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Come Holy Spirit - Help Us To Pray
by Benedict Heron OSB

Part 3

Chapter Six: Intercession I

And he said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you. Ask, and it will be given you, search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:5-13).

Last Monday evening at our prayer meeting of about one hundred people, we prayed over a sincere and committed Catholic who at 2pm that afternoon was in a Crown Court as the accused person at the start of a case before a judge and jury. The defending barrister expected the case to last until Friday. The person in question had doubtless been naive and unwise, but was not a criminal. There was a distinct possibility of the case ending with a prison sentence, which is what the police were expecting. So we stormed heaven.

On Tuesday morning, to the great amazement of everyone, including the defending barrister, the judge dismissed the whole case with vigour. The barrister, a lapsed Catholic, said to the defendant: "You have definitely got someone looking after you". I am not claiming that there would not have been the same result if there had been no prayer. Even less am I saying that prayer will always produce results like that. However, I do think that things like that are far more likely to happen when there has been serious prayer - and an increasing number of Christians in our times seem to be finding that to be true from their own experience.

(I remember another somewhat similar legal case some years ago now, when much prayer was followed by a result which the defending solicitor and barrister said was impossible).

Of course many of us have prayed seriously, Sometimes over a long period, for intentions which have not been answered as we first hoped. Perhaps we ;prayed for someone's cancer to be healed, and they died. Perhaps we prayed for a marriage to stick together and the spouses separated Perhaps we prayed for someone to come back to the Church and they died without doing so. Perhaps we prayed for someone to find employment, and they remained unemployed. Perhaps we prayed for an alcoholic to stop drinking, and he died because of drmk Does that mean that we were mistaken in praying as we did? Maybe in some cases, yes. Maybe sometimes if we had listened to God more clearly, we would have prayed otherwise. Perhaps in other cases if there had been more prayer and fasting, the results would have been different. But very often we were right to pray as we did, and God simply did not choose to answer our prayers as we first hoped. However, if we have prayed authentically, God will have blessed the people or situation in one way or another through our prayers.

Let us take a hypothetical situation. Let us suppose that there is a real danger of nuclear war breaking out between England and France next week. Surely we should all pray and storm heaven that the war does not happen, that the politicians and military men are led by the Holy Spirit in the direction of peace and justice. If the war did break out that does not mean that we were mistaken in praying for peace. Nor does it mean that God did not hear our prayers. Perhaps because we and others prayed only five bombs were dropped instead of ten.

Jesus told us to pray - "Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you" (Luke 11:9) - and when we pray authentically, which by the grace of God we always can do, then our prayers will be heard and situations and people will be blessed in one way or another, even if only in a very small way.

Obviously, all our intercessions must be subject to "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). However, I am worried when some Christians seem to suggest that is the only request we ever need to make. When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, He did not stop with "Thy will be done", He went on with the other requests, including "Give us this day our daily bread" and "deliver us from the evil one".

I think we can learn here from the example of many of the outstanding saints in all our churches. They did not, do not, only pray "Thy will be done", they also frequently storm heaven for such things as the conversion of a particular individual, the healing of a sick person, the money for building a church or an orphanage, and for God's protection and blessing on a difficult journey. Now, these prayers will not always have been answered as they first hoped, but quite often they will have been.

One meets beautiful Christians in all our churches who fairly frequently experience answers to prayer. Nicky Gumble of Holy Trinity, Brompton and the Alpha course has told us that he writes down in a note-book his petitions, and goes through ticking them off if and when they are answered. He is not the only person to do that or something similar.

Indeed, I think it should be normal that Christians experience answers to prayers, and not so infrequently, and in my opinion something is missing in a Christian's life when when someone says they do not experience these answers. It is often in the little things that we most frequently experience answers. Somebody prays for a headache to go, and it goes quickly. Many Christians pray for parking meters, and they assure us, rightly I think, that it so often seems to make a difference. As I siaid in the last chapter, when I pray before buying clothes I often seem to get just the right thing. I also find that when I have to prepare a homily or talk and my head is empty of ideas (frequently the case), it is after prayer that the ideas and the inspirations come, sometimes rather at the last moment.

William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, replied to those who said that what he believed were answers to prayer were just coincidences: "All I know is that when I pray these 'coincidences' happen, and when I stop praying they do not".

Some people may object that praying for parking meters or for an ordinary headache to be healed rather trivialises prayer, when there are so many more important intentions to pray for, like peace in the world or someone dying of cancer. For me, it is not a question of one or the other - we should pray for the small things and pray for the big ones. Receiving an answer to prayer in a small matter can increase our faith and perseverance for the important intentions. If God in His loving care for me, for us, is even interested in finding us a parking meter - by the way I do not drive - then He is certainly looking after the bigger problems, such as a forthcoming major operation, or a son who is a drug addict, or peace and justice in connection with Ireland. It is normal in life that sooner or later we all have to face bigger problems which call for ongoing prayer, perhaps for many years or until the end of our life. The small answers can encourage us to persevere with the long haul and the difficult mountains.

I am saddened when I meet Christians, even some serious and dedicated Christians, whose confidence in the power of prayer is or seems to be so limited. A priest who is highly trained in psychotherapy told me that he did not believe in praying for physical healing, for himself or for others. Many Christians would not it seems, believe in praying for protection on a difficult journey, or a job, or for the conversion of a non-Christian, or that God would protect their homes from burglars. I think that many Christians have in varying degrees been largely taken over by the prevailing secularist intellectual climate around us. Science and psychology seem often to have replaced Christian faith as their main point of reference.

So they would say that praying for a safe journey in a car, for oneself or others, is really rather superstitious, since God does not intervene directly in such matters in answer to our prayers. Prayer, some others would think, is for spiritual matters, and therefore we should not bother God about our physical and material needs. I remember one business man, who would not miss Sunday Mass and who prayed daily, telling me that he never prayed for God's blessing on his business, which took up so much of his time and energy. He thought that his business life was not a suitable subject for prayer.

If, however, we have really given our lives to God, to Jesus, despite our weakness and sinfulness, then He is certainly really concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our health, or finances, our relationships, our sex life, our hobbies. So we can and should pray about these things, because they all have a part to play in the building up of God's Kingdom. If there is anything I am doing which I should not ask for God's blessing on, then I should not be doing it. It would, indeed, for example, be inappropriate to ask for God's blessing on rny evening's occupation if I am going out to mug Insofar as I have really given my life to God, to Jesus, then my interests are His interests, and I should ask for God's blessing on them.

Needless to say, science and psychology are in themselves good and we should make a right use of them in building up God's Kingdom. Where things go wrong is when they wholly or in part replace the vision of Christian faith, and I think this happens fairly often.

God, of course, can have very good reasons for not answering our prayers, as we first hoped. It may, for example, be highly desirable for the safety of everyone concerned that someone does not pass their driving test! It may also be a very good thing if someone does not succeed in an exam if they are in fact setting out on studies which are not the right one's for them. It may be a blessing when God does not answer a prayer for great material success, if in fact the success would spiritually corrupt the person in question. Billy Graham's wife has said that if God had answered her prayers as she first hoped, she would more than once have married the wrong man - the Grahams have an exceptionally happy marriage.

This reminds us of the importance of always praying subject to God's perfect will. It also reminds us of the desirability of trying to listen to God before praying, as explained in the last chapter. Although God can sort out our mistaken prayers when there is sincerity, yet it is obviously better to pray explicitly as far as we can in line with His perfect will.

For whom and for what should we intercede? How should we intercede? The short answer is, as the Holy Spirit leads us. And, to repeat, the Holy Spirit will lead no two people in exactly the same way, nor shall we be led in exactly the same way this year as last year, for our life of prayer should not be static but growing. So what I am writing now are not fixed rules to be rigidly followed, but guidelines or hints to be followed insofar as they are found to be helpful.

The Holy Spirit will I think, normally lead us to intercede right along a line, so to speak, with ourselves at one end of the line and the whole Church and world at the other, with numerous intentions for prayer in between. To concentrate too much on myself would be selfish, to pray too little for myself would be a lack of the right kind of self-love - "love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew22: 39) not, "love your neighbour and not yourself". In any case, insofar as I myself am not in right order, I cannot help others.

We should normally surely pray daily by name for the close members of our family, concentrating especially for those whose needs are greater, for example at a special
time of trial, danger or temptation, a serious operation, a particular opportunity or an important decision. Something is wrong if we are neglecting to pray for our family.

Then we should also pray for our friends, our 'enemies' (most important), our neighbours, those we work with Surely there is something missing if Christians never pray for the people they live next to, work with, mix with. Then we should also pray, I would think, for the people we worship with at church or in the prayer group and for the clergy. Yes, please pray for your clergy. If you think they are very wonderful, pray that God may sustain them and keep them humble, and if you regard them as 'useless', as a woman said to me of a priest this week, pray that God may make them less 'useless', indeed really fruitful!

Then there are the people we meet in our daily life: the drunken man we see in the road, the homeless person in the doorway, the over-exhausted mother shouting at her child, the prostitute we pass in the street, the blind man with his white stick, the sick woman suffering greatly in the hospital ward, the person going by in the ambulance, the extravagant worshipper of mammon, the bullying boss, the physically or mentally handicapped child. We may not be in a position to give practical help, but we can always send up a short prayer - and perhaps continue to pray later.

I try to say a prayer for the people with whom I am sharing an underground carriage. It is usually a very short prayer. Often I forget. And I have no illusions that my prayer has converted half a dozen people and healed the blind! - though we can never put limits to God's goodness. If one person greets their spouse on returning home with a smile instead of a scowl, then my prayer was worthwhile.

The media can feed our intercession wonderfully. One past member of our prayer group who has now left this district called her daily newspaper her "
prayer book". She used to go through the various items which she felt called for prayer. The whole process would sometimes take her three hours - she lived on her own. Remembering her example, when I read a newspaper I start, if I have not forgotten, by making a large sign of the Cross over the front page, and then I make a sign of the cross or say a short prayer or both over items which seem to call especially for it - the war in Yugoslavia, the people hit by the earthquake in Columbia, the convicted murderer, the raped girl, the debate in parliament on aid to the Third World or abortion.

In a way it is sub-Christian to watch starving or suffering people on TV or learning about them through other forms of the media without saying a prayer for them and the situation. However, we cannot always rise to a fully Christian response, being surrounded as we are by so many needs and evils - not to mention our own lack of love.

Many Christians, and I am one of them, find it helpful to have an intercession list. Some people pray for or concentrate on different intentions on difference days of the week, for example, for peace on Mondays, for evangelisation on Tuesdays. I personally do not do that. My daily lists includes numerous individual names, but also some collective groups or intentions like our prayer group, our parish, peace and justice in the world, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit over the world. It takes me normally about fifteen minutes to go through my list, depending on how distracted or busy I am. If I have flu or am very fully caught up with some apostolic work, I may drop the list altogether for a few days, apart from saying a brief collective prayer for all those on the list. However, I feel something is missing if I unnecessarily neglect the list, and I am happy to get back to it again. We must not be a slave to things like lists, but some of us find that they are a very real help to prayer. I normally read through the list fairly quickly but taking longer, sometimes much longer, when there is a special need or when feeling inspired to do so. Personally I use the gift of tongues much when going through my list, but I will write more about that gift later.

St Thérèse of Lisieux, if I remember rightly, used at one time to use prayer lists for her intercession, but later felt called to give up the lists and just intercede as the Holy Spirit led her. Fine. But many of us who have not arrived at her openness to the Holy Spirit will find lists helpful, especially if our memory for names is not what it was! However, her example can remind all of us that we must not be bound by lists and devotions, and that all must be led by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit inspires different people in different ways when it comes to intercession. I know one elderly man living in a London suburb who tries to pray for the people whom he meets walking in the opposite direction on the pavement - that would hardly be possible in a busy city centre. A contemplative nun whose convent is not very far from an international airport prays for the people in the planes she hears above. A motorist I know lifts up in prayer the people in the surrounding cars when he is caught up in a traffic jam. A member of our prayer group when driving in a built up area from time-to-time asks God to bless the people who live in the homes on both sides of the road. A friend of mine living in one of a block of flats for the elderly, daily prays down the list of the people living in the flats - it takes about 15 minutes. A surgeon I know prays "In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit" as she cuts through the skin. (Incidentally, once when she was assisting another surgeon in an operation things went very wrong and it looked as through the patient would die quickly from loss of blood. My friend prayed desperately for the bleeding to stop and it did, to the great surprise and relief of the main surgeon).

I mention these examples not so that others should copy them, but so that each one of us may find what is right for us in the way of intercession. I am aware, of course, that a busy mother of young children or an overworked hospital doctor probably have more than enough on their minds without trying to pray for people in aeroplanes above. However, ask the Holy Spirit to show you if He wants to influence you in any way through these examples.

In church congregations there is normally some way of encouraging prayer for the sick and other intentions. We have here an intercession book in the entrance hail of our church, where people can write in the names of sick people and of the recently dead. In every Mass, as elsewhere, there are the bidding prayers, and we read out the names of sick people and the departed. In our prayer group we have an intercession book where people can write in their intentions, and they are encouraged also to put their thank you's for answers to prayer at the back of the book. At our monthly Day of Renewal in Euston two baskets are provided for people to put in their written intentions, and the baskets are placed on the altar during the Mass. In many churches and prayer groups there are prayer vigils for special intentions, (I personally am better on the 8.30-10.30 p.m. vigils than those which go on until 6.00 a.m!).

Chapter Seven: Intercession II

In the Catholic tradition religious communities, especially contemplative communities, have a special intercessory role, and these communities often receive many requests for prayer. One Carmelite nun from the convent in Ware explained to me how they put up requests for prayer on a notice board outside the chapel so that the sisters can, so to speak, carry the intentions with them for other sisters to read, and they share requests for intercessions with each other spontaneously during the community recreation. They, of course, pray for the various crises in the world reported in the media.

Then of course Christians sometimes go on a pilgrimage to some special place like Jerusalem or Lourdes largely to pray for a particular intention such as a sick person, or a marriage situation, or for peace and justice in say Northern Ireland. In recent years there have been the rapidly expanding 'Marches for Jesus' in many countries in the world, which are not only a powerful witness, but which include much intercession.

Groups of Christians, mainly, I think, on the Evangelical-Pentecostal side, are going out to pray before places of what may be termed 'strategic importance'. Recently a small group of us from our prayer group did a 'pray-around' in part of central London. I was celebrating the 11.00 a.m. parish weekday Mass. After the Mass we set out down the road towards our underground station ten minutes walk away. We prayed for the people living in the houses on either side, for the shops and the pub. We prayed for the staff in the station and for the underground system as a whole. We prayed for the people in our underground carriages. We got out at Leicester Square and prayed briefly in the French church there for the clergy and congregation and all that happened there. We had a brief meal, praying for the people in the restaurant. We walk around Soho for a short time, praying for an area which in some places has not got a good reputation. (I had wanted to pray in front of an 'immoral house', as the Soho prayer group used to do, but the women in our group guided us towards more salubrious areas!) We also went into a Christian bookshop in Soho and prayed for their mission to the Chinese and for the lady who ran the shop.

We prayed in several churches, including the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. We prayed before Downing Street for Tony Blair and his family, for the Cabinet and for all that happened in Downing Street. We prayed for the centres of the Civil Service, for police in New Scotland Yard and for the police everywhere, for a bank and the whole banking community, and for Premier Christian Radio, which is doing so much for God's Kingdom. We prayed for people in cars, for the homeless and for the alcoholics. We also thanked God for beautiful flowers in St James' Park. Everywhere we prayed we felt it important to mix our intercessions with much praise and thanksgiving.

Our whole outing took about six and a half hours. It was a joyful if tiring time, and we felt it was very worthwhile. From the point of view of building up God's Kingdom I think it was truly fruitful, considerably more fruitful than most six and a half hour periods during my day. Doubtless our prayer group will do more such outings. Perhaps one way in which it will prove to have been helpful will be in encouraging us to do more interceding as we normally travel around, and where I at any rate normally miss so many opportunities.

One intercession movement which is spreading rapidly is '
Mothers Prayers'. Christian mothers in smaller or bigger numbers meet together regularly to pray for their children. It may be only two or three mothers in the home of one of them, it may be quite a large group. The incredibly quick growth of this movement in different countries shows how it is answering a very special need. It obviously helps and encourages Christian mothers to get together to pray for their children. The mothers have much to be concerned about with regard to the environment in which their children are growing up, for example, television, sexual promiscuity, drugs, bullying in schools, violence, scientific secularism. (address: 'Mothers Prayers' P.O. Box 822, Gravesend, Kent DA13 9ZZ, England - Tel 44(0)1474 834084).

'Prayer Diaries' are fairly common. I have before me a Catholic prayer diary produced by the Youth Mission Team of the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. It covers three months, and every day it mentions a school or parish where they are ministering, or the names of a member of their team, or something connected with their ministry. In this way their ministry is assured of more prayer backing, which they rightly regard as of fundamental importance.

Prayer chains or links can be a special help when there is an urgent need of prayer. If there is a sudden crisis such as an accident or an unexpected operation in hospital, in our prayer group we can phone a particular member and she sets in motion the prayer chain so that within half an hour, twenty or more people are praying for the particular intention.

In the leadership team of the prayer group we are committed to pray for each other by name every day. This is a source of very helpful support and unity. Relationships are different when people are praying for each other by name every day. In a monastery also the mutual prayer for each other is clearly very important.

The telephone can be very useful when it comes to prayer, not only to let people know of needs, but also to pray aloud for healing and other intentions over the
phone. I personally spend quite a bit of time praying for people in this way, for healing and other intentions. If someone asks me to pray for this or that coming event, I often just pray on the spot - perhaps on the telephone. Otherwise, I find myself promising to pray for something and forgetting to do so. More important
future intentions I put in my diary, which does not guarantee that I do not forget them.

Praying for people on the telephone can have problems when too many people phone up asking for prayers - I have had three phone call interruptions from people wanting prayer since I started writing this page. So sometimes I simply stop answering for a bit when I have to get on with something else; which is not an entirely satisfactory solution. Needless to say, I myself also sometimes phone people asking for prayer It can be good to ask God to keep down the number of incoming calls and to see to it that one gets the calls He wants one to answer. I have written down what I have concerning my phone experience and problems in the hope that something I have written may be of a little help to people with similar problems. Let us thank God for the telephone, despite the difficulties!

Many Christians are finding it fruitful to have a prayer partner. As the name would suggest, two Christians keep in close touch with each other, share their problems and blessings, and uphold each other in prayer. The phone will often be very important in this relationship. Some of these partnerships have gone on for many years. Of course there is nothing new about friends sharing and praying with each other, but now it often seems to be happening in a more conscious and methodical way, for example, arranging to meet weekly for prayer at a given time.

There are many excellent Christian movements which encourage intercession in all our churches. I have been impressed by the mainly Evangelical-Pentecostal groups which are praying for revival - Catholics would probably speak of praying for the conversion of our country or the world. Indeed there is an organisation called
'Pray for Revival' (tel 44(0)121 6433 5611) which arranges national conferences and other things, to encourage prayer for this intention. It seems to me that such a movement is a sign of deep faith and commitment to Jesus' command to spread the Gospel, especially because one is not likely to see immediate or personal answers to one's prayers.

I have been greatly edified by the intercession at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, which is the mother church of the Alpha Course. As is well known, the Alpha Course has been spreading very widely not only in this country but in many others, and it has led to very many thousands of conversions. The Alpha Course is now, in the year 2000. being used in a considerable majority of the prisons in this country, and Dartmoor now has a special wing for Christians. The point I want to make
here is that the extraordinary fruitfulness of the Alpha Course has been and is based on so much powerful intercession.

In his book, The Church on its Knees (HTB Publications 1998), Jeremy Jennings of the staff at HTB describes the intercessory ministry there. This includes their early morning hour-long prayer meetings most days, their all-night prayer vigils, and their annual Prayer Weekends with about 170 people. They have also had the novel idea of hiring from time to time a boat on the Thames for about 300 people, to pray before different important centres like the House of Commons, and Westminster Abbey. Prayer for revival is one of their main themes of intercession. I remember once when I was at their Sunday evening service we all prayed for the conversion of Japan for about ten minutes, Japan being one of the most difficult areas for Christian missions. There is also much intercession in the many home groups linked with Holy Trinity, Brompton. It is difficult not to be impressed by their great confidence in the power of prayer and their dedication to intercession.

In the Catholic tradition intercession is often linked with the Eucharist - my own prayer intercession is centred round the celebration of the Eucharist. If Catholics are specially concerned about something such as an operation on a member of their family, a marriage in danger of breaking up, an interview which may result in redundancy, a spiritual crisis, they may well go to one or more weekday Masses to pray especially for the intention in question. Catholics will often pop into a church to say a prayer before the Eucharist in connection with a special need, whether the need is personal or wide such as peace in connection with Ireland.

I am impressed by the considerable number of Catholics who normally attend Mass daily, and I think this practice is in general a great source of intercession and spiritual strength. In our Benedictine parish here, where we have the advantage of being able to have these Masses every weekday and four on Sunday, because we have more priests, we normally have in total about 1,200 people at the Sunday Masses and over 100 on each weekday.

Obviously daily Mass is not possible for many people with jobs, or a busy study programme, or travelling problems, though they might manage to get to Mass on one or more days in the week. Retired people however can often go to daily Mass and this practice frequently seems to greatly enrich their lives and intercession. Some Christians reading these paragraphs may like to reflect on whether god is calling them to a more frequent participation in the Eucharist. However it is important to add that we must not become slaves to routine, and I am certainly not saying that God is calling every Catholic to daily Mass if that is possible - perhaps God is calling them to pray in other ways. Daily Mass is not an ancient practice in the Church. The early Benedictine monks, for example, only celebrated the Eucharist on Sundays and special feast days. Some people feel that the Mass is something too important to participate in daily. However, I should like to record that my own practice of daily Mass for 63 years has been a great source of wonderful blessings in many ways, including that of intercession.

For many Catholics the rosary, which I normally say daily, plays a very important part in their intercessions. They may offer up one or more decades of the rosary for this or that intention. There are, needless to say, many other devotions in the Catholic Church, for example Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the Way of the Cross, Litanies, Novenas. Something which seems to be helping many Christians in these years is the Devotion to the Divine Mercy Connected with a Polish sister, Blessed Faustina, who died in 1938. Although I do not say the special prayers normally connected with this devotion, I do find it a very real spiritual help. Are we individually and the Church and the world as a whole not so very obviously dependent on the Divine Mercy of Jesus, perhaps especially in the times in which we live? So calling on the Divine Mercy for ourselves and others is surely a vital form of intercession.

A warning: If readers tried to take on too many of the practices and devotions mentioned in this chapter they would suffer from spiritual indigestion. Each of us simply needs to ask the Holy Spirit to show us which are the practices and devotions for us and which are not for us. We should not feel that we ought to take on things because other people find them helpful, nor should we try to impose our own practices and devotions on others. For instance, I personally have been, and am very greatly blessed by, attending charismatic prayer meetings, but I know that these meetings are not for everyone, although I think, many more people could be greatly helped by them.

Some readers may object that a few of the practices and devotions which I have mentioned are not to be encouraged, since they are less 'sound' than others. I think we have to be very careful about judging how other people should pray. For me the key test is what in fact helps someone to pray well or better. For instance, though I personally would never recommend people to say the rosary during Mass, yet if that is what someone finds most prayerful, who am I to tell them that they should not be doing it? Let us leave the Holy Spirit to be the spiritual guide. Pray as best you can and not as other people think you should be praying. We can make suggestions as to what they may find helpful, like using a missal in Mass, but then let us leave them to pray as they find most fruitful.

One intercession which I would very much encourage is "Come Holy Spirit", or if one prefers asking the Father or Jesus to send the Holy Spirit. In recent years the prayer "Come, Holy Spirit" has been increasingly often on my lips and in my heart, and it means more and more to me. It is a prayer which I say for myself, for others, for the Church and for the world and I know I should pray it far more often than I do.

We are totally dependent on the Holy Spirit for the gift of faith and for an increase in faith. We are also dependent on the Holy Spirit for an understanding of our faith and of the Bible and of the teaching of the Church. A clever person could doubtless take a degree in Catholic theology while believing none of it, even being an atheist, by just learning the answers from a book. We need the light of the Holy Spirit for understanding people and situations. No amount of natural intelligence or learning, valuable as these can be, are a substitute for the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

We need the love of the Holy Spirit to fill us with love for God and for our neighbour. If the Holy Spirit does not touch our hearts we will be God's frozen people rather than His chosen people.

One of the hymns of the Divine Office (Prayer During the Day) prays: "Come Holy Spirit, live in us and may that love within our hearts set fire to others with its flame." Without the love of the Holy Spirit "within our hearts" we shall not be able to play our part in spreading the gospel, "setting fire to others".

We need the strength and healing of the Holy Spirit. As the weak disciples were transformed at Pentecost into the fearless witnesses and martyrs which they became, we also need the strength of the Holy Spirit to carry our cross, and face any trials the Lord asks us to face.

I often pray, "come Holy Spirit, that I may bear fruit", or even "much fruit". Jesus wants each one of us not only to bear fruit for His Kingdom but to bear much fruit: "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit My Father is glorified by this that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (John 15: 5 & 8). We are all called to abide in Him and to be His disciples, so we are all called to bear 'much fruit', however much we have sinned in the past and whatever our personal limitations or the limitations of our situation. The Holy Spirit will give us all the grace and gifts to 'bear much fruit', if we ask Him. It may of course be a very hidden fruit like bearing the trial of blindness or Alzheimer's disease. But that does not make it less fruitful.

The ongoing repetition of some Christian phrase or prayer seems to be a form of prayer which an increasing number of Christians are finding helpful. An especially well-known example of that is the Jesus Prayer, associated with the tradition of the Eastern Christian monks. A common form of it is "Jesus have mercy on me, a sinner", which I find helpful to repeat for a time in my morning prayer and when I am having to fight anger. Another phrase often used is "Maranatha" ("Come, Lord Jesus") (I Corinthians 16:22) which is frequently recommended by the Christian Meditation Centre, associated with the names of the late Dom John Main OSB, and his successor Dom Lawrence Freeman OSB. (address: The Priory of Christ the King, 29 Bramley Road, London N14 4HE, England).


Jesus said: "The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:18, and Luke 5:33). In Matthew 6:16 Jesus says, "And when you fast", not if you fast. Jesus supposed that his disciples would fast from food.

Many Christians have found that in general when they added fasting to prayer there were more answers to prayer. Fasting seems often to add power to intercession. Of course fasting does not mean that our prayers are always answered as we first hoped. However, following the biblical injunction to fast does make a difference to our life of intercession. I want to say straight away that I am not in favour of any fasting which a doctor would not be happy about. So I am not in favour of abstaining from all liquids. But in general doctors would be very happy if more people fasted - it could improve their health.

So if you have some difficult problems in life try adding fasting to your prayer. Indeed, try fasting as a spiritual discipline in any case. Perhaps start by something small like giving up sugar in your tea and coffee or for a time alcohol. Or try simply dropping a meal from time to time. This could develop into going for a day without solid food, and then perhaps more than a day, but that is not for everyone.

We need not be frightened at the idea of a little fasting, adapted to our circumstances. Ask God to show you what, if anything, He wants you to do about fasting from food and to be given the grace and strength to do it. If we do that I am sure that many of us including myself, will do something, or something more, in the way of fasting, and our intercessions will increase in power. We can pray that we eat and drink all that God wants us to eat and drink - and only that. Any money saved in this way can be given to the hungry people of the world. Surely there is something very wrong when a large part of the world has the problem of not enough to eat, and another part has the problem of over-eating.

Lack of faith is sometimes a cause of prayer not being answered. When the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cure the epileptic boy He replied, "Because of your little faith" (Luke 17:20). Jesus at times complained of the lack of faith of his disciples, for example, when the boat was in a storm on the lake of Galilee and Jesus
rebuked the storm, He said "
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40). And in his teaching on material needs and the lilies of the field, He complains "you of little faith" (Matthew 6:30). Jesus also commended the faith of some who were healed, for example, the woman with the haemorrhage, "your faith has made you well" (Matthew 9:22).

I am not wishing to suggest that if we believe sufficiently strongly our prayers will always be answered in the way we first hoped - we cannot bend God's arm to do things He does not want to do. But in general if we had more faith we would see more answers to prayer.

I personally feel the need to repent increasingly of my lack of faith, hope, and trust in God, and to ask for greater gifts of faith, hope and trust. I am also much impressed by the example of those Christians who are really living by faith, who pray with great faith, and see beautiful answers to prayer. Perhaps many of us need more frequently to say with the apostles, "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5).

It so happens that this morning a Catholic man who is taking a second degree in theology told me that one of his Catholic tutors with two doctorates assured him that "God does not intervene in answer to prayer like that. Things do not happen that way". A very learned priest lecturing in the same faculty takes the same line. I think we really have to face up to the fact that there is a real crisis of faith in some academic circles in the Catholic Church - and indeed in some other churches also - and that teaching of this kind helps to destroy or weaken the faith of many. Let us pray for these teachers who have lost their way and are leading others astray.

If Christians do not believe that God intervenes in answer to prayer then, so it seems to me, they have moved very far away from biblical Christianity and from historical Christian tradition, be it Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant or Pentecostal. What sense do they make of saying the Our Father with its petitions? For me this is not something of secondary importance, but something vital and central to New Testament Christian living.

All Christians are called to intercede, and most of us should doubtless intercede much more than we do. The saints in all our churches were strong intercessors. Had they got it wrong? But many Christians find it difficult to concentrate all that much on intercession, because of other demands on time and energy. However, some Christians are called to a special ministry of intercession, that is to say that intercession is the main or a very important part of their service of God and human beings.

There are people who have quite a lot of time on their hands which could be used for prayer. This obviously applies to many sick or elderly Christians, but also to the unemployed, those who have retired, and to many people who live on their own. I think that God quite often gives such people a special vocation to intercession. This call can turn a life of frustration, boredom and meaninglessness into a life of great fruitfulness and fulfilment. I remember reading an account of someone who was very paralysed and could only communicate by pushing a button with her finger. Someone asked her, "Are you not bored just lying there all day and night, not able to move or speak"? She replied, "No, I am far too busy praying".

In my ministry I meet quite a number of people who used to be living a fruitful active life and now because of age or sickness or for other reasons cannot actively be as helpful as they used to be. Indeed, not only can they not help actively, but they are becoming an increasing burden to others, perhaps their spouse or children. This can lead to depression and to the feeling that it would be better if they were 'gone' - indeed, it can lead to suicide.

It may be very important to try to show such people that their lives can be wonderfully fruitful and meaningful through intercession, and through simply loving the people around them - right up to the last day in the geriatric ward. Now, I am a great believer in praying for healing and protection, but we shall not always be physically healed in this life - thank God, for otherwise we would never get to heaven!

Acceptance and offering up can be a very important part of our life and ministry of intercession. St Paul wrote: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church" (Colossians 1:24). Yes, normally pray for healing and protection, but what is not healed or protected at one level can be wonderfully fruitful if accepted and offered up.

I advise people to ask God to show them for what intentions He wants them to offer up their life, their death, their joys, and their sufferings before the crisis comes. It may, for example, be for my family and peace and justice in Ireland. None of us knows when we may be hit by a car, a mugger, a heart attack or by germs. Think about it all, and offer it up before you are hit by the car, or whatever, so that it is all taken up in your intercessory prayer. In that way your life can be truly, indeed wonderfully, fruitful and meaningful whatever happens.

When shall we have finished our service of intercession? When we die? In the Catholic tradition we believe that the saints in heaven pray for us, and indeed we ask for their prayers. Are we only thinking of outstanding canonised saints? Certainly not. So you can ask your devout departed grandmother to pray for you. Every day I say a general prayer for the departed members of my family, that they may rest in peace and I ask them to pray for me and for the other living members of our family.

The saints in heaven help us through their prayer. St Thérèsa of Lisieux said that when she got to heaven she would send down a shower of roses through her prayers to help people on earth. Padre Pio has appeared from heaven to heal not a few people through his prayer - I spoke to one of them who was dying when Padre Pio appeared. He knew nothing about Padre Pio and only recognised who it was from a photo later. (His testimony is being used for the canonisation). But it is not only great saints who help from above. In any case, who can decide who are the 'great' saints and who are the others? I have met many Christians who were convinced that they were being helped by departed mothers, fathers, spouses or other people. So we ordinary Christians can hope that when by the grace of God we get to heaven He will use our prayers to help people on earth. There is surely every reason that a mother who is praying for a sick or needy child on earth will continue to pray for the child after she herself dies. So your ministry of intercession will continue after your death - and perhaps be more powerful then. Alleluia.

One last, but very important point in connection with intercession. As far as possible, our intercessions should be linked with, surrounded by, and shot through with praise and thanksgiving..... but that brings us to the next chapter, on praise.

Copyright © 2000 Benedict M. Heron OSB

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26th October 2001


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