“I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” So Paul writes in his Second Letter to his beloved Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3). At the very heart of Paul’s ministry to the young Christian churches was prayer. Paul prayed constantly for them. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you all,” he writes to the church of Philippi (Philippians 1:3-4). And to the church in Colossae: “We have not ceased praying for you” (Colossians 1:9). It is this kind of prayer – intercessory prayer – which underpins and empowers Paul’s entire ministry. And it is this prayer of intercession which has the power to transform and empower our own lives as well as the lives of those for whom we pray.
The first disciples learned about prayer from Jesus. They prayed with him and near him. Simon Peter finds Jesus before daybreak praying in a deserted place (Mark 1:35). Luke tells how Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray (Luke 5:16) and spent a whole night on a mountain in prayer to God before choosing the twelve disciples (Luke 6:12-13). He later prays on the mountain where he is transfigured; he rejoices in prayer because his message is being received; he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane; and prays during the hours on the cross. In John chapter 17, he prays that great prayer, which is a kind of summary of the inner meaning of all his prayer – giving glory to God the Father.
After Jesus died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, the disciples believed that although he was now exalted to the right hand of God in glory, he was still near to them and sharing very intimately in their earthly lives. Above all, they had no doubt that he continued to pray continually for them. And so we get the imagery in Paul’s letters, as well as in the Letter to the Hebrews, of Jesus as “high priest” whose intercession continues. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Jesus prayed for us while he was on earth, and he carries on praying for us still. But how does he pray for us? Interestingly, the verb we translate as “to make intercession for us,” in the original Greek is the verb entunchanein. This likely does not mean “to make petitions” nor to say any words at all. It means rather “to meet with” or “be with someone on behalf of another.” So when we talk of Jesus “making intercession” for us to the Father, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, we should not imagine Jesus talking to God about us. Rather, it is Jesus being intimately close to his Father and carrying us whom he loves on his heart and into the heart of God.
And that is what we are doing in intercessory prayer. Profound intercession is not the reciting of a detached, impassioned “shopping list” of the needs of the world, which it can sometimes feel like. Nor is it informing God of something God does not already know! But rather it is a profound, loving and costly holding up of others in their need, before God. If we long to pray for others as Jesus prays for us, God invites us first to become very close ourselves to the heart of God, in loving adoration, and then bring those whom we love and long to be healed, with us.
True intercession is being with God with the people we love on our heart. In The Christian Priest Today, Archbishop Michael Ramsey writes movingly about intercessory prayer, and he gives a great image for what we are doing when we pray for others, drawn from the Book of Leviticus. Aaron, the high priest, would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple wearing a breastplate on which were jewels representing the tribes of Israel, whose priest he was. He literally went into the holy presence, the heart of God, carrying the people, represented by the jewels, on his heart. At the heart of this image is love. It is our love that animates and gives power to our intercessory prayer. As Chapter 24 of our Rule puts it, “It is a wonderful thing that God makes us his fellow-workers and uses our love, acting in intercession, to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ.”
For me, this means that the words I use in intercessory prayer are much less important than the offering of my love for and deep desire for healing for another. God doesn’t really need to be told what he knows already, however eloquently! As our Rule says, “Our intercession does not call down the divine presence to come to the place where we have seen a need, for the Christ who fills all things is already in that place. It is his Spirit who calls us to join him there by offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to he used by God for healing and transformation.”
So in my own life of prayer I find that before I move into intercessory prayer I first like to spend time “centering” and becoming conscious of God’s loving presence. And it is into that relationship, into the loving heart of God, that I can then bring those whom I have on my heart. Sometimes I use words, at other times I hold a person up without words. I often use the story told in Mark’s Gospel (2:1-12) of the four friends who hold up the paralyzed man on a mat before Jesus to be healed. Without words, I just imagine holding the person I am praying for, before Jesus. Like those friends, it can be very hard work! They didn’t give up, and neither should we. Being faithful to intercessory prayer is hard work. Paul prayed for the churches on his heart “constantly night and day.” Perhaps we all need to pray with more passion. In the Gospels, the crowds, and individuals, longed and yearned, they begged, and beseeched to be healed. Intercessory prayer is a work of love, but it is work: carrying those we love and long to be healed on our hearts, and taking them mysteriously and wonderfully into the very heart of God.
And when we do this, something else rather wonderful can happen to us. This kind of prayer can change us; it can mould and shape our own hearts. In intercession we can be given the power to love those we find difficult. Father Benson, as our Rule puts it (Ch. 25), taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf, we carry the thought of them into the very being of Eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is Eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” That is a wonderful gift.
Intercessory prayer plays a large part in our daily life as Brothers. As our Rule says, “From the beginning the Church has entrusted to the monastic communities a special responsibility for intercession.” Several times a day in chapel we pray aloud for those who have asked us to pray for them, and we have an intercessions board near the chapel where we can read prayer requests. We also encourage visitors to light a candle in the church, which can be a powerful way of expressing our heartfelt prayers for others.
When I was a parish priest, I greatly valued the presence of an intercessions board and candles in the church, as well as the group of men and women who pledged to meet together regularly to pray for the parish and for me. It seems to me that their work of intercessory prayer lay at the beating heart of the life of the whole church. In my own times of intercessory prayer, I keep a notebook by my side and write down the names of all those whom I want to hold up before God. After Christmas I keep a basket by my prayer desk filled with Christmas cards which I have received. Over the following weeks, I pick up a card one by one and pray for the person who sent it.
Praying for another is one of the most beautiful things that we can do. It is a sign of our dignity as children of God, called to share in the intercessory work of Christ. It is a prayer which can change others and change ourselves. If we abide in Christ, he will accept the offering of our prayers and use them to bless and uphold the world.