Keep some room in you heart for the unimaginable. – Mary Oliver
About a year ago, I attended an event at the church where I work, and though I don’t remember the speaker’s talk topic or the theme of the event, one woman’s comment during the question and answer section still remains sharp in my memory. The woman spoke about her prayer life, and how she has a list of friends and relatives for whom she prays by name every single day. More than the comment itself, this incident stands out to me because of my internal reaction to it. I found myself wanting — needing! — to get my new baby on her prayer list.
Even in the moment, my reaction surprised me. Though I’ve seen value in prayer for the better part of my life, it’s mainly because I think that prayer interiorly refines the person praying. In the words of William McGill, “The value of consistent prayer is not that [God] will hear us, but that we will hear [God].” For an example, when I pray for my enemies, as my faith tradition tells me I should, I don’t assume that I’m opening channels for celestial goodness to befall them, but rather, I’m (hopefully) softening my heart so that I am more capable of treating the person with respect and kindness.
It’s not that I think that God/the universe/the divine current isn’t capable of performing miracles; it’s more that I don’t think that’s the way God/the universe/the divine current chooses to operate.
With this mindset, I’ve never been one to put much weight on the value of praying for others (unless something about my attitude towards them needs work!) or having others pray for me. Elaine Pagels’ comparison of a religious person saying “I’m praying for you” to a more secular person saying “let’s do lunch” resonated with me; it’s a gesture of warmth and a suggestion of care, a way of showing someone that you think of them and want the best for them, but not necessarily a mechanism for miracle.
That’s why I was surprised by my urge to approach the woman and ask her to keep my daughter in her prayers. In fact, I still can’t fully explain my desire, as I still hold the same philosophy of prayer.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but I guess you could say I was hedging my bets. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that prayer changes anything more than the person praying’s internal workings… but then again, what do I know? Who am I to say how the universe functions? Should I be wrong (and I certainly have been wrong many, many times before), I want the persistence and commitment of that woman working in my favor.
Or maybe, in the words of Mary Oliver, I am keeping some room in my heart for the unimaginable. It’s worth saying again: what do I know? Who am I to say how the universe functions? Just because I can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it can’t be so.
Reflect: What’s unimaginable to you? Is there a possibility that, though you can’t imagine it, it could still happen?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.