Wednesday, 8 October 2008

How hard are we allowed to pray for life now and an end to suffering?


At times we all face suffering. Some are given the cross of a life-threatening illness. How hard then are we allowed to pray for the a miracle, for an end to our own or another's pain, and for God to grant continued life?

It is a question that occasionally comes up, and yesterday someone asked me what I thought again, so I thought I'd try and put my response down in writing.

A couple of times now, I've heard people argue that we really ought to just accept whatever has been doled out to us. We must, after all, look to eternal life as our true destiny. Many of the great saints reached the point of longing for the day when they could join Our Lord in heaven, and that should be our aim too. And of course we know that our sufferings now, joined to those of Christ, should be offered up for our salvation and for the world's.

But I don't think that makes it wrong to pray hard and fervently for healing, or for healing for ourselves and others!

Our earthly life after all, is a wonderful gift to us from our Father. Praying for its continuance reflects our awareness of just how great a gift it is.

Heaven after all, will hopefully be there forever, provided we strive for perfection and grace. Our life now, on the other hand, has only a limited duration: we only get one go at it.

In 1 Maccabees which I'm reading at the moment as part of the Scripture Reading Plan I'm following, an initial group of Jews are martyred because they refuse to fight against the Greek regime on the Sabbath. While this is perhaps to be admired, the rest of the Maccabees quickly conclude that fighting - even on the sabbath - can certainly be justified in the circumstances! And of course the Church adopts exactly this position.

Of course there are times when God will ask us to give up our lives for a cause. And this life inevitably ends for us all at some stage. We need to pray to face those times well, accepting God's will with joy, looking forward to a happy death.

But we are allowed to pray for material things, including this life. There is also a nice story about St Benedict, in St Gregory's Life of the saint, found weeping bitterly because, he tells the monk who finds him, God has determined that the monastery he has carefully built up will be destroyed, and the saint was only just able to persuade God to spare the monks.

Perhaps my favourite story on the struggle in prayer for continued life, though, is of Jacob wrestling with an angel in Genesis 32. The story is that Jacob is returning to his brother Esau, and learns that Esau is coming along with 400 men, intent on killing him. Jacob sends ahead some gifts to try and soften him up - but his main recourse is to prayer, and ends up spending the night wrestling with a mysterious man (identified in Hosea as an angel) until he gives him a blessing. It works, and Jacob survives the encounter!

So of course we must accept God's will, and pray to know it and do it. Sometimes we do have to resign ourselves, embrace a path that we certainly wouldn't have chosen. Of course we should strive to reach that point of perfect resignation to God's will when what he desires for us is what we desire for ourselves.

We also have to remember though that sometimes God doesn't give us what we want until we have truly wrestled the dark night away in fervour, demanding what God doesn't want to give lightly.

Miracles are rare. But God does grant them.

So pray hard, for healing for the sick and suffering. Pull out those votive masses for the sick. And pray for the courage for each of us to carry our cross, whatever it might be.

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