Category Archives: prayer

My Brother – an Update

My brother Dick died recently. He had suffered through many years and several incurable diseases. And in his last months he was often hospitalized to stabilize his various conditions and medications. The last month was spent in an ICU bed, every day filled with hoping and praying to get him released to rehab and home. Much of that time he was delirious, and violently so. When he was responsive, he was overwhelmed by both exhaustion and impatience to be released. His ever-loving wife Lynda suffered by his side throughout, scarcely sleeping for over a month. (I don’t know how she did it! She is a strong and wonderful woman, and a blessing to my family.)

A grim story. Prayers seemed to go unanswered. But then one day, he snapped out of it! Still exhausted (and impatient), he had little memory of his delirium and suffering. We had great visits, and high hopes that he might be released soon. His friends stopped by for visits.

And then he died. Suddenly, without any warning, his heart gave out. He was mourned by a large group of men he had helped for years through Alcoholics Anonymous.

Were my prayers answered? Only when I stopped praying for specific medical miracles, and simply prayed “Lord, help my brother.” And finally, “Lord, bring him back to us.” And that He did.

Now my prayer is one of thanksgiving, and for the soul of my departed brother.

UPDATE: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4.

Efficacy of Prayer?

I am fully convinced of the necessity of prayer (after all, everyone prays), and of the benefit I receive from praying. My prayers change me, internally, in my soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls it spiritual refreshment of the mind, and I can truly feel it.

But does it do anything else?  Does it actually benefit or help those I pray for?  If so, why?

Note: I do not ask how; if God wants to grant my prayers, it is certainly within His power.

But why?  Do I have some special “pull” with God?  If I ask Him to heal my sick brother*, will He do it because I asked?  Why not heal all who are sick?  Does He then withhold healing from those who have no brother to pray for them? That doesn’t sound like Him.

Continue reading

Better Prayer Through Calculus

When I was learning calculus, back in the dark ages, I remember having great difficulty grasping the very basic concept of “the slope of a point.” It sounded completely illogical, then and now. After all, didn’t Euclid define a point as having location, but not dimension (no length, width, or size). Without at least length, how can it have slope, which describes a direction (up, down, left, right, angled…)?

Well, calculus and its sloping points turn out to have lots of valuable uses. (I’d list them now if I could remember any.)

But I do recall the procedure for demonstrating and determining the slope of a point. It involves gradually vanishing “limits”.  A limit (if I remember correctly, or even approximately) is the slope or angle of the smallest possible section of a graphed curve in the area of the point in question. You start with one inch on either side of the point, and measure the slope of that two-inch line between them. Then you repeat the process with half that distance, then keep halving it. Eventually, the series of those slope-measurements closes in on the slope of the particular point. Voila! Cool, no?

(Well, anyway, that’s how I remember it.  If I have gotten it wrong, I hope some helpful mathematician or engineer or calculist will write a comment straightening me out.  I’d hate to misinform my faithful readers.)

I said above that this all has many valuable uses, which I knew once long ago. But I have recently found a new one, for my prayer life.

Prayer takes place in time. We sing of the “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We recite prescribed prayers (Ave, Our Father, Memorare, the Rosary, etc.); these prayers are of definite length in words spoken and therefore in time.  Monks and nuns pray at specific times throughout the day.

But this implies that the rest of our time is spent in non-prayer. Many of us seek to increase our time spent in prayer. Extending prayer time of course reduces our non-prayer time. But is there another way to increase prayer by converting non-prayer time into prayer time (NPT into PT, as it were)? Continue reading

Everybody Prays

a small thought…EVERYBODY PRAYS

An earlier thought, about talking to myself, suggests another. Prayer is a central element of the life of a Christian, or of any believer in a God that loves and listens to his children.

Prayer can have many different forms and purposes. We can pray our gratitude for something, or for everything.  We can pray for forgiveness for our sins.  Or we can pray for God to do something specific, for ourselves or others.

This last type of prayer, sometimes called intercession, is probably the most common and frequent, as is natural.  We all have a lot to be thankful for, but we all seem to have an even longer list of things that we want or need.

The prayer life of a believer is a way to address his needs, but it is also a need in itself.  A believer always feels better after prayer. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” says the book of Hebrews, 11:1.

But what about the unbeliever: the atheist, the agnostic, or simply the “None” who has no place in his life for religion or God?  Does he need prayer?

Here is the truth, so obvious that it is almost unthinkable.  Everybody prays. They just do it in different ways, some better than others, some worse than no prayer at all.  Whether it is intentional or unconscious,  praying is a natural human function, only one step above breathing.

“I hope I get over this cold quickly.”(A prayer of the sick.)

“I wish the kids would call more often.” (A parent’s prayer.)

“It would be great if the University could finally get a decent football coach.” (An alumnus’ prayer. See next prayer.)

“I hope this hurricane passes us by.” (A Floridian prayer.)

“Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes.” (A crapshooter’s prayer for victory.)

Whether we call it praying or wishing or hoping or just wanting, we all pray all the time.  Continue reading

Talking to Myself

A Small Thought…about TALKING TO MYSELF

I have a habit of talking to myself. I have done so all my life. Mostly I do it silently, confining my conversation to my mind. But when no one else is around, I sometimes speak out loud.

It can be like I am reading a play, acting all parts. (I don’t usually use different voices, though occasionally…)

I think, I express my thoughts, I respond, I argue, I question, I laugh at my foolishness. Really, I have a lively time in here. It’s like there’s a party in my head, and no one is invited (to paraphrase a terrible old commercial).

It has only recently dawned on me, some 70 years into the conversation, that I am not really alone in here.  There is another person listening in, and often joining in. The wise words are his, the foolish ones mine.  It is not a soliloquy; it is a dialogue.

And now I know who it is. (And you, my reader friend, have probably guessed his identity by now.)

It is, of course, God in here with me.  And now that I realize this, I find I am trying to be more careful in my thoughts, which are actually the words I speak to God in m most candid moments. I need to clean up my act.

When I find myself thinking clever but unkind thoughts about others, I stop myself.  When I am passing silent judgment on the obese, tattooed, pierced folks around me at the store, I try to switch over to a prayer: “Lord, bless them and help them.” That short, six-word prayer is all it takes to shut down my cruel thoughts.  I don’t need to be more specific; I know that God knows what they need, and I know He knows I know. And I know that every one of us needs His help, so I add “And Lord, help me.”

It helps.

An Unbeliever’s Prayer Journal



I write this after spending the morning at the bedside of a dying lady. Sophia (not her real name) is in a nursing home, and the hospice assessment is of “imminent death.” Family, friends and volunteers maintain a vigil so she will not die alone. But she will die.

We give her soothing words and strokes, which she may or may not hear or feel. They are given anyway.  Prayers are offered by others, and I want to pray, for her sake. But prayer is a problem for me.

I am not a believer. I am at most a seeker, trying to find faith in God, but not succeeding. I am as consumed with doubt and uncertainty as I am with a desire to believe.

So how do I pray? And to whom?

“God, if you are there, please…” That sounds as heartfelt as a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” Or even worse, a message in a bottle tossed into the sea: “If anyone finds this, please…”

Can such a prayer, so conditioned upon doubt, be sincere or meaningful? If I were God, would I answer such a prayer? Not if I was having a busy day.

Can I address the Lord as “God, if you exist,” or “God, IYE…”, the way devout Muslims refer to “the Prophet, peace be upon him…”, abbreviated as PBUH?

So there’s that problem. To whom do I pray?   The other problem is “For what do I pray”?

A priest once explained that there are three types of prayer: to praise God, to thank God, and to ask God for something.  In Sophia’s room, the third seemed most in order.

What do I ask for Sophia? Recovery? A quick, easy death? Rest? To hang on a little longer? What exactly is it she needs most, what is best for her? God only knows.

And that’s the problem. Whatever is best, whatever she needs, God knows it better than I do. And because He loves her, he will give Her what is best, with or without my advice. Any specific request seems terribly presumptuous: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, Lord (IYE), and I think you ought to…”

Finally, and simply, I find myself saying, “God, be with Sophia.” I don’t know if He is anywhere, or even IS, but I sure want him to be with Sophia. I know my wanting and my asking are of no account. But it is what I want. So I said it, over and over, as the hours passed.

I realize it is not really coherent. If God exists, He is there with Sophia; if not, then not. My request cuts no ice either way. Even if, as Martin Buber said, we can only talk TO God, and not about Him, it seems silly.

Still, I repeated my silent prayer. And to Sophia, I spoke aloud when she was restless. “Rest, Sophia. God is with you.” How fraudulent, even cynical! As if I know that to be the case! But I knew it was what she, as a believer, wanted and needed to hear. And it is what I wanted for her. So I said it. I don’t know if she heard it, or if He heard it.


Which brings me to my little friend, Vivian. A wonderful, bright, beautiful 5-year old daughter of our wonderful loving neighbors, and big sister of a wonderful, rambunctious 3-year-old brother.

Her family is the best missionary project I have ever seen. They are a living billboard for Christianity’s ability to generate and support the very best kind of people and families. I am blessed to live next door to them and to play with the kids whenever I have the energy. It is a joy to bask in the glow of this loving family.

Well, Vivian has been diagnosed with cancer. She is being treated at a top hospital, and her type of tumor is a rare form of childhood kidney cancer with a very good survival rate. She is getting chemotherapy. The odds are in her favor. But she is suffering, and her parents are suffering.

Like all of their friends, I have offered any help I can give. Her family asks only for prayers.  And I face the same problems described above regarding Sophia. To whom, and how?

So I prayed “God, be with Vivian”

But I could not stop there. My prayer for Sophia was vague because I don’t know how to be more specific. A certain humility stops me from giving God my impertinent list of demands.

Not so with Vivian. I know what I want God to do. I want him to heal her tumors, to make them go away. And I want her restored to health, and her family restored to peace.

And I want it NOW!

I realize how presumptuous this is.  God, with whom I am not even on speaking terms, knows what is best for Vivian and her family. And He loves her far more than even I do.

So I should just pray “Thy will be done,” and leave it in His hands. But I cannot.

I pray my very specific prayer, hoping He will forgive the impertinence.

“God, please heal my Vivian.”


Sophia clings to life. My visits to her bedside continue to be lessons in prayer.

Since she is Catholic, I brought along an old Missal (Saint Andrew, 1949) I had found at a thrift store (99 cents: see below, “The Forgotten Books of Witness”).   In the back, I found a section of “Votive Collects”: short prayers for various needs.

“For the sick”? No, “restoration to health” was not the point.  “For a dying person”? “Refresh the soul” seemed a good request, but as for “all her sins being washed away”, I did not feel it my place to ask. I don’t know her well enough to know anything about her sins, if any. Asking forgiveness seemed presumptuous for me. Likewise the prayer “For a happy death”.

I found one I really liked: “For Pilgrims and Travelers”. “Hear, O Lord, our humble prayers and set Thy servant Sophia in the path of Thy salvation; that amidst all the changes and chances of this life, she may ever be sheltered by Thy help.”

The “Secret” part of this prayer (a Catholic thing, I guess) asks that God “send Thy grace before her to guide her steps, and sending it with her be pleased to accompany her on her way; both in her progress and in her safety.”

I liked the image of Sophia on her journey.  I remember once, driving along the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, we quite accidentally got to see a rare night launch of the Shuttle.  It lit up the sky as if we were passing a brightly-lit city. As we watched, it became a single bright spot, which rose straight up.  Then, it did something I had not expected: it made a sharp, almost 90 degree turn to the southeast. And only then did it look like what it actually was; a ship of explorers sailing away from us, into uncharted territory.  I always thought of rockets as unique space things that went straight up.  Only when I saw that shuttle turn and sail away (rather than up) did I realize that the people in it were pilgrims and travelers.

Another prayer caught my attention at just the right moment. Nursing homes, especially in the dementia wards where dying patients are often placed, are all too often filled with the cries and screams (sometimes articulate, sometimes not) of suffering patients. It is rarely physical suffering: pain management usually handles that these days. It is rather the anguished cries of confusion and loneliness: “Get me out of here”, or “Help me”. Others wail or shriek like Banshees.

It is not neglect. The overstretched staff cope as best they can, trying everything to soothe and quiet the sufferers, but to little avail; as soon as the staffer moves on to other duties, the screamer continues. Dementia can be an implacable demon.

One particularly strong-voiced Banshee has her meals near Sophia’s door. While listening to her, I found the prayer “In any Tribulation”: “Despise not, O almighty God, Thy people who cry out in their affliction…” I didn’t quite understand how a loving God could despise these sufferers, but that was beside the point. I certainly knew how irritated those shrieks could make me, and the others around her.

I didn’t try to pray that one, as I am sure God (IHE) must love the suffering Banshee, without any advice from me. But I found myself repeating it silently every time she cried out in her affliction. I needed the reminder, not God.

I thought of my favorite parable from the Gospels (Luke 18:9-14), about the pious Pharisee who prays “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are.” I think of this prayer whenever I find myself feeling smug.

I still have discomfort with the idea of praying a very specific prayer for a specific outcome for someone. Yet I admire the trusting relation they must have with God who pray so. They let their pain and their need flow from their hearts, straight to their loving parent, in personal conversation.

They seem unconstrained by doubt and rationalization about God. Prayer, without IYE qualifiers, is a loving and personal conversation with the God of all Creation.

How I envy them.  There can be no greater blessing than faith in a loving God.  I want that faith and that blessing; but wanting does not seem to be enough.

Yet, despite the impertinence and the hypocrisy, I keep praying: “God, please heal my Vivian! She has so much traveling yet to do.”

[UPDATE:  Sophia died a few days later, peaceful and surrounded by her family.  Her journey is at an end.]


I wrote earlier about my young neighbor and friend Vivian, who is battling a rare kidney cancer (I hope for your sake that you are not familiar with Wilms’ tumors, or any of the other diseases that prey on children.) She has been through hell: surgery, chemotherapy,  nausea, feeding tube, hair loss.  Tough stuff for an almost-six year old.  The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a tough enough place for adults.  But for six-year olds?

She and her brave family are still fighting, and the prognosis is very hopeful.  But the road is a hard one: More chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation, then more chemotherapy.  And always prayer and more prayer.

Throughout her pain, Vivian remains brave and hopeful and trusting and loving.  And her parents maintain their lonely vigils, all the while continuing to keep life as normal as possible for their 3-year old son (100% boy!).

This family is one of the most beautiful examples of loving faith I have ever seen.

You who can pray, pray for my Vivian and her family.

[UPDATE: Vivian’s seven-month-long chemotherapy is done, and her prognosis is very good.  She and her family are back home, next door to us, and Vivian and her brother stop over to visit us regularly.     So now, prayers of Thanksgiving must be added to the ongoing supplications for her (and her family’s) continued good health.]