|A Kind of Prayer
"Your very desire to live and not die
was itself a kind of prayer."
Professor Kimberley Patton,
Harvard Divinity School,
Thank you for sharing the section of the memoir you are writing about your extraordinary experience ... I think the urgency you feel to record what happened to you is part of a calling. Your story has already transformed you and will continue to do so. But it is also something that could transform others. I admire you tremendously for undertaking the task of writing. (The Quran, the holy book of Islam, was virtually dictated by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammed; the angel commanded him, "Write!" In a way, your angel is doing the same, and you are doing just the right thing by listening.)
You asked me if I could contribute something about prayer. I am hesitant to do so because I know so little about it and am such an erratic practitioner of prayer, even though Saint Paul enjoins us to "pray without ceasing." I am not a theologian, but a historian of religion. But I am a fellow human being, and I have surely known despair in my life. And I have prayed, in fear or desperation, with all my heart, "foxhole prayers" ... Now I am learning to pray with trust and hope. "Thy will be done."
The only thing I do know and feel is that prayer works, and not just in the sense of helping the one who prays. It also helps the one who is prayed for. And it strengthens God's loving kindness, like pumping blood through a heart. The Muslims have a word for it: barakah, meaning "blessing," "grace," or "holiness." Prayer circulates barakah through the arteries of the universe...
In reading the section you gave me to look at, I am struck by its beauty, honesty, and simplicity. I feel that in the tremendous suffering you endured, and in some ways, the even worse suffering that your family and friends endured as they waited to see if God would let you live or die, you have been given a gift of unique power. Anyone who was touched by your ordeal, whether very close to you or at the outer circles in turn must value their own lives--the brief time we have on this earth--with much greater intensity, and a far greater imperative simply to praise the One who brought us here. The thankfulness with which you used to fall asleep each night must for you personally be increased a thousandfold. But knowledge of your story has had the same effect on those who know it ... from the Latin translation of the Gospel of John, Lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome (or encompassed, or understood) it."
You write about the awe you felt when you learned of how many people, even people who barely know you or did not know you at all, had been praying for you. That means they were asking God, or however they understood God, to let you live. To spare your life. And the impression one gets from reading your words is that, in addition to whatever deepest resources you brought to bear in your struggle to live even while comatose, and in addition to whatever medical miracles the doctors were able to work, God heard those prayers and was moved by them. They helped. They worked.
I personally do not believe that, had your life not been spared, we should conclude that "prayer does not work." Many have prayed and not been delivered from their distress. God's mercy is different than that. But prayer does connect us ... to a power greater than ourselves, and lays before that power our deepest fears and desires. Prayer is a kind of sacrifice or offering: We bring our very hearts to the Creator and lay them before Him. We ask Him to hear us. Linear time does not matter to God, and so He has all eternity to hear the prayers of a pilot as his burning plane plunges into the sea. Prayer makes us fully human--in other words, helps us to remember who we really are: children of the Lord Most High, sons and daughters of the King, individually cherished and beloved.
In your case, what happened (who knows what happened?) is that these concentric circles of those who loved or cared about you, or were simply moved by your plight, made their voices heard to God and opened their hearts to Him, thus joining their hearts to His mighty heart. And he heard those prayers with an infinite and tender love, the "Love that moves the sun and all the other stars," as Dante wrote. The endless flow of those prayers for you and His outpouring of love in response created, I believe, a luminous tide that lifted you up off the rocks that held you in such danger. And you sailed free, and sailed home.
I want to remind you that your very desire to live and not die was itself a kind of prayer. God says to Deuteronomy, "This day I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life." And you did. And that is a prayer in itself, a prayer of praise ...