It is said that if the Jews are the people of the Book, then Anglicans are the people of the Prayer Book. I am an Episcopalian, a member of the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and our service and daily office are outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. Anything you want to pray about, there's a prayer in the BCP, and if somehow the BCP is at a loss, there's the Book of Occasional Services. And if the BOS fails? There are any number of supplements at your disposal. You can have full, vibrant prayer life without ever once using words of your own.
That's not always a bad thing. Sometimes we need to rely on the words of generations of our ancestors. Sometimes we can pray in anemnesis, praying with all those who prayed those same words before you could speak. There is comfort in ritual, and anyone who denies it should really give it another try.
Sometimes, though, words aren't enough.
I struggle with prayer, intercessory prayer in particular. I believe in a Creator God. I believe in Jesus Christ who died for teaching the truth about the good news of God. And I most definitely believe in the Holy Spirit, who moves among and within us, speaking endless, timeless truth in our ears, guiding our hands and voices if only we will listen. But what does intercessory prayer mean? Does God answer the good prayers? Are there magic words that make God change the track of the universe?
Of course there aren't.
So what is personal prayer for? What good does it do? I certainly don't know the whole story, but I know this: when we pray for our friends, for our neighbors, for members of our human family we've never met we are transformed. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai his face glowed with the reflected glory of God. The Israelites made Moses cover his face because being that close to God terrified them. Most of us don't get to see the face of God on this side of the grave, but when we pray for others, we are able to connect with God, and while our faces don't actually glow, we too can be transformed.
In September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Flickr user AnomalousNYC took to the streets and photographed thousands of people, each holding a card that said simply: "I AM THINKING OF YOU." When I first saw the pictures I noticed that there were no ugly people in them. I wondered if the artist had gone out of his way to choose pretty people. But the more I looked at the pictures, the more I saw the small imperfections, the wrinkles and freckles, the extra flesh and crooked noses. These were normal people, but all I saw was their beauty.
It took me a while to figure out why these people were all beautiful despite their imperfections. The answer, when it came to me, was simple and yet I was overwhelmed by it. They were transformed by love. They held that card, and they thought about the people affected by Katrina, and they loved them. They loved people they had never met, had never seen. That love radiated through them and shone out of them. They might not have thought of what they were doing as prayer, but I have no doubt that they were praying.
When I pray for people I don't have words. I can only hold them in my head and my heart and love them. I don't think it cures cancer, or eases pain. I don't think it gets people jobs or makes them hit home runs. I don't know what God does with our prayers, but I do know this: when we take the time to love others, we are changed, our faces and our souls are transformed, and we can reflect the love of God outwards to our families and friends and to people we have never met, have never even seen.