Praying for Strangers

I had an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and message of Ash Wednesday recently and during the service that day, I commented on a text message I had received from a friend earlier that same morning. The text was simple: “What is your theme for this Lent?

What is my theme for this Lent? It’s a question that keeps popping into my thoughts and challenging me to go beyond the traditional and typical. And the fact that the question hasn’t left me suggests a resonance of sorts, perhaps something to which I should be paying close attention.

Then, the next morning, I received an urgent prayer request from a woman about her middle school daughter who is facing a significant personal challenge. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ll spare you the details here, but the bottom line is that she and her family are in crisis. I receive such requests fairly often and so try to keep a list handy of everyone who has asked for such a prayer. Truth be told, it’s a long list so I’ve taken to adding to the end of my prayers an intention that goes like this: “… and let us pray for all those who have asked for our prayers.” It’s inclusive. It’s handy. But it’s also unmistakably impersonal.

Like the question about a Lenten theme, that child has been on my mind. There was a plaintive tone to her mother’s request, and I could feel the hurt within her words. So then, I started wondering about the possible connection between these two disparate things: Lenten theme and this young child.

We pray for people we don’t know personally all the time. We do so at every Mass during the Prayers of the Faithful, considering the plight of those who are less fortunate than we are… even if those individuals are amongst us and even us ourselves. What better way to remember the ones Jesus described and who are included in Matthew’s Gospel? These include the poor in spirit, those who mourn, are meek, hungry, thirsty, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted. We are following the model of Christ to assist and to pray for these, but, like the list I keep, this can become impersonal at times.

So, what if we make it more personal? What if we choose to pray for someone in particular, whether we know their name or not? Someone who is suffering deeply? Someone who has lost hope and who possesses no consolation, only emptiness and desolation? What if we focus our prayer in this manner this Lenten season?

I am reminded of the story of Saint Francis, who, upon meeting a stranger, a man suffering from leprosy, experienced a great conversion of heart. He was reluctant to even approach the man, feeling a great deal of trepidation and fear at the prospect of doing so. But he proceeded to meet the man and even kiss him. Saint Francis stated: “What before had been nauseating to me became sweetness and life.” This was a defining moment in this saint’s life.

Sometimes, we can enter into a repeating pattern of praying for our own needs and for the needs of those closest to us. We can extend that concern out broadly to others, but I wonder about the notion of finding someone who is a stranger and then praying for that one person. Repeatedly. Over a long period of time. Perhaps for the remainder of Lent and then even beyond.

We hear, see, or read stories all the time of those who have experienced great trials. Any news media outlet will be a good source as these seem to specialize in telling the stories of those who encounter tragedy and great challenge. These are individuals who could use our prayers. What if we pick one and then pray for them… specifically?

I’m praying for someone special this Lent.

What’s your theme?

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