This week we offer for thought and prayer excerpts from Debra Dean Murphy’s essay in the May 13, 2020 online edition of Christian Century publication. A link is provided for the unabridged version.
When we can’t pray -
It may be Easter, but lament comes more readily than alleluia.
A friend recently gave me language I didn’t know I needed: “communion of the helpless.” We were talking about intercessory prayer, pondering the mysteries of a practice so familiar yet sometimes so vexing: What, theologically, are we doing? Why do we think it matters, and what do we believe it accomplishes? Tragedies like coronavirus or terminal cancer can bring questions like these into sharp relief. We are asked to pray for a person or a community in crisis. A desperate plea for someone we love escapes our lips, half-formed and barely breathed, as the heart races or we feel ourselves go numb.
Sometimes these kinds of prayers feel like attempts to wheedle or cajole, to move to action a distant, immovable deity. Sometimes they seem more like hostage negotiations, as we bargain with God to restore a loved one to us safe and well… Intercessory prayer is not so much about God’s answers as human actions. As Pope Francis puts it, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Implicit in our understandings of prayer are our working images of God—though perhaps it is difficult to know which comes first, what we think prayer is or who we believe God to be. But for those who struggle to pray—during a pandemic or at any time, really—it might be the Deus absconditus who feels, paradoxically, most present. Martin Luther insisted that the hidden God is God.
In A Cry of Absence, Martin Marty describes the “winter of the heart” – another phrase I didn’t know I needed – as the lonely chill, the icy desolation that descends when God is experienced (if that’s the right word) as absence… If prayer is possible in the winter of the heart and in this time of COVID-19, it might be through the psalms of lament. Those ancient cries of abandonment and loss, when prayed from our own lips, can open a space where we discover that we are not alone in our aloneness. Jesus, having entered the human plane in helplessness and vulnerability, prayed the psalms himself as he was dying, revealing, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded from his Nazi prison cell, that only the suffering God can help. The psalms of lament can also be prayed for someone else, as a way of bringing speech to their pain when they and we are bereft of words and awash in uncertainty.
It may be springtime and Eastertide, but for those of us possessed of a wintry spirituality, for whom lament slips more readily from the tongue than does alleluia, we take consolation in the truth that we are part of the communion of the helpless. We don’t seek fixes. We trust somehow that God’s silence is not a conundrum to solve but a mystery to abide. And if we are sometimes able to pray, it is because, in the struggle to hold together what seems irreconcilable—beauty and suffering and a thousand other things—our wintry hearts trust that there is no place from which the love of God is absent.