How do I pray when I am sick and can’t think? I feel as though my words are just going out into thin air and no one in heaven hears me. What words do I use and Who will listen?
This is a difficult question both to experience and to answer. I have suffered significant ongoing pain and discomfort, constant medication, multiple surgeries and related complications…
When I became a Christian more than fifteen years ago I did so in part because I recognized that apart from Christ, there is no good reason to continue to endure the suffering of this life. The idea that there was an ultimate reason for suffering brought me some comfort. This simple understanding was that my suffering was not in vain and that I would someday, have relief – permanent relief in the arms of Jesus. I didn’t have a specific answer to why I suffered as I did, but I understood from meditation on the scriptures that God was in control and that nothing comes to us that is not for our ultimate good (whether allowed by or caused by God). This meant that God was refining me, preparing me for the day when I would meet him face to face. This was enough for me then, and still brings me great comfort now. This scriptural promise from the book of Revelation in chapter twenty-one was particularly moving to me and is worthy of repeated reading and meditation by those who suffer:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
I find great comfort in the knowledge that even if my suffering doesn’t subside in this life that it will be obliterated in the next. Not only that, but God himself will reach into my soul, cleanse me of the suffering that came through my own decisions, the suffering that came through circumstance and providence, and will himself comfort me in a way that will be absolutely loving, absolutely perfect and absolutely complete. This encouragement was compounded when I discovered another important promise from St. Paul in I Corinthians chapter 10:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
And another in Philippians chapter four:
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
As I am writing this it strikes me that a few verses and commiseration may not be all that helpful. Still, if you meditate on them and participate in the life of grace, I have no doubt you will also find sufficient comfort to make it through just one day – or at least one day at a time. One more verse is in order regarding your specific question from Romans chapter eight:
Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
When we cannot pray, we simply just say, “God I am here, and I need you.” We may not even use words. Our tears may be the only way to communicate with him. We rest in him knowing that he does hear us even when we don’t feel it and that he not only hears us, but that the Holy Spirit offers our deepest needs to our heavenly Father and that these are answered because they are His will.
Beyond meditation on these great truths, what can you specifically do? That all depends on how incapacitated you are. The key is to pray, participate in the sacraments, and seek help. It is important for you to talk to your parish priest or to search out a spiritual director or someone who is in an intimate relationship with Christ. They can help you come to better know the great God of comfort and maybe even gain an understanding of practical things you can do to fight your way through. To gain a better understanding on your own, Father Benedict Groeschel has written several good books on suffering that may also be of help. This one, Arise from Darkness: What to do when life doesn’t make sense might be particularly helpful to you. Aquinas and More bookstore also has a number of books on suffering. Just type the word “suffering” in the search line and you will likely find something that will help.
Never stop praying. Even if you just sit in silence and can say nothing, cry out to him in the simplest way and he will hear you. I know this is true, because he heard me, and rescued me from my distress… over and over again.
I suspect our readers who understand suffering might have a few ideas for you as well – at the very least I know that they will be praying for you. Be assured of my prayers.