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Love in Action through Prayer

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison’s book “Compassion,” published in 1982.

 

1. To pray for others

To pray for a friend who is ill, for a student who is depressed, for a teacher who is in conflict; for people in prisons, in hospitals, on battlefields; for those who are victims of injustice, who are hungry, poor, and without shelter; for those who risk their career, their health, and even their life in the struggle for social justice; for leaders of church and state—--to pray for all these people is not a futile effort to influence God’s will, but a hospitable gesture by which we invite our neighbors into the center of our hearts.

·        To pray for others means to allow their pains and sufferings, their anxieties and loneliness, their confusion and fears to resound in our innermost selves.

When, as disciples of Christ, we are able to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters, to be marked with their wounds, and even be broken by their sins, our prayer becomes their prayer, our cry for mercy becomes their cry. In compassionate prayer, we bring before God those who suffer not merely “over there,” not simply “long ago,” but here and now in our innermost selves. And so it is in and through us that others are restored; it is in and through us that they receive new light, new hope, and new courage; it is in and through us that God’s Spirit touches them with his healing presence.

 

2. Pray for our Enemies too

Compassionate prayer for our fellow human beings stands in the center of the Christian life. Jesus emphasizes the great power of prayer when he says, “Everything you ask for in prayer you will receive” (Matthew 21:22), and the Apostle James echoes these strong words when he writes, “The heartfelt prayer of a good man works very powerfully” (James 5:16). Compassionate prayer is a mark of the Christian community. Christians mention one another in their prayers (Romans 1:9, 2 Colossians 1:11, Ephesians 6:8, Colossians 4:3), and in so doing they bring help and even salvation to those for whom they pray (Romans 15:30, Philippians 1:19). But the final test of compassionate prayer goes beyond prayers for fellow Christians, members of the community, friends, and relatives. Jesus says it most unambiguously, “I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); and in the depth of his agony on the cross, he prays for those who are killing him, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Here the full significance of the discipline of prayer becomes visible. Prayer allows us to lead into the center of our hearts not only those who love us but also those who hate us. This is possible only when we are willing to make our enemies part of ourselves and thus convert them first of all in our own hearts.

The first thing we are called to do when we think of others as our enemies is to pray for them. This is certainly not easy. It requires discipline to allow those who hate us or those toward whom we have hostile feelings to t into the intimate center of our hearts. People who make our lives difficult and cause us frustration, pain, or even harm, are least likely to receive a place in our hearts. Yet every time we overcome this impatience with our opponents and are willing to listen to the cry of those who persecute us, we will recognize them as brothers and sisters too. Praying for our enemies is therefore a real event, the event of reconciliation. It is impossible to lift our enemies up in the presence of God and at the same time continue to hate them. Seen in the place of prayer, even the unprincipled dictator and the vicious torturer can no longer appear as the object of fear, hatred, and revenge, because when we pray we stand at the center of the great mystery of Divine Compassion. Prayer converts the enemy into a friend and is thus the beginning of a new relationship. There is probably no prayer as powerful as the prayer for our enemies. But it is also the most difficult prayer since it is most contrary to our impulses. This explains why some Saints consider prayer for our enemies the main criterion of holiness.

As disciples of the compassionate Lord, who took upon himself the condition of a slave and suffered death for our sake (Ph 2:7—8), there are no boundaries to our prayers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses this with powerful simplicity when he writes that to pray for others is to give them “the same right we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy.” When we come before God with the needs of the world, the healing love of the Holy Spirit that touches us touches with the same power all those whom we bring before him. Compassionate prayer does not encourage the self-serving individualism that leads us to flee from people or to fight them. On the contrary, by deepening our awareness of our common suffering, prayer draws us closer together in the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. (109-112)

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