Truthfully, I used to fall into the category of people who said, “I’ll pray for you” sometimes as a way of closing an uncomfortable conversation because I didn’t know what else to say and at other times as a commitment I was really hoping to follow through with until I got side-tracked by my own life and responsibilities. Of course, at the same time as forgetting to pray for others, I sincerely desired for my closest friends to lift me up to the Throne Room of Grace and to intercede on my behalf. We are indeed very blest if we have even one or two close friends who pray earnestly for us and sustain us with their prayers when we do not have the strength in ourselves to pour out petitions to God.
Recently, I was going through a difficult time in my own faith walk and began to have many doubts and questions along the way. One day I shared some of my concerns with a friend (and former roomate) from Tyndale University College where I attended from 2009-2012 and her first reaction was to respond, “what prayerful intercessors have you shared this with?”
After much pause, I realized that my greatest network of prayerful intercessors is not found in the academy, in the congregation, or even in my inner circle of friends. Instead, my greatest network lies with the core members (residents) I live and serve with at L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities north of Toronto). At L’Arche I live in a house with four adults with various stages of developmental disabilities. Ranging from Down syndrome to autism to completely non-verbal, I have learned that the greatest prayers take place around the dinner time where there is lots of laughing, jesting, and silence.
People in my house do not try to impress God with long lists of words, they don’t jibe one another to see who can come up with the “best” prayer request, they definitely don’t use King James language. No! They say it like it is! They pray from the heart. They simply talk to God like He’s right there, like He’s a friend who is sharing at the dinner table with the rest of us.
This past week, one of the core members from my house, Darryl, and I went to a retreat in Kingston, Ontario (close to the nation’s capital of Ottawa). While at this retreat, an amazing thing happened. We were singing Taize songs and core members began to offer up their requests. All of a sudden, it hit me – I WANT THE CORE MEMBERS TO PRAY FOR ME!
I’ve generally been pretty reserved in large church settings to share my prayer requests. I will share a request or two in a small group of intimate friends or a women’s group if I have had the opportunity to get to know everyone quite well. Yet, here I was with a group of 36 strangers I had only met a few days before and I felt an urge to have them pray for me. That night I shared a request with the group that I have not even shared with many of my closest friends or relatives.
The prayers of people with developmental disabilities and the spirituality they live out daily is at once so intense and so simple. So plain and yet so magnificent.
During the prayer time one woman with down syndrome from another L’Arche community began to offer up this prayer, “God, where are You? God, I know You hear me. I know You’re there. I know You’re present. When I talk to You I begin to see Your arms, Your legs, Your hands, Your body.” That was the extent of her prayer. She didn’t go on to ask for prayer for her parents, siblings, or anyone else. She simply expressed a need – to know that God was truly there. A presenting problem – the fact that she had doubts, “God, where are You?” And a simple trusting faith, “I know You’re here. I can see You.”
With all of my years of formal theological education, I cannot offer up a prayer like that. Throughout my life, I have wrestled with doubt, but yet because I grew up in the church, I feel I don’t have the liberty to admit that to anyone. I’m studying to be a chaplain and eventually a Theology professor. We are supposed to be the leaders, the strong ones, the ones who console others. We aren’t supposed to doubt and be unsure. Or are we? If we opened ourselves up to truly be honest about our thoughts and emotions would that not present a far greater gift to the community than false piety and certitude?
In this simple prayer that was offered by a core member, a spirit of true vulnerability exists. Honesty to both doubt and have faith are comingled and bless us. Her heartfelt cry was an example to me of my own deepest prayers – what I want to say but am afraid to say for fear of how weak my faith would be perceived after all these years of formal theological education.
The beauty of L’Arche is that here I can be myself. I can truly exist as Deborah and even in my greatest imperfections I will be immediately loved and accepted, forgiveness offered to me every step of the way. Healing made possible through the ministry of community and fellowship. When I’m with the core members I see how spirituality is ingrained in everything they do. It’s in the very fibre of who they are.
That’s why when I have a request I want to have the core members know about it. They’ve got me covered. They don’t just say they will pray for me, but really do it. When I have a thanksgiving, I want to share it with them. They’re the first to rejoice, the first to tell me how happy they are for me, and half the time they are more excited about it then I am. I’m thankful for this community and this home. I’m thankful that here I belong and exist. It is here that I have discovered that prayer is not about the words of our mouths, but it is about the meditations and posture of our hearts. Sometimes even in its simplest form. Sometimes even when all around us everything else is purely silent.
Deborah Ferber is a Field Associate and regular writer for Anabaptist Disabilities Network's Opening Doors blog.