Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Praying in a Crisis

Angela Ashwin is a Lay Canon of Newcastle Cathedral and an Honorary Reader in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. Her website is HERE. Born in Birmingham, Angela graduated in Theology from Oxford University, and lectured in Old Testament Studies before spending seven years with her husband in Swaziland, Southern Africa, working with the church there. After their return to the UK, Angela combined writing and speaking with bringing up three children and being a vicar's wife in the North East of England. Some of her most popular books came out during this period, including the best-selling Book of a Thousand Prayers. She then worked for St Antony's Priory Ecumenical Spirituality Centre in Durham until 2004. 

This article was first published by the Guild of St Raphael in the Winter 1996 issue of their journal Chrism

Sometimes Prayer is Bleeding … 

Some time ago a friend told me that her small grandson had just been diagnosed as having a rare and probably fatal blood disease. In her shock and grief she was struggling to find some way of praying with so much pain. 'But I don't seem to be able to find God at all,' she said. 'I'm just so angry.' I suggested that she might dare to make her anger into an offering of prayer for Sam (not his real name), since this was the one thing she could give to God with all her heart at that moment. I also gave her a wooden 'holding cross' which she could literally hang on to when she could find no words. The act of holding the cross would itself be prayer. 

She wrote later, describing how she had sat down and wept, telling God exactly what she thought of him. She had expected to feel ashamed for exploding to God like that, but she was surprised to find that her only sensation was one of numb exhaustion. 

Next day she felt that her praying had moved on, and she realised that she was being asked to stay there, in the misery, with God. 'It was like allowing a stream of pain to flow through me,' she wrote. 'I didn't resist it, and I held on to that cross. It made all the difference that God had let me shout and scream at him yesterday, and hadn't rejected me. Now I'm beginning to glimpse a bit of God's love again, though it's hard work hanging on to this.' Her letter reminded me of some words of Melvyn Matthews, 'Sometimes prayer is bleeding, and its source the incompleteness of the human person'.

When we come face to face with a crisis, either our own or someone else's, it is tempting to hide behind pious platitudes or explanations in order to try and make things all right and let God off the hook. But this won't do. A nurse told me recently that she witnessed a scene where a baby had just died, and the priest said to the parents, 'It's the will of God.' The father punched the priest and knocked him over. (Who can blame him?) It is perhaps wiser to acknowledge that we are face to face with mystery in such circumstances, and simply to stay in the darkness with those who are going through hell. 

I am convinced that the prayers of my friend for her grandson Sam were powerful and real precisely because she had not pulled any punches with God, nor had she run away from the uncomfortable truth of the situation. Intercession is often a costly business, and it is right that this should be so. Our feelings of helplessness and frustration are themselves a vital part of our prayer, because we are sharing something of the misery of those who are feeling lost and afraid. 

So I believe that God's healing energy of love is more likely to be released into a situation when people have been given space freely to express their pain and anxiety. For those of us ministering to them, it feels like weakness when we do not produce pat answers to questions like, 'Why is this happening to us?' But by refusing to run away, and by communicating God's love through our attitudes and actions, we will probably help them more than if we start theologising at the bedside. 

There are, of course, moments when people do want to think through the implications of suffering and illness, perhaps some time after an acute crisis. Then it is appropriate to discuss the mystery of life on this planet, where to be human is itself a risk, where bacteria are necessary but can wreak havoc; where living cells can become cancers; where water can save life or drown us, and where volcanoes keep the earth sustainable. I was greatly helped by the insight of a man who had suffered from arthritis for years. He said that he was quite sure his illness was not the direct will of God, although God certainly wanted him to be alive. He saw it like this: just as parents allow their children to go out cycling, but do not directly 'will' an accident to happen, so God puts us in a world where simply to be alive is a dangerous business. But God never deliberately causes us to suffer in it. 

This is confirmed by the way Jesus' entire ministry was given to relieving human suffering. It is impossible to explain away pain and disease, but we can be clear that God never 'wills' anyone to be sick or damaged because it might somehow be good for them. 

But then we move back into total mystery, because there are cases where people grow and blossom through illness, and marvellous reconciliations take place in tragic situations between people who would otherwise never have come back together. This is itself healing, and we need to go on praying, holding in tension the darkness of human pain and an ultimate trust in the power of the divine love.

Some kinds of prayer, though well meant, can impose an intolerable pressure on sick people. Someone whom I shall call Susan had serious tumours on her spine. She has now made a full recovery, and was upheld and strengthened by the prayers of many over the long years of treatment. But there was a phase when she reached a very low ebb, at a time when members of a prayer-group from her local church were visiting her. In his prayers, the leader kept asking God to increase her (Susan's) faith, so that she would 'claim the healing that was already hers'. She wrote to me, 'What if I don't get well? I'll feel as if it's my own fault, on top of everything else. They don't give me a chance to say how hellish it all is.' 

If we can enable people facing illness and unhappiness to feel confident enough to express their vulnerability and fears, the channels are opened up for the Holy Spirit to work, far more than when we attempt teeth-gritting acts of 'faith' in our own strength. The very act of spitting out to God our dark and difficult emotions has a cleansing effect. There is a sense of release and relief because there is nothing left to hide. Sometimes old hurts and guilt will also come to the surface, so that there is now a chance to address these things, letting them become 'green', i.e. disposable and leading to new growth, rather than a toxic irritant poisoning the system. And the wonderful thing is that God does not say, 'Tut, tut, you really shouldn't talk to me like that!' Instead we find ourselves scooped up into the enfolding of presence of the divine love, as God says to us, 'Did you really think you could make me stop caring for you?' 

By being completely open with God, we identify and expose to him the very things which most need to be touched and healed. God always comes to us at our point of need, not at the places where we are being worthy or respectable. We are in good company when we shake a fist at God. 'How long, 0 Lord?' rages the writer of Psalm 89. 'Will you hide yourself for ever?' The prophet Jeremiah even accuses God of being a 'deceitful brook' that has dried up on him (Chapter 15.18). If these great friends of God can pray so bluntly, so can we. 

Obviously being angry with God is not a formula guaranteed to bring results, any more than any other way of praying would be that. We may be stunned and drained rather than angry, and feel more inclined to weep quietly than to wrestle with God. What we all need is the freedom to expose our deep and often conflicting emotions to God without fear. Then this becomes a step towards facing the situation and allowing God's healing power to flow into every aspect of it. 

 © Guild of St Raphael


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