Intercessory prayer is asking God to give something to another person rather than to oneself. In this respect it seems much more generous than petitionary prayer and often it is. But not necessarily. Our resonance with each other’s desires makes it difficult to know where our personal desires end and where another’s desires begin. There is inevitably some overlap and the considerations we made for petitionary prayer hold for intercessory prayer as well. Actually, the problem can be more insidious when praying for others than with praying for ourselves.
The biggest pitfall in intercessory prayer is praying to God to meet our needs in relationship to that person rather than to that person’s needs. That is, we project our desires, our needs, on the other and pray for that. More seriously, there is a chance of there being a hidden rivalry in intercessory prayer where we pray against somebody in a self-serving manner. The most common way to clothe concern for others in this way is to pray judgmentally, which is to put ourselves in the “superior” position. This soon falls into the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God for being better than that publican. Years ago, at a prayer meeting I attended, one man prayed to God to cure his brother of his “dirty, stinking habits.” I’m sure that if the man’s brother being prayed for (or against) really had one or more destructive habits, God would want that person to be cured. The thing is, God would be much more gracious in entering that person’s deepest self and offering strength to that person.
When we pray for others, we are, as when we pray for ourselves, entering into God’s Desire, only now we have expanded the field to include other people in their need besides ourselves and our own needs. Praying for ourselves opens us to the deep love God has for each of us. Praying for others opens us up to the deep love God has for other people. There is no room for judgmentalism in prayer since prayer is about humbling ourselves before God and before others.
At its best, intercessory prayer is a powerful participation in the desires of other people in a constructive way. Better still, it is a participation in God’s Desire for others as well as for ourselves. We share what is best in ourselves with the other for the good of the other and for the sake of the other. When we pray for others in this way and they pray for us in this same way, we create an expanding web of prayer that reaches out to everybody. This is what our built-in mimetic desire is for.
Continue to part 3: Penance