I've noticed that my prayer list has gotten much longer lately, so much so that I actually have to jot the names down on a slip of paper before I say mass and evening prayer. Most of the people asking for my prayers have health issues. My former sister-in-law, Amber, has been fighting ovarian cancer for three years; my friend, Luke, had major surgery last Friday on his Achilles tendon that will have him bedridden and in pain for weeks; my dear colleague, Mother Henry, underwent knee replacement surgery this morning; and my former co-worker in pediatrics, Eileen, is bravely facing the final days of her husband's battle with terminal cancer. I try to remember each of these persons' names as I pray for their healing, release, or comfort. Yet it's only now that I have really internalized Fr. Bob Orpen's incisive observation to me when I was a seminarian doing my Clinical Pastoral Education. "Praying," he said to me, "is not the same as saying prayers." I sort of understood at the time what he meant, but now it has sunken in in a much deeper, embodied way. Prayer, especially corporate prayer, can take on a rather perfunctory and formulaic character when it's done the same way often, so it's important that we make the effort to personalize these prayers and make them meaningful. Prayers need to be more than mental notes; they need to stir the heart.
When I say that my praying has become more embodied, I'm not suggesting that I've started raising my hands charismatically in the air--not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, I really admire people so willing to share with others their experience of the urgings of the Holy Spirit within them. What I mean is that this darn broken hand has blessed my prayer life in an unexpected way. That's a strange statement, so let me describe my physical therapy appointment this morning to explain what I'm getting at. When I walked in, I saw the same set of patients seated at the table where I get my fingers stretched and bent, my incisions cleaned, and my bandages changed. We see each other struggling to move impaired parts of ourselves. We frequently witness each other in pain. It is a very intimate experience. We often root for each other, share our excitement when something stiff finally moves, and empathize with each other when things hurt. It's especially this last one that means the most, I think. In a very real sense, we pray for each other in these moments, taking within ourselves the physical pain and discomfort of our other sisters and brothers gathered around the table. It is a very moving experience of embodied, human solidarity.
"Crushed by the Cross" by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel
As a Christian, this reminds me of one of the central concepts in Latin American liberation theology: the image of Jesus Christ as co-sufferer. Jesus is not some distant and abstract figure sitting on a cloud indifferent to the sufferings of human beings, but shows great compassion for our pain and distress by taking them within himself, by empathizing and suffering alongside us. It is a sign of the human Jesus' solidarity with humanity, the same solidarity that caused him to offer himself up on the Cross for our sake. There is a holy thing going on at the physical therapy table when, like Jesus, we empathize with each others' pain and suffering. Prayer is in part about reaching out with our hearts and bodies to those alongside us who hurt. I feel a great convergence of authentic prayer as I travel repeatedly between the physical therapy table and the altar, calling upon God's power for the living and the dead, as I hope people in turn are calling upon God's power for my own healing and well-being. This broken hand has certainly been inconvenient and painful, but I am grateful that it has taught me something vital about deepening my prayer life. The Lord be with you. Let us pray . . . not just say our prayers.