One of the most wonderful experiences of my life was some years ago when living in England I had a sabbatical, and I spent a few months living in Egypt. Most of the time I lived in Cairo, and the part of Cairo I loved most of all, was not the famous parts with the pyramids and the sphinx, or even the medieval Islamic City of Cairo, but Old Cairo, Al-Qahira, south of the modern city, next to the Nile. The small walled city is Christian, Coptic Christian, and it is full of ancient churches like St. Barbara’s, St. John the Baptist, St. George, St. Mark.
It’s a quiet world set apart from the frenetic world of modern Cairo. Here narrow, windy lanes lead from one ancient church to another. And it was here one day that I walked alone into the Church of St. John the Baptist and I saw a man kneeling in front of the altar with two others, and they had their hands on his shoulders, and there were other people standing around and praying.
After a while, the man and his friends got up, and they wandered off to another altar, and the same thing happened again, the kneeling and the praying, and they held his shoulders again. I asked one of the friends what was happening? The man kneeling at the altar was dying. The doctors could do no more for him, and so his family, and there were about 20 of them, had brought him to Old Cairo and they were making a pilgrimage to all the churches and praying for the sick man at all the Holy Shrines. I asked if I could come too, and they were delighted. They shook my hand and then they hugged me and I felt part of the family, and we set off to the next church, where a Coptic priest was waiting for us. He looked up to Heaven and he sang, I remember a beautiful prayer, and he took oil and anointed the sick man.
It was an extraordinary morning as we moved from church to church and different family members took it in turn to hold and support their sick family member. I was struck by the gentle kindness that they showed to him, and I was struck by their fervent faith and their love, both for this man and for God. At the end of the pilgrimage, I took my leave and I was invited to lay my hands on the sick man and to bless him. I don’t know what happened to him, I don’t know whether he died or not, but I’ll always remember the radiant look in his eyes, a look of profound joy. I had witnessed an event of profound spiritual healing.
In our Preaching Series on Prayer, we are considering Healing Prayer and Intercessory Prayer. That experience I had in Old Cairo helped me recognize a first deep truth I believe, about the meaning of healing, and that is that healing is not the same as recovery. Often when I was a parish priest, I witnessed a sick person’s life transformed by the loving prayers and support of family and friends, an experience of deep healing for them. But they didn’t always ‘recover’ their physical health.
Our monastic Rule says that “We offer thanks with joy whenever prayer results in the transformation for which we hoped, but we must often suffer the pain of seeing no visible results in our prayer. But we should let no frustration wear down the trust that sustains our waiting on God.”
I have also been very moved by the accounts of people who have been to such pilgrim places of healing, as Lourdes. Stories of wonderful physical healing, but also almost more movingly, those stories where the person was not specifically cured of their physical illness, but received a profound life-changing grace of deep inner healing.
One of the most beautiful accounts of healing in the Gospel is found in our story today, from Mark. It is a story full of beauty and tenderness. So many things which stand out in this gospel account, I saw mirrored in that morning in old Cairo.
Jesus and His disciples are in the region of the Decapolis on their way back to Galilee, and they meet a crowd of people who bring to Him a deaf man who also had an impediment in his speech and they beg Him, they beg Him to lay His hand on him.
We don’t know who the crowd were. Maybe it was the man’s extended family and friends. But they longed for their friend to be healed. Like that family in Cairo, they supported him and held him, as they brought him to Jesus.
I don’t know, but I imagine that being deaf in a crowd of people, even if they love you, and as they get more and more excited, could be a frightening experience. And Jesus in His gentle kindness and consideration takes the man aside into a private place, away from the excited crowd where he can feel safe. And then He put His fingers in his ears and He spat and touched his tongue.
Saliva was held to have healing properties, and so the man would have known what Jesus’ intentions were. But this was no mere miracle work. It’s what Jesus did next which was distinctive and crucial. He looked up to heaven and said, “Be opened”. He looked up to heaven to God, just as He did, you will remember in John’s Gospel, before the raising of Lazarus. There he looked upwards and cried, “Lazarus come out!”
The source of Jesus’ power was not magic, nor secret knowledge, but total trust in His Father. I have come to do the will of My Father. And immediately we read, His eyes were opened, His tongue released and He spoke plainly.’
I saw this beautiful story from Mark’s Gospel enacted in those churches in Old Cairo. The family and friends who brought their loved one to Jesus, longing for Jesus to heal him. The faith and trust that Jesus will indeed heal them, and that extraordinary moment when that Coptic priest before he sang looked up to the source of His power and His faith.
The man in the story regains his hearing, and my friend in Cairo looked at me with eyes radiant with trust and faith.
I think these stories can teach us a lot about what we are doing when we pray for healing, especially for those who are sick. St. James in his letter urges us to pray for one another so that you may be healed.
It should be part of every Christian’s prayer, this practice of intercessory prayer for others. Intercessory prayer plays an important part in our life here as brothers, in this community. In our rule we read, “the church has from the beginning entrusted to the monastic communities the special responsibility for intercession.” In our community, we pray several times a day for those who are sick, and those who have asked us to pray for them. We have an intercessions board where we are happy to place the many prayer requests which are sent to us.
I don’t expect you have an intercessors board in your home, but I think it’s a great idea to keep a notebook with the names of those written in it whom you want to hold before God in prayer. And in your times of prayer, the book can help you to bring to mind the names of people. People I know also stick photographs in the book as well, and use that as a place from which to begin their prayers of intercession.
A bishop I know, at Christmas receives hundreds of Christmas cards from clergy and the diocese, and he says that during the weeks and months after Christmas, in his prayers, he has the Christmas cards in a basket and he takes them one at a time and uses that as a way to pray for all the clergy and his diocese. I think that is a great idea for intercessory prayer. But what exactly are we doing when we pray for someone in need, for someone who is sick? St. James urges us, pray for one another, so that you maybe healed. It’s part of our life as Christians to pray for each other. So what are we doing when we pray for each other, and for those in need?
There’s a wonderful passage in Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s book, ‘The Christian Priest Today,’ which has always helped me in my understanding of what intercessory prayer is all about. He points out that the New Testament Greek word, ‘entunchanein’, which means ‘to make intercession,’ literally translated does not mean, making petitions, or saying any words at all.’Entunchanein’, to make intercession, literally means ‘to be with someone on behalf of another.’
So when we talk of Jesus making intercession for us to the Father, it’s not Jesus ‘talking’ to God about us or for us, it is Jesus being intimately close to His Father and carrying us whom He loves on His heart, and into the very heart of God. So real profound intercession is not a detached un-impassioned shopping list of the needs of the world which it can sometimes feel like, but a profoundly loving and closely holding up of others before God. It is becoming close ourselves to the heart of God in our prayers of loving adoration, and then bringing those we love and long to be healed with us. True intercession, true ‘entunchanein’ is being with God with those we care for on our hearts.
You may have noticed and wondered why we read the Old Testament lesson we did today? It’s actually a beautiful passage, very great detail about the jewels and the settings of the breastplate which Aaron the Great High Priest wore when he went into the Holy of Holies’ It is because each of those jewels on his breastplate represented the tribes of Israel whose priest he was. Michael Ramsey says that, what Aaron was doing, was going near to God into the very holiest of holies, into the very heart of God carrying the people on his breast or on his heart. And that is what we are doing when we come into the presence of God; holding those for whom we care, holding those who have asked us to pray for them, holding them on our hearts, and taking them into the heart of God. That is New Testament ’entunchanein’, ‘making intercession for others’.
So praying for the sick is an offering born of love. As our rule puts it,” It is a wonderful thing that God makes us His fellow workers and uses our love acting as intercession to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ.” The family and the friends in the story of the deaf man, and the family and the friends of the sick man in Cairo, both brought their loved ones to Jesus. And we are encouraged to do the same.
In my own prayers, I will usually spend the first part of my prayers becoming centered and becoming very conscious of God’s loving presence with me. So as it were, I first will go into the ‘Holy of Holies’. I spent time going into the heart of God and becoming aware of God’s presence and love for me. And it is only then that I will turn to intercessory prayer, so that I can bring those I want to pray for, into that relationship.
So, those intercessions then are not disembodied, they are not a list, but they as if were emerge from that loving relationship, which I have with God. To hold them then on my heart before the loving heart of God, is how I see intercession. Sometimes I do that without any words at all. But I will often imagine this person who may be sick, I often imagine them in my prayers, lying on a bed, and I often imagine holding them up on that bed just as those four friends in that other story held up their friend before Jesus and asked Him to heal him.
Often it can be very helpful in prayer to use our imaginations and to actually spend time holding a person before God or before Jesus, and asking for Jesus’ healing touch for that person. I often imagine Jesus looking at the sick person with deep kindness, not just one more sick person, but looking at them, knowing them, loving them as someone unique. I imagine Jesus laying His healing hands upon them, and filling them with new hope and peace.
On this St. Luke’s Day, I think the gospel challenges each of us to become more fully Christ’s fellow workers in His work of healing and in reconciliation.
So what does your intercessory prayer look like?
How do you pray for others? When do you pray for them? Do you sometimes feel it’s just like reading out a list of names, and feel, ‘I wonder, what I am doing here?’ The New Testament understanding of intercession I think, challenges us to have more passion in our intercessory prayers. The crowds longed and they yearned for Jesus to heal the deaf man. They came looking for Jesus, they begged Him, they beseeched Him, they spoke to Jesus from a place of deep love for the person who is unwell, and they didn’t give up.
So, how passionate are you about your prayers for healing? Do you long for healing? Do you expect healing? In Cairo they carried their friend all morning, hour after hour, from one church to the other. It was hard work. And intercessory prayer is hard work, but it is a work of love. It is carrying those we love and long to be healed on our hearts, and taking them mysteriously and wonderfully into the very heart of God. Amen!
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