The Hidden Drama of Prayer

The Hidden Drama of Prayer December 21, 2012

Yoking modern technology and oogedy-boogedy devotional practice, the website for the santuario in Nettuno, Italy, invites visitors to e-mail requests for intercession addressed to St. Maria Goretti. Every day, whoever’s in charge prints out the requests and stacks them in a corner of the urn where the saint’s wax-covered bones are on display. Whether the papers are then placed in the shredder and sold as third-class relics I can’t say, but I’d have no objection if they were — santuari don’t grow on trees.

Anyway, last year, a friend of mine, having listened to me complain for weeks and weeks about something that was really pretty trivial, went ahead and e-mailed a petition in my name. What followed was one of those monkey’s-paw scenarios where the apparent realization of my dreams ended in a hideous clustercoupling. It’s seemed to me ever since that the cosmic irony was too perfect and too subtle to have been mere coincidence.

See, in my pedestrian imagination, heaven is a big cube farm. The Lamb’s Supper is held in one of the break rooms, but most of the time — or whatever heaven has instead of time — the saints stay at their terminals, fielding an endless chain of prayer requests on something like Microsoft Outlook. Mostly, all they do is hit “Forward” and paste in the address field. Once in a while, though, something moves them to editorialize. Saints being saints, their comments tend to follow the lines of “Peter Nkrumah wd. make great priest. Suggest vocation ASAP!”

But my recent experience made me wonder whether God ever gets a message like this:

Heavenly Father: We all have jobs to do. When I am not handling puberty-related complaints from 51% of the world’s population, I am picking my way through a file of stories heart-wrenching enough to make Oprah go on a hunger strike. My case backlog dates to the fall of Vukovar, but I bear up because I am a professional. Therefore, I expect people to treat me like a professional. In my opinion, when people ask me to deal with a bunch of stronzate that is not my job, they are not treating me like a professional. Pace, M.G. O:-)

If artists can paint beards on God, I can have Him scourging mortals for ruffling the feathers of his team sups. What I’m doing here is projecting. When I get prayer requests, I always add my own margin notes. It’s my way, I suppose, of reminding God that I am doing more than going through the motions, and nothing says care like detail. Asking Him, “Take care of So-and-So’s mother’s edema or angina or whatever old-person thing is bothering her now” is like writing an unsourced term paper.

When it comes to medical issues — which, as my peers and I grow older, seem to be growing in frequency — I’m handicapped by an infacility with the jargon. If I manage to remember anything about an illness or injury, it’ll be the sensuously gruesome Garbage Pail Kids stuff. Last year, an old colleague of my father’s contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, which would have been bad under any circumstances. But this guy’s case developed from his reaction to pain meds he was taking to prepare him for chemotherapy. The whole situation from start to finish was just too rich in horror to leave unremarked. Addressing St. Damien of Molokai, I laid it on:

“St. Fr. Damien,” I said. “I know you’ve seen worse; so, probably, has Blessed Teresa of Kalkota. But not too many other people have. This guy’s not some aescetic whose calling drove him from the comforts of Western civilization into the wilderness. He’s a resident of Upper Montclair, New Jersey — a slightly humbler version of Cambridge, Mass, in case you’re unfamiliar — an anglophile who collects toby jugs and meerschaum pipes. Meeting Basil Rathbone gave him the greatest kick of his life. Unless he ever imagined himself as a syphillitic Restoration buck, sprouting lesions all over his body is just not the kind of thing he’ll have prepared himself for. Please, heal him swiftly.”

Those few lines demonstrate two hidden advantages of accepting prayer requests, or even of assigning yourself the task of praying for people like my dad’s old colleague, who have little or no interest in being prayed for. First, it provides an airtight excuse to meditate on relationships. It’s when I’m addressing God — that is, when my conscience is at its tenderest — that I am best able to see just how horribly flawed, how sadly limited, so many of my relationships have been.

Take the stricken colleague. When I was fourteen, I overheard him talking about his vacation to Florence. He pronounced the name of Michelangelo’s masterpiece dah-VEED. To a kid, nothing’s funnier than an adult who’s trying too hard; I snickered audibly, and he looked hurt. Ten years later, as a grad student, I heard my voice as I pronounced “Beauchamp” or “Cholmondeley” or some other British name that sounds nothing like you’d guess from the spelling. It was soaked through with self-adoration like an olive with gin, and I felt like kicking myself in the ass. All this came back to me as I sat down to pray, so I made sure to add: “I now see this man is no more pretentious than I.”

Second, prayer is a great excuse to perform. You’ve got a captive audience; you might as well make the most of it. All preachers who rant in the old-timey meeting-house style know this. So do all Promise Keepers who sob and hug. For all I know, Catholics know it, too — maybe, in bowing their heads just so when reciting the Rosary, they’re showing a flair for the dramatic no less impressive for being understated. For me, the act of addressing a Being Who knows what I want to say better than I do, Who will howl over every layer of self-justifying bullshit, and Who will keep His own counsel in any case, is too fraught with irony to admit of anything but a comic solliloquy.

Last week, when my mother told me she was planning to marry Bob, her companion of 28-and-a-half years, I expressed my good wishes in these terms:

“God: As You already know, my Mom and Bob are getting married. As You also know, they’ve been pretty phobic about the whole thing — they’re scared the piece of paper will turn them into Homer and Marge or Ralph and Alice or even Tony and Carmela. By now, You’ll have noticed I’m pretty scared myself. It’s not that Bob’s big enough to beat or molest me or do any of those other things stepfathers are supposed to do, even if his tastes ran in those directions, which, as You know, they most emphatically don’t. But this marks the end of a twilight Oedipal struggle that’s run for 36 years. I feel like a South Vietnamese refugee — drifting on an emotional sampan toward a moral refugee camp. Help us all, I beg You, to calm the fuck down.”

It was cleansing, it was healing. It was fun — fun for me, and, I like to think, fun for God. You’ll note I kept my request modest: that gives Him less room to work His mischief.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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