The Practice of Petition

Poetry excerpts from Scott Cairns' "Mysterion"

As a marathon runner, I am familiar with soreness and fatigue. If I refuse to reduce the strain on my body, those familiar aches will develop into full-blown injuries and can keep me from running at all. One injury I developed while I was in college persisted for weeks, causing me to miss competition for an entire semester. My routine was off. I felt frustrated and sluggish.

Having exhausted all my options for a quick recovery, I decided to ask others to pray that I would be healed. At this point in the process, prayer was little more than a last resort, a concession that I was forced to make after I had tried everything “practical.”

I attended a prayer gathering. When the group, many of whom I had never met, offered to pray for the physical needs of those present, I thought I’d volunteer as a test subject. Pray for me, everyone, I was saying. Yes, me—the one with the hip problem who stubbornly refuses to stop running.

And they prayed for me. They were a gracious group, but the longer nothing “happened,” the more frustrated we all became.

“Maybe you should try it out,” one person said, “just to see if it’s any better.”

“Yeah,” another said, “why not run a lap around the building?”

And so I left the room to take a jog around the building. Never mind the fact that too much running was causing the pain in the first place. They were determined to see that I’d be healed. I was determined to show that I had enough faith to make it work.

If I had known how uncomfortable things would get in the next hour or so, I would have taken a jog to my car and driven home. (I remember lying on the floor while someone yanked on my leg and asked, “How about now?”)

Instead of leaving, I was stuck in a humiliating feedback loop. Why not hop on one foot? Why not try to roundhouse kick this Bible off the tabletop? If I was going to be injured when I left, it wasn’t going to be for lack of desire. Or ridiculous antics.

That night, I confused petition with performance. While I got a good cardio workout, I left confused and, go figure, still injured.

What our habit has obtained for us appears
a somewhat meager view of mystery.

I’ve since learned that prayer fosters the kind of reflection that helps me to keep my body in check. I realized that I couldn’t pause for prayer without being still and engaging my mind, and I couldn’t be still and mindful without realizing that it was my Achilles tendon, not the floor, making that creaking sound.

Prayers of petition not only help me to slow down and take stock; they also help me to cultivate openness and trust.

Sisters approach Jesus on behalf of their dying brother: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

A leper kneels at Jesus’ feet: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

Petition doesn’t hinge on commercial exchange, and my faith isn’t a form of currency. Instead, petition acknowledges a loving relationship, one that is perhaps best expressed in communion.

The table re-frames how we think about petition: we approach Christ to find that he is already offering himself to us.

Jesus, soon to be betrayed, reclines at a table with his disciples: “This is my body, which is for you.”

the loss the body suffers when
sacrament is pared into a tidy
picture postcard of absent circumstance
starves the matter to a moot result, no?

When we ask Christ to heal our bodies, we literally assume a posture of trust. When we acknowledge Christ’s death and look forward to the day when he restores bodies to wholeness, we aren’t simply contemplating symbolism, as if a metaphor could suffice. Instead, we’re celebrating Christ’s nearness and the new reality that he has made available to us both as individual bodies and as a collective body.

Mysterion is
never elsewhere, ever looms, indivisible
here . . .
Receiving it, you apprehend how near
the Holy bides. You cannot know how far.