Recently, my job as a parish priest required that I preside at the funeral of a twelve-year old boy who died very unexpectedly. I have been ordained for twenty-three years, but no amount of experience makes such a task any easier.
On the heels of that tragedy, my job as a parent required that I walk through the process of a difficult surgery with my younger son. Of course he did the difficult surgery, not me. But waiting and letting go, trusting God (and a surgeon) is it's own difficult work. We waited and we prayed. (He has done exceptionally well.)
In both cases, I felt upheld by a tremendous amount of prayer. It was palpable. I got emails and calls before the funeral from other parishioners and other clerics who said they would be praying for me as we walked through those days leading up to and including the funeral that stunned our community. The same was true as friends, parishioners, family, colleagues and monks all prayed for James and his family through his recent ordeal.
I grew up in the Church. Prayer has been as natural to me as breathing for my whole life; as a young child I was taught to just talk with Jesus like you were talking with a friend. My prayer has evolved, and hopefully deepened, as I have matured in faith but at some level it still remains true for me that when I feel "weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care..." that I can take that "to the Lord in prayer."
I cannot imagine going through either of these things without it. From the outside, the cynic might expect that prayer is magic - or a kind of spell; that real prayer would prevent the death of a child or make surgery unnecessary. If there's not a "cure" then we might say that prayer didn't work. In fact, people of faith are not immune from this same kind of thinking. To greater and lesser extents we sometimes assume that if things go wrong, the prayer must not have been answered.
I can't "prove" much about the past few weeks. All I can do is offer testimony to what I have seen and heard and experienced. I don't believe I am a strong enough person to have walked through these two experiences without the prayers of so many. It's not theoretical: over these past few weeks it has been the power of prayer that has sustained, healed, and strengthened not only me but my family and the family of that young boy, too. It "renews our strength" - even if it doesn't always feel like we can "mount up with wings like eagles." (See Isaiah 40:31)
Some will ask why God doesn't just prevent bad things from happening in this world, especially to good people. I will continue to ask that question myself, because our faith demands it, as we confront the mystery of innocent suffering in this world. Like Job, I don't really expect an answer: just an assurance that God will be God through it all, and that prayer will get us through. I know that it does.