method of some of those who love Jesus the most. It was the method of Mary and Martha when they sent a message to Jesus upon the death of their brother Lazarus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn 11:3). And it was the method of the Blessed Virgin Mary when she, knowing how full of compassion the Lord is for those in need, said plainly, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3). St. John of the Cross calls one who prays in this way a discreet lover: “The discreet lover does not care to ask for what she lacks and desires, but only indicates this need that the Beloved may do what He pleases” (Commentary on The Spiritual Canticle).
Sometimes it is quite natural and a sign of great affection to plead with God to help us or someone we love. The Scriptures are full of occasions of people requesting specific things from the Lord with faith and then being rewarded for it. Christ Himself teaches us to ask the Father for specific needs in the Our Father. Nevertheless, whether we are praying for the healing of a loved one from cancer or simply have need of the peace of Christ in our troubled lives, we would do well often to recall this truth: the power in intercessory prayer does not lie with the particular intercessor’s ability somehow to force the hand of Almighty God. Rather, the powerful intercessor is one who possess filial faith in the power of the One who alone can grant health, joy, and life to His people.
Image: Washington, DC, Metro