Sister Carol reflects on intercessory prayer and explains how we can embrace its challenges and learn to ‘live it’
This article was published in the May to August 2021 issue of Rapport magazine.
Prayer may be thought of as ‘any movement of the human heart toward God. This offers a wide enough base to make room for prayer of any kind. On this basis we can say that Christian prayer is any movement of the human heart towards God, as God is known through Jesus Christ.’ If we accept this definition of prayer, which I think to be a very good one, then intercession might be understood as any movement of the human heart toward God on behalf of another (or others, or situations). To intercede means to go-between. In intercessory prayer we go-between others, with their needs and burdens, and God. But we do this only in and through the One who always lives to make intercession for us.
During His earthly life Jesus interceded for us through the whole of His ministry; we may observe it in the works of healing. I like, too, a specific reference in Luke 22:31 ‘Simon, Simon, listen … I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’. That is clear enough! Moreover, Jesus in His risen life continues to intercede for us. In Hebrews 7:24 we learn, ‘He holds his priesthood permanently because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him since he always lives to make intercession for them.’
It is because Jesus has passed through death and is risen that we are able, in Him, to join the work of intercession. Through the gift of the resurrection Spirit we can join in Christ’s great stream of prayer to the one He calls Abba. With Jesus we cry out for others; yes, with sighs too deep for words, or maybe with tears. To pray in the name of Jesus is not simply to tack the Lord’s name onto our words and desires, but to enter into His love and life. ‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you’ (John 14:20); ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything I will do it.’
We need to understand by this that when we truly intercede in Christ’s Name we align ourselves with His will. The Spirit inspires us in our longing on behalf of others and so we long for what God is purposing. We are drawn to become his co-workers.
I like the story of the paralytic who can do little or nothing for himself but who is lifted into the presence of Jesus by his friends; they even remove the roof to lower him down (Mark 2:1–12). We may need to make real effort to remove blockages to bring people and situations before God. This is an earnest of the faith that is a necessary part of intercession. The blockages may be in us; we simply have to clear a space, turn off the TV, put down the book or the laptop and give time, attention and energy to that work of praying for those who cannot – or will not – pray for themselves. We come to God on their behalf. Getting round to it is the first pre-requisite of prayer.
Love reaching out to Love
There are as many ways of praying as there are people to pray, because prayer implies a personal relationship with God. But there are some well-trodden ways, so let’s now be practical.
I am assuming that time and place is found, and that you have a bodily position which is comfortable but alert. Take some moments to recollect that in God we live, move and have our being and ask the Spirit to lead you in praying. We are likely to move between looking toward God and remembering the one(s) we are bringing before Him. Sometimes this prayer just takes off; we will not necessarily know what we are praying for, but are simply holding people/situations in God’s light and love. This is not a technique or an acquired skill – it is love reaching out to Love. We may have to work a bit harder, for there is a cost to intercession, even a physical one as we give time and energy to this work.
It can indeed be helpful to express prayer with our bodies in a simple way, sitting, standing or kneeling with arms lifted and palms upward. Part of intercession may also be the affirming of God’s love and concern in the matter prayed for; this is to exercise faith in a very real way. We may pray wordlessly, with our heart; or employ phrases, perhaps the wonderful Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ. Son of the living God, have mercy on … (him/her/them). In our set time of intercession we may repeat this as a way of focusing mind and heart.
Praying during practical tasks
Such prayer can flow over into our daily routines, especially if those routines are the kind which leave
some of our attention disengaged.
We call down the mercy of God on those for whom we are concerned as we do practical tasks. In the great monastic phrase, we can ‘offer up’ what we are doing.
As a young sister, in a religious community, I found it particularly tough to have to clean our large chapel on Saturday mornings. What was I doing? What a way to spend a Saturday morning in your early 20s! So as I scrubbed the rather beautiful sanctuary tiles, or used the polisher on the parquet flooring, I would offer up sections of the work on behalf of areas of the world for which I had a concern. By faith, it became not just drudgery but a work of intercession. Yes, a work; for it is a form of work as much as any other, to raise issues and concerns into the light of God’s love and redemptive purposes.
Added purpose to work
We offer up our energies as a way of interceding. Laborare est orare. Orare et laborare. (To work is to pray. To pray is to work.) On Community at Lee Abbey, years later, I passed on to the House, Kitchen and Estate Team this way of working for God’s sake and for the sake of others. It does not mean, let me hastily say, failing to attend to the job. Doing a job well can itself be a form of prayer, but it does give an added dimension of meaning and purpose. In some work we can only offer an intention, an arrow prayer, as we start and then get on with the job in hand which requires our full mental attention.
During the course of the pandemic, we have been forced to recognise afresh how interwoven humanity is. A virus that began in Wuhan province in China claims the lives, as I write, of well over 120,000 people in Britain. We now know that by responsible behaviour we might save lives. Society had rather lost sight of this mutual responsibility. Central to Christian understanding is the belief that we are all members of one body.
The wider truth is that all humanity is linked together in creation and through Christ. We affect the lives of others by what we buy, or eat or by our carbon footprint, and so on. Intercession spells this truth out in a special way, as an expression of our profound interconnectedness. We give set time to it including in our liturgies; we incorporate it into our daily patterns. We live it.
Giving our lives to prayer
Yes, we can live intercession. It can become part of who we are, as it was and is for Jesus, who always lives to make intercession for us. If we really grasp just how interconnected we are we may see how we can give of our lives in prayer, just as some donate their blood. We can ‘offer up’ what we are living through in solidarity with others. For example, if we should be lonely or in pain we might by faith, turn to God, not just for ourselves but for others who are lonely or in pain. The loneliness, the pain offered, becomes the intercession. In the small hours of the night, when many who are wakeful find their problems loom large, we might turn that negative to positive use. Our condition becomes our intercession as we face toward God. Our empathy cries wordlessly or by using such as the Lord’s Prayer. This can also make a difference to us; removing a sense of isolation by connecting us with humanity. Blessed be God who lets us share in His work!
A silent power at work
Anyone can join in Christ’s great work of intercession; it is a way of fulfilling the second commandment, to love one another. It is a hidden way as we bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ. It can also be subversive! A silent power at work in the world, infiltrating politics and policies. A bit like moles overturning the soil, so may prayer work through the hard soil of social life to bring about change. We may not be climate activists, but we can join in the groaning of all creation to be set free. ‘God, who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’ (Romans 8:27).
Come, Lord the Spirit, and lead us into the privileged work and joy of intercession that we may strengthen that bridge over troubled waters which is Jesus’ unceasing prayer for us all.
Sister Carol has been an Anglican religious sister in the Community of the Holy Name since 1970, with a varied ministry. During the 1990s she was seconded to Lee Abbey Devon Pastoral Team for five years and then for four years explored a solitary life of prayer whilst still living on the estate. She continues living in the solitary way.