The Chaos of Control

Hear me, coastlands,

listen, distant peoples.

Before birth the LORD called me,

from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.

He made my mouth like a sharp-edged sword,

concealed me, shielded by his hand.

He made me a sharpened arrow,

in his quiver he hid me.

He said to me, You are my servant,

in you, Israel, I show my glory.

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,

for nothing and for naught spent my strength,

Yet my right is with the LORD,

my recompense is with my God.

Isaiah 49:1-4

I have never identified as a charismatic. I use the term “charismatic” here specifically in the context of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has been acknowledged and approved of by our most recent popes. I’ve seen and experienced enough at this point to say that there are indeed supernatural Gifts of the Spirit, listed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Whether as many people have them as claim to and how important they are, I’m not able to say. And despite the fact that I might not have any of these gifts, I have been asked by the leaders of my young adult ministry to participate in what are called “prayer teams” or “pray-overs,” an intense vocalized group prayer for a specific person’s intentions, usually done, as the name indicates, with one’s hands placed over or on the person being prayed for.

I’ve found that the least helpful thing to do is to attempt to predict what will happen or what the person will need or want to hear. Going on a fuzzy “feeling” or “sense” of what one should say can also be misleading, at least in my experience. This form of prayer is most simply a presenting of a person to his heavenly Father. One tries, in a sense, to stay out of the way, to allow the person to experience God’s love and to ask that he experience it more deeply than ever before.

And does it “work”? Again, I can’t say. I know it leaves many people feeling consoled, because they hear other Christians acknowledging their son- or daughter-ship out loud, and that’s no small thing. But even trying to evaluate prayer’s efficacy in this way seems like an imposition of control. At the end of the night on Sunday, I didn’t really know if I’d helped anyone. God didn’t send me an image or a word. I didn’t feel warm or lightheaded; if anything I was simply in pain for most of it, the dark stone floor wearing me down as I knelt and stood and knelt. On slips of paper we’d written our New Year’s resolutions, torn them up, and put them in a basket in front of the Blessed Sacrament, as a reminder that we relied completely on God to fulfill our goals. I’d written on mine, “Look for opportunities to be generous”–a pious, sickly sweet resolution I thought I ought to write. As I prayed over my peers I thought, what is more generous than trust? To go out into the dark, completely unknowing? How often my prayers feel like this! Trust is my unforced response to not understanding how my prayers will work, to trying to figure out what will be most pleasing to God.

“I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you,” wrote Thomas Merton. And that is because this desire, like prayer, comes from God himself, the source of every good gift.


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