This past month, in a pastoral letter to all Episcopalians in the Diocese of Colorado, Bishop Robert O’Neill expressed his heartfelt sadness and concern for the victims, survivors, and families of those who felt the impact of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Writing forty-eight hours after the horrific event, Bishop O’Neill acknowledged that the shootings raised many issues, left many in shock, and found all of us experiencing a deep sense of loss and disbelief that such a thing could happen.
He went on to say that one of the most important things we could do, at this point, was to pray. At the same time he was quick to point out that the call to prayer is not simply “a polite or consoling gesture,” as it sometimes can be perceived to be when we say that people or situations are “in our prayers.” What Bishop O’Neill was talking about was something much deeper, the holding of people in our prayer. Rather than being simply a passive or customary activity, a nice thing to say, he described it as “intentional work” on our part. “This has substance, this has weight and heft,” he wrote. “This is our inheritance and our gift,” a gift that gives life to the world.
Bishop O’Neill reminded me of how often we tend to look at prayer as something meek and inactive, what we resort to as a last and desperate option, when all other actions seem beyond our reach or power. Instead, prayer is something dynamic, powerful, and redemptive. When we resort to prayer we are not giving up on all other options. It actually turns out to be the fuel for whatever options are available to us, whatever actions we can take, indeed whatever hope we have for the world.
When we say the words, “You are in my prayers,” we are actually making a commitment. The words alone, of course, can be tremendously consoling to people, regardless of their particular religious beliefs or non-beliefs. They help people receive not only our empathy for their situation at hand but also serve to acknowledge that, at times such as these, words or advice is not always the answer. Beyond that, however, they are challenging words to the person who says them, who assures the other person(s) of their intention. We are taking on a serious activity, one that demands time, attention, practice and patience. Holding people in our prayer, as Bishop O’Neill described it, is not a routine or rote activity.
Part of that challenge is that, in prayer, we not only hold up the people we are committed to praying for, we also hold up the larger situation and the conditions of which these situations remind us. When we pray for the victims and loved ones involved in the tragedy at Aurora, as well as other tragedies of this type that have been unfolding during the past few months, we hold up the shortcomings of humanity, our incompleteness, and our reliance upon God. When we pray for someone who is ill, we also hold up the fragility of human life, how short and sometimes how tenuous life can be. So, too, when we pray for the leaders of our country, cities, and states, we also hold up the lonely and weighty nature of leadership. That is part of the “heft” that Bishop O’Neill describes.
Certainly we see this in the prayer that goes on in our school chapels. Hearing the prayers that are submitted or the prayers that are spoken in chapel, it does not take long for all of us to be reminded of how these prayers speak to the “changes and chances of this fleeting world,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. They offer hope, to be sure, but they also hold up some profound realities regarding the human condition.
That is why we need to balance the type of prayer that Bishop O’Neill speaks about with prayers of thanksgiving, where we are aware of God’s many blessings in our lives. I am struck by how often, when in church services or school chapels, our prayers for the needs of the world are often much longer in duration and more verbal than the prayers that are offered in thanksgiving. It is perhaps the most under-utilized form of prayer we have at our disposal. To do the hard work of praying for the needs of individuals and the larger world community, we need to be including the prayers of gratitude.
Truly, it is serious work we do when we pray. It is no small thing to tell someone of our prayers for them. It is a substantial promise, and, as Bishop O’Neill reminds us, it is our calling as Christians. It is something we do not only when there is no other reasonable action to take, it is something we do to prepare us for all of the actions we can take.