This past Thursday, I gave a speech to a group of one hundred high school students. I was talking to them about how to keep the faith in college and how to get through tough times. This is the breath-taking introduction to that speech:
“I know I’ve just been introduced as a Catholic, but recently I’d almost consider myself an Agnostic- an Atheist to some extent. I think it all started with the birth of my baby niece, Holly, two months ago. As soon as I heard my older sister had given birth, I rushed down to the hospital and greeted the newborn with the rest of my family. The room was filled with a spirit of happiness as the baby girl was being passed around. When Holly rested in my arms, I felt a wave of peace flow over me. She was the first baby I’d ever held. Eventually I had to get back up to campus to study for an exam, so I said goodbye and gave Holly one last kiss on the forehead.
A few days later. I got a call from my mom. At first all I heard was heavy breathing. ‘Hello?’ I asked. I heard her sobbing. She proceeded to tell me that on the way home from the hospital, the car with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece had been hit by a drunk driver. My sister and brother-in-law had survived, but baby Holly did not.”
I paused, holding back tears. “Now you tell me- what kind of God allows something like that to happen? What kind of God brings on that sort of suffering?” I paused again, taking a deep breath. I then revealed to the group of teens that the story was all an act. A sigh of relief spread across the room. I explained that the incident did not happen to me, but was something that a friend of mine had experienced. After something tragic like that happened in his life, he began to question God: “Why would You let something like this happen? Why would You put us through this suffering?” I then proceeded with my talk.
It was hardly a coincidence that a mere twenty-four hours after my talk, one of the worst school shootings in America occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty children were killed along with six teachers. Just like my friend who experienced the loss of a baby niece, many people began to ask “Why? Why God? Why would you allow something like this to happen?”
This post isn’t about gun control. This post isn’t about mental health issues. This post is about the power of prayer. Since the shooting occurred, you’ve heard Facebook friends, preachers, and newscasters saying they are “praying for the victims and their families.” The whole nation is saying they’re praying, but for some of us that seems like a silly thing to do. Some of us view prayer as a pointless one-way discussion that can’t bring forth any change. It’s true that prayer can’t bring my friend’s baby niece back from the dead. Prayer can’t bring back those twenty six Newtown residents back from the dead. So why pray, especially to a God who allows this kind of suffering to happen?
Covering all there is to cover about prayer is impossible to do in one post. This post is here merely to guide those who wish to pray for what happened this past Friday in a way they may have never seen it before.
Who: Who do I pray for? There are many people you can pray for. Most people tend to pray for the victims of the shooting and their survivors. If you want something new to pray for, try praying for the shooter. His mother. The members of the hated Westboro Baptist Church. Those who hold public office who can do something to make such events like these have a rarer chance of occurring in the future. Those who are thinking about committing a similar crime. Victims of past school shootings and their loved ones who are still affected by something that happened to them years ago. It’s more than just the immediate victims you can be praying for.
How: How do I pray? Praying for the tragedy that occurred on Friday doesn’t have to be done through memorized prayers, such as “The Lord’s Prayer” or a “Hail Mary”. Even someone who doesn’t go to church on Sundays can still pray for what happened. Prayer is a conversation with God. Talk to God about the event. Vent about how it makes you feel. He already knows what you’re thinking, so he won’t be offended by what you know you want to say. Be honest, and speak from the heart.
When I pray, I find it beneficial to focus on one thing at a time. If I’m praying for the victims, I find it works best to focus on one child at a time, the way President Obama listed them off in his speech last night. Each individual soul deserves a prayer of mine. With all these pictures going around of the victims, it’s easier to put a name to a face and pray for someone I can picture in my mind. I talk to God and ask Him to watch over the soul of the beautiful blonde-haired girl, Emilie. I ask that her parents find healing in their community and can turn to Him when they feel they can no longer go through with their lives. Prayer does not have to be as complicated as some people may perceive it to be. Simply have a conversation with God, no need to be fancy.
Why: Why pray? We’ve already gone over the fact that these kids and teachers aren’t coming back to life, no matter how much we pray. A lot of people oppose prayer because they don’t see it as having the ability to accomplish anything. So why pray?
I think this is a question that I cannot just sum up in one paragraph. Each reader has a unique relationship with prayer and with God. Some have no problem praying, some see absolutely no point. There are whole books dedicated to “why pray?” There are seminars and sermons focused solely on “why does God allow suffering to happen in this world?” With my level of expertise, I can’t give you a black-and-white answer to the question “why pray, especially to a God who allows this sort of thing to happen?” All I can tell you is that when you figure out that “why”, somewhere along your journey, you’ll find that the prayers you send will mean a lot more to you than just “words to air”.
On that day of the shooting, many people posted on Facebook that they were “praying for the victims.” If you found yourself unsure who to pray for, how to pray, or why to pray at all, I hope I helped you see prayer in a way that is more rewarding and less intimidating than what you had previously felt. Keep in mind, this should not be seen as a one-time-only thing. It’s easy to pray that first day and then just drop the whole prayer thing after that. There are still people out there who would love your prayers days, weeks, months, even years after a tragic event. School shootings, loss of loved ones, and natural disasters are just some of the events that cause one to pray for someone right away. But I stress the importance of having prayer become a regular habit, not just something that re-surfaces on the day of a tragic event.