Sunday, April 28, 2013

What is Intercessory Prayer?

Maybe intercessory prayer is a mystery too great to fathom. Nevertheless, I want to talk about it, to have a conversation, especially with people practicing contemplative prayer. You may be like me and need very little encouragement to practice silence and solitude, the clarity and courage that flow from these practices call me back to them. But "importunate prayer," is something else altogether.

The obvious, familiar difficulty is that God knows best what is needed and loves the people or persons for whom we are praying far more than we do. I can imagine that God would want to share with us the joy of loving his creation and that intercessory prayer is an act of love. But there are far more compelling and courageous ways to love and to pray. Even the act of deep attention given to another person or any part of creation appears more loving to me then asking God to change something. Additionally, I can think of dozens of hard circumstances that produced fruit in my life that would not have ripened if God had answered my prayer for reprieve. I feel more drawn to the prayer, "Thy will, not mine be done?"

I found this quote by Father Kenneth Leech in his book True Prayer: It speaks to something deep in me, but it looks so different than what has been modeled for me that I can hardly conceive of it as intercession.

"Intercessory prayer is not a technique for changing God's mind, but it is a releasing of God's power through placing ourselves in a relationship of co-operation with God. It is an act. Prayer and action should not be opposed to each other, for prayer is action. Intercession means literally to stand between, to become involved in the conflict."

Do you petition God? Does Father Leech's emphasis on co-operation and becoming involved in the conflict ring true for you? Do you see a fault in my questions about this form of prayer? I value your feedback. Through conversation we can expand each other's horizons.


Paul T. Corrigan said...

David, You've struck on something that I have wrestled with as well.

Those who teach contemplative prayer often say that it is not meant to replace other forms of prayer, including praise, petition, intercession, etc. But I felt from early on that it did introduce some sort of tension between ways of praying, though tension may not be the right word.

I think now that the relationship between contemplative prayer and other kinds of prayer is that when you pray in the deepest way, the other ways in which you pray are to be deepened as well. Contemplative prayer doesn't replace intercession so much as transform it.

I found the following passage from Rowan Williams to be very helpful in thinking about this. It seems particularly aligned with the last line of your quote from Leech.

"The prayer of intercession at its simplest is thinking of something or someone in the presence of God. . . [T]he struggle [is] not to let God and the world fall apart from each other. . . . Jesus, in Gethsemane and on Calvary, ‘holds together’ God and the world in his own suffering and dying person. . . . ‘Can God love and act and heal where there seems to be nothing worthy or loveable, when the whole world seems enslaved to cruelty, betrayal and pain?’ [That] is exactly what God’s love is like; it is always there before there is any hope . . . So our intercession is a sharing in Christ’s terribly costly struggle to hold together God and the world, love and suffering, light and darkness. Intercession . . . mustn’t shrink to a utilitarian thing—putting in a request, filling in a sort of spiritual form . . . It is a cry of naked faith . . . [In this are] the full implications of Jesus crucified. . . . Our hearts must grow, must be constantly enlarged in sensitivity to the world’s suffering and sensitivity to the victorious mercy of God. . . . [We become] an empty space for the wind of the spirit to blow through. . . . If prayer ‘works’, it is because of lives that have been crucified with Christ. . . . In the long run, prayer is one act, not several, the act of opening ourselves as best we can to the glorious life of God, letting God live in us." (Open to Judgement 138-141)

Thank you for your post.

RC said...

Wow! Great post, David! Great comment, Paul. And the quotes each of you give are wonderful. They both "ring true" for me, as David asks about the Leech quote. I love it when we seek this kind of balance. I believe the New Testament models of community prayer and intercessory prayer are vital for us and balance our pure spirit-to-spirit communion with God. Both the cataphatic and the apophatic matter. Thank you both for these wise and beautiful investments. I am stimulated and encouraged.

Anna Cotton said...

David, I do petition God, but I come at it from the angle of prayer as relationship. I think Fr. Leech is articulating it beautifully when he says intercession is a "releasing of God's power through placing ourselves in a relationship of co-operation with God." It seems to me the gift of spending time in silence with God can serve us all well in this regard. In silence, we aren't asking for anything or seeking anything, but we are practicing letting go of our thoughts, plans, wants and desires. We just give ourselves to being in his presence over and over and over. Later, we discover we have insight for wise action "to become involved in the conflict." Because my heart is connected to God's heart, I can know better how to respond. Sometimes this means just recognizing and holding the need--thoughtfully, sensitively. Sometimes this means trying to help meet the need--thoughtfully, sensitively. Thanks for asking such a good question.
Blessings, Anna

David Norling said...

Thank you all for entering the conversation with me.

I do feel drawn to a deepening understanding of intercessory prayer. Seeing it as a spiritual work that mends and holds together what is being torn apart is helpful. And there is something about all prayer becoming one act not several that I want to meditate on.

There is a kind of importunate petition in the act of holding a conflict in God's presence. Holding and bearing and suffering unfulfilled desire, but still desiring.

Part of what I've rejected is prayer lists. But I can embrace the idea of a prayer burden.

May you all experience the lightness of being yoked with Christ.

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