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A hospital for the soul

30 November, 1999

We pray out of need, says Dermot Mansfield SJ; for our own needs, for those we know, for situations we know that need healing. TS Eliot said the world is like a huge hospital. We are needy people, requiring God’s blessing and healing always.

More than twenty-five years ago now, I lived in the Jesuit Retreat House at Rahan, west of Tullamore, in County Offaly. Sadly, we had to close it in 1990. As well as the retreat house, there was the simple ‘Public Church’, dating from the 1820s. Over the generations, local people came there for Mass and to pray.

They also called at the door of the house, to see a priest, or simply to have a Mass card signed. Especially when the late Father John Hyde was there, they came to share their sorrows with him, to receive his blessing, but above all to ask for his prayers

Rahan was a place of prayer. But really it was the faith and struggles of ordinary people that made it so. Yes indeed, the priests and brothers in the community there could provide some inspiration, but, in looking to them, the people from round about were in fact finding an echo of what was already in their own hearts.

For someone like me, therefore, as a member of that Jesuit community, much of the help for my own prayer came from the men and women, young and old, of Rahan and Killina and further afield in the midlands. They were an example to me, teaching me what really mattered in life.

Humble request
This brings me to the central thought about prayer I wish to offer this month. What does it mean ‘to pray’? It means, as the dictionary will tell you, ‘to humbly ask for, to beseech, to entreat’. It is in fact, a definition agreeing with what Jesus tells us about prayer in the gospels. When the disciples look to him for help in prayer he simply says, ‘When you pray, this is what to say: Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come…’ (Lk l1:2).
Jesus gives his disciples the words of what we call the Our Father, and it is a prayer made up of petitions, of things to ask .for. He goes on to say about prayer: ‘So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you’ (Lk 11:9).

Reasons for prayer
We pray out of our need, or for the needs of others. We ask for help, for healing. We pray for forgiveness and peace of mind; for enlightenment and for wisdom to make the right decisions. We pray for a neighbour, whose child is ill. We know of a family where tragedy has struck, and we are so helpless. But we pray for them.
We learn of dreadful events far away, in other parts of the world, but somehow brought near on our television screens. What can we do but pray? Or all at once we ourselves are caught in a nightmare of suffering, in our own family, in our own household. We can hardly pray at all, or feel we have any faith left. But others pray for us. They help and support us in whatever way they can.

Last month, I offered a picture, from St. Mark’s gospel, of Jesus by the lakeside at Capernaum; I suggested entering into the scene, becoming part of the drama. What was happening? People were bringing their sick to Jesus, begging him for healing. ‘The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were sick with dis. eases of one kind or another; and be also drove out many devils’ (Mk 1:33-34).

To me, that scene is hauntingly moving. It is repeated over and over in thbe world today, and in our own lives. The poet, T.S. Eliot, once wrote that the whole earth is like a hospital, perhaps like a giant accident-and-emergency ward, We are needy people, requiring God’s blessing and healing always.

I could see that gospel scene played out as people came to the church at Rahan or called at the door, bringing their own needs, or the needs of others. It happens in many other settings today. Often a local church we know has something of that aura about it.

As I write, I think once more of the Church of Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, London, where I help out each summer. But you yourself could add to the list places you know that draw people to prayer. And isn’t Lourdes such a place? Lourdes is at the centre of tbe gospel mystery: .Our Lady through Bernadette calling us to prayer and to God’s healing of body and mind.

Daily life
I remember on the weekend retreats at Rahan how men, in particular, were inclined to say that prayer wasn’t one of their strong points. But after a little probing on my part, they often realized that prayer was going on in their daily lives, only in ways they had not recognized before.

A man could be out in the fields, and he began to think of his family or of a neighbour going through a rough time, and a prayer arose in his heart. This could happen often, perhaps driving along, or in the house by the fire. It was a great encouragement, to see how prayer was part of daily life, even if not often in the traditional form.

Reaching out
Really, it all comes back to the heart. Whenever my heart is touched, I find energy to go out to people. I can leave aside my prejudices to reach out to neighbour and stranger; I will do what I can to highlight how people are treated unjustly. ‘In so far as you did this to one of tbe least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40).

Perhaps I can’t do much on the wor.ld stage, setting things to right, or calling others to renewed faith in God. But my heart is a universal place where all peoples meet, and is the driving force enabling me to engage with others, to be intetested in them, to feel with them. It is also the place of prayer within me.

And so I find myself being part of all that Jesus did in the gospels: with him, and in him. Although I may never leave my own place of work and home, I travel the needy roads of the world today. And in my prayer and desire for what is right, I do have a part in the world’s healing, and in helping people today find their true home in God.