“I’ll Pray For You”—Powerful or Pointless?

The title of Anne Lamott’s newest book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is such a boldly brilliant summation that I laughed with delight the first time I heard it. So much truth in three words. 

And how modern of her to forget the fourth essential: forgive me.

I’m not a defender or even a particular advocate of prayer. If people want to pray, I get it. If they can’t abide even hearing other people pray, I get it. But as prayer has followed “Merry Christmas” in retreating from the public sphere, it’s hard not to lament how lame its replacements seem, especially when the occasion calls for comforting those who are bereaved, ill, or in trouble.

To my mind, the most wince-worthy consolation our new prayer-shy world offers up is “I’ll be sending you good energy.” Pleez. If you’re a Buddhist, go for it. Otherwise, just say sorry and move on.

My usual choice isn’t a lot better. “I’ll keep you in my thoughts,” is not only wonky and weak-kneed but it makes entirely too much of me. Each time I write it, I grimace at an image of my recipients, puff-eyed with grief or chill with fear, being so startled by that little sparkler of egotism that their only honest response would: “Big whup.”  

“I’ll pray for you” is a promise to entreat, to invoke, to call down the greatest powers in the universe for solace, aid and defense. That’s a stout offer. That’s a comforter stalwart enough to stand in the eternal gap.

I was reminded of that some years ago when my late mother-in-law was about to have an operation. She didn’t much believe in God, and she didn’t much like me. But at nearly 80, and faced with a surgery that terrified her, she put aside such petty considerations in favor of bettering her chances. “Will you pray for me?” she asked. That she had no better advocate than me broke my heart. But I prayed. Of course I did.

The blowback on prayer has a multitude of causes beyond unbelief. “I’ll pray for you” is so often used by the sanctimonious to insult those they consider less holy that it’s become a jokey put-down.  

An atheist friend who lives in Texas grits her teeth every time she hears someone tuck her problems away with the promise to do something she’d rather they didn’t. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk gave one of my favorite practices a killing clout when he noted how often praying for those we pity comforts us while distancing us from the need to do anything else.

During my times as a newspaper reporter, I once asked a former nun named Elizabeth Espersen, who directed Dallas’ Thanksgiving Square, to give me an example of the best prayer. Jesus had already directed Christians on how to pray, of course. Since, no one in Dallas, Texas, was going to challenge that. I was looking for second best.

Elizabeth’s answer changed my entire framework for prayer. She said, “The name of God.” 

“And then?” I asked.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s all that’s needed.” 

Elizabeth’s answer made no sense to me until she said, “When a mother hears her child call her name, she knows everything she needs to know. That one word is enough.” 

Her answer changed my understanding of prayer—not so much petition as cry from the heart. It had nothing to do with finding the right words. It didn’t beg or harry God. It didn’t focus on his obligation to answer.

It merely established an I-Thou relationship in which everything was already known. These days when people ask me to pray or when I feel that I ought to respond to misfortune with the big-guns-blazing impulse that only prayer seems to be, I eschew the new formulations in favor of the ancient: “I’ll pray for you.” Not particularly because I believe God is listening or will respond—my sense of that fluctuates and doesn’t seem of much moment even to me—but because sometimes the only decent response is a soul’s lament directed toward the greatest power we can imagine. And nothing else will do.