By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Revisiting "Prayer"

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The term is so commonly used that it has become trite for many--"I will pray about it" or "I will pray for you." Often, when I hear that phrase, I wonder if it is just another way of saying "best wishes" or "good luck." (Don't get me wrong--wishing someone the best is also a good thing.)

Are we really saying or doing more than wishing someone good luck when we say that we will pray for them or keep them in our prayers? It is a question I ask myself and that, maybe, you also have asked yourself.

Here is Benedict XVI on prayer:

"In prayer, ... human beings experience themselves as creatures in need of help, incapable of attaining the fulfillment of their existence or their hopes alone. ... In the experience of prayer we orient our very souls to that Mystery from which we look for the fulfillment of our deepest desires and help to overcome the poverty of our lives. In looking to the Other, in directing ourselves 'beyond', is found the essence of prayer, the experience of a reality that goes beyond the apparent and the contingent".

From Vatican Information Service, May 11, 2011.

To pray for myself, I must recognize myself as helpless. That is a big step for many in our modern American culture. Once that very big step is taken, we can pray for our own needs, whether they are ordinary or more urgent in character. 

What then does it mean to pray for someone else's situation? The first step would seem to be to identify oneself first with that person, to become empathetic, and then from that posture pray for them as if you were that very person in that other person's helpless situation. 

Thus, praying for another requires as a first step an act of love and solidarity with the other. Then our prayer becomes as sincere as if we were praying for our own ordinary or urgent situations (and, by the way, becomes a means of loving one's neighbor). We recognize the other as helpless and step in after identifying with that helplessness of the other, a helplessness that has been brought to our attention.

Sometimes, I think it would be better to try to substitute once in a while another word for "prayer" in our conversations as a way of escaping the trap of overfamiliarity with a term, an overfamiliarity that can rob a term of any acute, felt meaning, so that a promise to "pray" can become more than a mere wish for good luck.

In Latin, the word for praying is "orare," which also carries these English meanings according to the popular Whitaker's Words online dictionary:


oro, orare, oravi, oratus 
beg, ask for, pray; beseech, plead, entreat, worship, adore.


Would it make a difference to ourselves and others to say "I am pleading for you" or "I will plead for you" or "I will keep you in my pleadings to God"?


Think of an attorney or advocate pleading for a client. After all, such pleading is exactly what intercession is; but "pleading" has a more powerful ring, at least to my ears, than saying "I will intercede for you."