I'm a big fan of social media. It has it's drawbacks, to be sure, but overall it has incredible power for doing good, most of its potential still untapped. I love that social media has become a common place where people can easily ask for prayers and share their needs. In fact, I think that's one of its best purposes and perhaps the primary reason that God allowed us to access this reality - to build up the kingdom of God! It's an amazing tool for bringing Him glory and fostering communion when used well. Being able to know what is breaking someone's heart or where they need - be it an old college friend or a stranger's sick baby or the ministry your aunt is doing - and then bring that before God is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
But I'm beginning to wonder if there's a chance that we've allowed this ease to cheapen our prayers. I think maybe the "Prayers coming!" "So many prayers!" "Sending good vibes!" that are so easily and quickly typed out might not truly be backed up with knees on the floor (or at the very least, heart toward heaven) prayer. Sometimes I wonder if all the forgotten prayers that we promised maybe even add up to more than the ones we actually end up praying. I hope not but I have to wonder if it may be the case as the needs and prayers come faster and faster and the amount of requests fills our feeds and walls and minds and hearts.
How do I know this? Because I'm tempted to do it myself. It feels good to respond and promise to pray for someone. It feels good to feel like we're helping. We can pat ourselves on the back for caring so much and feeling big feels. Except feelings don't do much and if we don't actually back it up, perhaps there's a chance that our empty promises and words could even hurt the body of Christ and undermine our relationship with Him. Of course everyone has moments of sincere forgetfulness and we aren't held liable for a genuine mistake, but it's so very important that as human beings our words truly mean something and we don't fall into careless promises and heaped up empty phrases. In fact, I've come to believe it's very very dangerous to tell someone we are going to pray for them and then fall through, most especially if we know deep down that we really aren't going to do it. It's an offense against their dignity, an offense against truth, and a violation of their trust. Perhaps, especially if we don't really plan on praying, we could even consider it antithetical to the second commandment by using the name or the idea of a relationship God in vain.
Not that this is a new problem, necessarily. I mean, people have asked for prayers long before the advent of social media. Before there was Facebook or Twitter, of course, people would ask each other to pray for them and there was always the risk of forgetting or paying lip service to prayer. But for the most part, those requests were much more personal and directed. It was through a face to face (or at least, phone to phone) encounter and much more likely to be remembered and imprinted on our hearts. The information is coming at us now so much faster and in much greater quantity, with more prayers and needs than ever right along with it, that it's almost impossible to keep up. It becomes far easier to type out a quick "Praying for you!" and scroll to the next post without really backing that up and placing those needs before God in actual prayer. We quickly forget that promise and the piece of someone's heart with which we have been entrusted as the next glittery news story or funny video takes our attention.
We can also make the growing modern mistake of confusing well wishes for true prayer. A "vibe" is not a prayer. "Sending good thoughts" is not a prayer. It's lovely and nice! Yes! Of course! I mean, who doesn't want someone to want the best for them in their need? But unless you believe in mental telepathy, your mere thoughts aren't going to do a whole lot to heal grandma. Vibes and good thoughts or energies or whatever else they may be called, if they are not a part of a real relationship with God and directed in deference to Him and His power, are not the same as prayers. St. Therese of Lisieux famously said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” Prayer does not have to be complicated or long but it must be addressed to Someone else and not an emotion within ourselves. In order for it to be true prayer, it has to actually involve God and be made with recognition to the fact that He is real and He is the One with the power to change things. For what it's worth, I do actually believe that people can have a vibe and an 'energy' to them. I know this well as a doula and have seen a person's presence in the room have great effect on a woman in labor! And in fact, I do believe that a person feeling loved and positive can have an effect on their circumstances so there may be some merit to the idea that "vibes" can benefit a situation in a very roundabout way. But we'd be very wrong to equate that with true prayer.
Perhaps you think I'm thinking too much about it or being too rigid or scrupulous or whatever. Possibly. But I think this is an issue where we can see it rightly when we ask what we ourselves want when we ask for prayer and what we believe prayer truly is. It's profoundly more beautiful and touching and humbling to me when I know that someone has truly taken my intention to real prayer before God versus just letting me know that they hope it turns out all right. (Again, nice to do but it pales in comparison to real prayer.) So I've been challenging myself lately. I want my word to mean something. When someone asks for my prayers I want them to know, really know, that I will. And vice versa. I don't want to ask for prayers and just be placated and patted on the head. When I share a prayer request, I'm choosing to be vulnerable and choosing to ask for other's help for something dear to me. I want to make sure I treat others the way that I would want to be treated and back up my words with real action.
So what can we do when faced with another intention or need when it feels like there are so many? I've thought of several little ways that may help make sure our words have merit and that we can truly mean it when we promise to pray.
1. Pray immediately.
When you say that you will pray for someone, shut the computer or turn off the phone screen and say a prayer. Right then. Maybe it's one Hail Mary or an Our Father or something simple and off the cuff. But do it. Pray something right then for that intention.
2. Write it down.
There's a servant of God from our area named Nelson Baker who founded a whole "city of charity" that contained a home for unwed mothers, an orphanage, and more. I remember going through his little museum at the basilica and being struck by a collection of tiny notebooks that had been saved. He always carried one of these tiny notebooks in his pocket and whenever anyone asked for prayers for an intention he would immediately write it down in his little book so that he wouldn't forget. Then he would take those intentions to his prayer time. I love that idea. Most of us nowadays even have that notebook already in our pocket. Perhaps that "Notes" section on your smartphone can finally be used for something.
3. Be specific.
I've found when I'm asked for prayers either in person or online or otherwise that it's really helpful to respond with something specific I'm going to pray. Not only can I then feel "done" once I've fulfilled my promise but it also helps to seal it in my mind so that I don't forget a few hours (or heck, seconds) later. "I'm going to offer my Mass for you" or "I'll pray a memorare for you" or "Rosary tonight is for you" is a lot more specific and thoughtful and therefore more likely to happen than a quick type of "prayers!" It also seems to bind it in my heart more and prompt extra prayers later on.
4. Find your own ritual.
What works better for some is to have a set time of day and their own little ritual for intercessory prayer. Maybe it's lighting a candle in the evening with your family and mentioning the intentions. Maybe you keep that notebook and bring it to weekly Adoration so that you can pray for each intention there. Maybe it's a piece of paper kept in your prayer corner that you can place before Him during your normal prayers. Whatever works for you, do that until the habit is solidified.
5. Take it to Mass.
The most important and powerful prayer we have as Christians is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Make it a habit to use the sacred moments after Consecration to place the most pressing needs you've been given upon the altar with the Lord. St. John Bosco said, "The best time to ask and obtain favors from God is the time of the Elevation." There are times it hits me during Mass what intention I am supposed to be offering it for and other times where I know beforehand that this Mass I will pray for a specific intention. When we get in the habit of seeing the Mass as the true and perfect prayer that it is, we can better recognize its power and use it well.
6. Entrust it to the heart of Mary.
When we are entrusted with a prayer intention, we can make an act of the will and entrust it to the heart of Mary, asking her to keep it and pray for it. Especially if you've made a formal consecration to Mary, this is a beautiful way to acknowledge both her perfect and loving motherhood as well as our own failings and imperfect prayers.
7. Finally, if you can't mean it, don't say it.
When we type or speak, we would do well to consider whether we truly mean what we say and will follow through. Type slowly and don't feel like you have to address every single need that pops up in your feed or on your wall. If you feel like you can't follow through on a promise, don't make it. That's okay. There is merit to being honest and it's a sign of integrity.
I think being truly intentional with our words and promises and prayers is so very important to our witness as well as to our personal character and true response of love to our neighbor. But I'd love to hear what you think. Is this a problem I'm making up or is the issue real? Maybe I'm just being too hard-nosed and rigid about it all and just need to relax. In that case, send some good vibes my way ;)