I have a friend (I’ll call Margaret) who is always unhappy. Never smiles, jumps to bad conclusions about people often, and reacts negatively to any position she doesn’t immediately understand or agree with. I have only known Margaret for one year, but others tell me that she is very difficult to deal with in almost any situation. They avoid her. And yet to me, there is something loveable about her. Something soft and endearing in spite of her every attempt to hide and protect that vulnerability.
Margaret has told me that she attends daily Mass, and sometimes we talk about her church by way of routine rituals, but not in any spiritual depth. In one conversation I found out that some years ago, her adult child died of a terrible and long, drawn-out disease. Her deep and apparent sadness made sense to me then, though I have not known her long enough to know what she was like before this loss.
Thinking about Margaret the other day, I asked God to heal her wounded spirit, and at the same time, I was thinking, why hasn’t her spirit already been healed? She serves him well. She presumably asks for healing. So why is she left to spend her time in almost robotic motion, depleted of the divine joy God intends for us all? And then I thought (not for the first time, and probably not for the last) that maybe God isn’t really in charge. Maybe we are. And maybe that’s the way God wants it.
I have witnessed miracles. But none of these miracles happened in a vacuum. None of these miracles was rendered when the wounded person insisted on (or didn’t know how to stop) nursing his or her wounds. And none of them was rendered by the casual prayers of one, or even several people. In each and every case, the person being prayed for participated in and was receptive to the prayers. And in some cases, even when those conditions were met, nothing happened at all until many more were recruited to the effort.
Almost three years ago, my own son was healed that way—near instantaneously and from an extremely critical condition. Here is the sequence: after a week in ICU, the doctors prepared us for the worst. Of course we had been praying (begging!), but whatever we’d been doing was clearly not enough. That day, as word got out, friends and friends-of-friends, who were recruited via phone and internet, joined in prayer. My son was blessed with holy oil (google: St. Charbel) by our pastor who had driven 5 hours to get to this hospital. He was surrounded by family and by then, the prayer of hundreds, maybe thousands of devout and deeply compassionate people from New York, Boston, Lebanon, Armenia, South Africa, and more.
In the middle of this, I, who was rapidly losing energy and hope, felt a sudden and huge (very unexpected) energetic shift. All at once, I was inexplicably at peace and understood that something major had occurred. I was so at peace, in fact, that even though I did not fully understand the nature of what had taken place, I knew that all would be well. That even if I lost him (which I desperately did not want), I would be given the grace to handle it. I had never experienced anything like this in my life.
Within hours, (on his 19th birthday, no less) and just when they were expecting him to be moved to the final machine, he made grunting noises. He was too medicated to move or to have much cognitive awareness, so the doctors felt these were sounds of distress. But then he lifted his arms to signal, and so, in order to better determine what distress he was in, they removed his oxygen mask. At that moment, he sat upright (a physical miracle) and proceeded to sing “Happy Birthday” to himself (another, even bigger physical miracle considering the deadly pneumonia.) Two days later, he was released from the hospital. He returned to his dorm to finish out the school year without incident. He has not been sick since.
Aside from the obvious, the miracle for me was the fact that so many people had been (and could be) mobilized at a few hours’ notice (thank you, internet) to pray for him. That so many people had listened to their friends and their friends’ friends, and joined the fight. That so many people CARED that this young man survive. I was and still am in awe of this.
And so is God. I believe that if enough people care about the suffering of a single child (or anyone) to pray on their knees for his survival, then those people also have a say in the outcome. My son was healed by God, but he was also healed by the multitudes—by a critical mass of the divine spark carried in all of us. What I learned is that yes, God is indeed in charge. But, so are we. In large enough numbers we can invoke the Divine and our request will be honored. Why? Because enough of us cared about the outcome. Because enough of us were aware enough to ask. Because enough of us, as the earthly representatives of the heavens, saw a need and collectively and humbly addressed it.
So I am praying for Margaret. I care deeply that she will be able to experience joy. And I am praying for the healing of the people of the Gulf and for the Gulf itself. And for all matters around us that seem hopeless. I am praying. I hope all of us who believe in the power of prayer are doing that in earnest. Those of us who have been the recipients of great miracles must always remember to pay that ultimate honor forward.