"Praying in Pain"

In the midst of emotion turmoil, prayer often seems impossible. But in tracing her own journey through pain, Lee Frances White shows us how a need for healing can be your prayer. And that´s the beginning.
by Lee Frances White | Source:
I remember sitting in the back of a church during the years that my family was hit with an immense amount of turmoil. I was feeling a lot of emotional pain from my father´s downward spiral with alcoholism. Looking around at the seemingly serene individuals, I wondered how I would ever come to feel comfortable in prayer. As I knew it, prayer was a solitary activity that was best done alone or at Mass with a group of people that one did not know.

After only a few minutes, I left the church deciding that it was no place for someone who could barely be quiet for two minutes. I could not be quiet — I was searching for answers. I assumed that God would make Himself available when I could make myself available for quiet time with Him. I also assumed that I had somehow done something awful to cause all this misery, so I had to find out that answer before returning. However, my first priority was surviving. I lifted the burden of worry back onto my shoulders and left the church to go out and battle again. Prayer was impossible.

Years later I learned that I had been praying constantly. Though my mind was fully occupied with enduring the problems, my need for healing was my prayer.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

My grief, turmoil, and anxious searching for a cure to my father´s disease marked me as blessed.

Three Stages of Prayer

I believe there are three stages of prayer for someone in pain. Stage One occurs when the Spirit prays through us because we do not have the strength. Stage Two takes place when we seek help to go through the trial and are able to begin hearing the stirrings of our need for a relationship with God. Stage Three is when our cooperation with the support and prayers of others have enabled us to pray on our own.

Stage One was the hardest place for me — but not for God. God did not depend on my prayers but knew my intent. "Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8: 26). I was so tired and weary that the Spirit Himself pleaded for me.

Both the Spirit and I groaned and sighed for many years. What amazes me about this stage of prayer is how anonymous and present God has to be at the same time. Given that I was not able to think that God had a role other than to be solicited for miracles, God had to remain anonymous. However, this did not mean that God was not busy even though I was not aware. Gradually, the persons who were God´s CIA were surrounding me with help and comfort, offering me problem-solving skills, empathy, and the support to prepare for my parents’ eventual surrender to their disease. Frankly, the subject of prayer did not come up during those years, God knew that the first order of business was taking care of the day’s crisis.

I took my blessed self through as much help as I could muster. When the drama had subsided, in my exhaustion I slowly became aware of an inner need for God. I was glad God took time with this concept, because anything even remotely mysterious was frightening after years of dealing with the enigma of illness.

In Stage Two God has a delicate task, allowing the desire for a relationship with Him to come to the surface without the inevitable emotional baggage that would trample that desire forever. He cannot rush awareness, which can be frightening for His creatures, yet the sand in the oyster has to be grainy enough to warrant attention. In my case, it was guilt that was the greatest barrier to be overcome. What had I done to provoke all this misery?

The day I found hope for the answer to this question I was in a church again, but this time as a member of a support group. The woman speaking was a "plain Jane" sort of woman and yet she was saying the most profound things. She had found a relationship with God without guilt. She knew she was loved and accepted for herself, warts and all. She would make mistakes, but they would never get in the way of her relationship with God. She probably said more, but those words were more than enough for me to grapple with.

I did not believe God yet, but I believed this woman. The hope that her message awoke in me was all that God needed to encourage me to the next level of Stage Two — the agreement to search. My active searching started slowly: my ears would perk up when I heard about God. My prayer life was starting to shift from the Spirit groaning to my entertaining the thought that maybe the Spirit was safe enough to speak with. Maybe!

However, as I discerned that more and more people had found a God with Whom they could converse safely, I was led to the next level by a most powerful tool of the Spirit: curiosity. Again, I found myself in a church, but this time in a group called "Returning Catholics," with a priest who asked us to take a "no holds barred" approach to the faith: Tell the truth! What is keeping you away? God is not scared of your accusations, and neither is the Church. Talk!

I was not particularly ready for this approach, but at the conclusion I had the name of a spiritual director and a very new approach to spirituality. God was not afraid of my pain. Actually, God moved very quickly here but in a manner that kept me unaware of both the rapid developments and how present He really was. The priest looked like a very nice person, not God´s representative, and the retreat that was recommended for the group members seemed like a great opportunity to get away for three days.

However, what I had actually agreed to make was a Cursillo, which is an intense three day retreat where people love you intensely, completely, and without reservation while giving short presentations on basic elements of Christianity. During the retreat, when I became anxious I was comforted, when I was late they patiently waited for me, when I made no real sense I was told that I was wonderful. When the feelings of guilt and confusion prevented me from walking to the front of the room for the sacrament of reconciliation, I felt arms gently lift me up and walk me to the priest in whose arms I spent the entire confession crying. No words were needed. Absolution was given — praying in pain often needs no words.

So I entered Stage Three in a dramatic way, but it would take me years to be able to fully enter into any prayer of quiet. When I did, it was like meeting a safe Friend who knew far more about me than I realized.

A God Faithful to His Promises

Recently, I stumbled across a wonderful promise of God found in Ezekiel. It seemed to me to be the promise that was made to each of us when we were born. God awaits the day that we find it:

Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.

Today, praying in pain is for me the prayer of trust, knowing that the Spirit has promised to utter words for me when the fear and trembling become too much. It is knowing that praying in pain means getting help and making sure that I take advantage of the support team that God is placing in front of me. It means knowing that God is present in that team and is bringing me to the next place, wherever that is. And finally, it means that I can trust that my prayer life is fine the way it is and that it will move along as the Spirit prompts.

Reprinted with permission from Canticle. Mrs. White writes from New York City.

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