A few years ago, my oldest brother Tom died of brain cancer. Tom had been a Navy pilot for thirty years and was always in great physical and mental shape. So when he began to show signs of physical weakness and mental confusion, everyone became concerned. He was eventually diagnosed with glioblastoma, a virulent form of brain cancer. He had surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible and then underwent some postoperative treatment. He was in the clear for a few months, but the tumor reappeared and he died about a year after the initial diagnosis.
During the time in which Tom was in the clear, one of my sisters asked me a question about prayer. She told me that she had been praying very hard for a couple of her friends but that it did not appear that her prayers were being answered. So she was not sure how to pray for Tom. She wondered if, given the diagnosis, we should refrain from praying for healing for Tom. Instead, perhaps we should pray just to be able to accept the outcome. She then asked me, “How should we be praying?”
I thought of my sister’s question as I reflected on the Scripture readings for this Sunday, especially the account of Abraham’s prayer from the Book of Genesis and Jesus’ catechesis on prayer recounted by Luke. The story from Genesis is perhaps the classic Old Testament narrative about the power of intercessory prayer. Abraham keeps pestering God on behalf of the innocent people of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that are about to be destroyed for their grave sinfulness. He is the master negotiator, convincing God to decrease the number of innocent people needed to save the wicked cities from fifty to forty-five . . . all the way down to ten. But what is actually happening here is that Abraham is acknowledging and affirming God’s justice: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty . . . Should not the judge of the world act with justice?” Abraham is appealing to God’s character as unfailingly just.
The Gospel reading features Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on prayer. After teaching his disciples the prayer that we call the “Lord’s Prayer” (in a somewhat simpler version than in Matthew), Jesus exhorts them to be persistent in asking for what they need. They should be like Abraham, pestering God with the trust that God is truly responsive to our needs. By using the example of the man who knocks on the door of his friend’s house at midnight, asking for bread, Jesus invokes the “how much more” principle. If a human friend will finally respond to persistent requests, how much more will God, who is Mercy itself, respond to the prayers of a person in need. And what is promised in response is the gift of the Holy Spirit — God’s immanent, compassionate, healing presence with us and within us.
The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner addresses the prayer of petition in his book titled On Prayer. This book is based on a parish retreat given at Saint Michael’s Church in Munich in Lent of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II. Rahner observes that some Christians think that we should never pray for “mundane” things like healing from sickness, a good job, safe travel, and so forth. Rather, we should pray only for “spiritual’ goods like patience, trust, courage, perseverance, etc. Rahner, however, rejects that notion. In so doing, he points his readers to Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, as that prayer is narrated in the Gospels. He notes that in his prayer Jesus “does not ask for something sublime or heavenly, but for that mortal life to which we all cling so tenaciously.” In the garden, Jesus asked that his life be spared, though he ultimately entrusted his future to his Father. Rahner proceeds to observe, “A truly Christian prayer of petition is a prayer which is essentially human.”
After thinking about my sister’s question, I concluded that we should pray for healing for our brother, Tom. That was the human thing to do — to want your brother to be healed from cancer. And, as Rahner suggests, a truly Christian prayer of petition is a prayer which is essentially human. We could offer that prayer with the confidence that it would be heard. It might not result in a cure (and it did not), but as the Gospel promises us, it would result in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We could trust that God would respond with the gift of the Spirit — God’s dynamic, healing, intimate presence accompanying Tom and the rest of us through a difficult time. This is the same Creator Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who offers hope and new life to all those who are caught in the grip of death.
May we be persistent in our prayer.