That’s how prayer works

A few months ago, I saw the above meme circulating on Facebook, and I immediately loved it and went to find the full text of his remarks.  The only problem is that I can’t find them – this appears to be more of a summary of Pope Francis’ words than an actual excerpt, but it’s very much in line with things he has said.  The closest quote I could find is from a speech he gave at the Plaza de San Pedro in July 2013, where he said (translated from the original Spanish by the Vatican):

In our Christian life too, dear brothers and sisters, may prayer and action always be deeply united. A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when ecclesial service is attentive only to doing, things gain in importance, functions, structures, and we forget the centrality of Christ. When time is not set aside for dialogue with him in prayer, we risk serving ourselves and not God present in our needy brother and sister. St Benedict sums up the kind of life that indicated for his monks in two words: ora et labora, pray and work. It is from contemplation, from a strong friendship with the Lord that the capacity is born in us to live and to bring the love of God, his mercy, his tenderness, to others. And also our work with brothers in need, our charitable works of mercy, lead us to the Lord, because it is in the needy brother and sister that we see the Lord himself.

While not as succinct, I think I love these words even more than the original (which is still a useful summary).  I love this idea that a prayer without action is incomplete; after all, religious people are often criticized for offering prayers in place of action.  This was particularly highlighted after a recent mass shooting in the US where politicians were swiftly criticized for tweeting their prayers rather than taking action to enact stricter measures to prevent mass shootings in the future.  Yet Pope Francis goes further, claiming not only that prayer without action is incomplete, but that action without prayer is also incomplete.  He suggests that there is an anchoring influence in prayer – that our actions will be most effective after contemplation and communing with the Divine.  The language he uses evokes the image of the cross – that we must maintain both the vertical (prayers) and the horizontal (actions) if we are to consider ourselves disciples of Christ.

As the New Year approaches, I’ve been contemplating Pope Francis’ words and how best to enact them in making my resolutions.  If I pray for peace, for example, how do I best implement peace in my life within my sphere of influence?  If I am praying for a friend to feel comfort in her time of distress, what actions can I take to physically and emotionally comfort her?  If I want to regain the hope I’ve largely lost in the institutional church over the past few months, how can I shape my prayers around that?  What actions can I take to make that happen? (seriously, though. suggestions welcome.)

I’m not usually one to find a yearly mantra for myself, but I think that in 2016, I might try to make Pope Francis’ meme-d words my mantra.  I need help both praying to a God whose involvement in earthly affairs I understand less and less, and help acting on the things I pray for – making myself a more active and responsible agent in creating the things I hope for. I need to pray for the hungry, the downtrodden, the despondent, and the poor.  And then I need to do my best to feed, to lift, to comfort, and to enrich them. I’m hopeful to discover for myself that this is, indeed, how prayer works.


Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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12 Responses

  1. Aimee says:

    Amen, sister (and Pope Francis)! This speaks directly to my soul.

  2. EFH says:

    Very well said, indeed.

  3. Amen! Prayer and actions are meant to work together.

  4. Jenny says:

    Love this!! I loved that meme too and I’m glad you laid out the context of the Pope’s actual words. I love your thoughts on it too. What a powerful way to think about prayer! Rather than rote words or verbal wishes, it becomes a very conscious and thoughtful effort to bring about good things. I’ve always had a hard time with people saying they would pay for other people because I see little good done by that and it feels like empty words that come from not knowing what else to do to help. But your post made me think about the value of just keeping someone in your conscious thoughts through prayer, and maybe by doing so, you will find inspiration to help that person. I don’t like to take the phrase “I’m praying for you” lightly, or use it just to fill space. Your post has made me think more about that and how I can more effectively pray for people.

  5. I stopped going to church for a variety of reasons a while back and the biggest one was the prop 8 situation in California with the mormon church. I was very careful to leave on good terms, however, and have remained friends with several people When this new policy came out, I was heartbroken. Even though I don’t go to church any longer, I do still love it, and was sad for the way it would be viewed over this. As a marriage and family therapist I was also worried and saddened for the the many people it would have a difficult impact on. My initial reaction was to withdraw my membership from the church. I just didn’t think I could stand in integrity and be affiliated with the church in any way any longer. I wrote and sent my letter off to my bishop. After reading through tons of blogs, listening to podcasts, and hours and hours of prayer of meditation, I called my (faithful for 10 years) visiting teacher and asked her to contact the bishop had have him withdraw the letter. I went to church that Sunday and and asked the bishop and a male friend of mine for a blessing of comfort while there. Because I needed comfort over this issue. The bishop and this male friend admitting both of their confusion and sadness over the policy as well, and we had a great discussion about it. I have a never found my true and sincere prayers of righteous desire to not include and inspiration for action. I initially didn’t want to go to church and ask for a blessing, but that is the answer I got. I haven’t been back since, but will go back when/if/any time I am again prompted. Your article was beautiful. Thank you for echoing back to me the voice of the Lord. Lots of and gratitude to and for you!

  6. EmilyCC says:

    This is so profound, Liz. I love the idea of using prayer to guide us in our actions especially when we’re not sure what those actions are supposed to be.

  7. E Victoria Grover says:

    This is a beautiful essay and honors a spirit that brings all souls of good heart together: Gordon B Hinckley often repeated, in so many different ways, that what the world needs most is “..the kind of faith that moves one to get on his knees and plead with the Lord and then get on his feet and go to work.”

  8. Kmd says:

    Love the quote and thoughts. Love love. As far as hope in the church I can only respond with what helps me, and that is focus on being part of good it can do and be in the lives of those in my local congregation. That is harder when you see it causing pain for others, but then asking how I can help those who are hurting and doing my best to serve as well as praying is the best I know to do.

  9. Heather says:

    I love this. That long quote is so anchoring–the necessity of both Mary and Martha. Thank you for researching this and articulating its profound implications.

  1. March 2, 2017

    […] Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does. He made headlines recently with his explanation: “You pray for the hungry, than you feed them, that is how prayer works.” While Christians have […]

  2. June 19, 2017

    […] internet meme quotes Pope Francis as saying, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer […]

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