When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering

Prayer, then -- especially labyrinth prayer -- has been transformative for many who are suffering in ways that many of us cannot fully fathom.
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Prayer is bringing hope, healing wounds, and transforming lives in some of the most troubled places in the world. From Bulgaria to Rwanda, Congo to Myanmar, my wife Jill and I have the opportunity to talk with many different people who suffer from poverty, war, oppression, hunger, disease, and sexual violence. Consistently, we meet students, community leaders, and pastors who are clinging closely to God in the midst of seemingly overwhelming problems and pain. They tell us that through prayer, they find peace and strength that they cannot access otherwise.

In 2008 Jill and I founded Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries with a vision of better equipped, spiritually vitalized leaders serving Christ in significant positions of influence throughout the world. As ordained clergy with experience in the parish, teaching in seminaries, and authoring numerous books on spiritual vitality and leadership, we initially thought that the focus of our work would be on teaching. Yet it soon became apparent that theological students, pastors, and community leaders in our week-long intensive courses wanted and needed more than new ideas and methods.

Almost everyone we meet wears their weariness in their posture or looks back at us through tired eyes. Their faces are often creased with lines etched by fear and anxiety -- be they from years of tribulation or a single night of horror. Children and violated women sometimes just stare with hollow expressions, emptied of life by unspeakable atrocities witnessed or experienced personally. Even the most hopeful and motivated individuals have trouble masking their quiet despair and resignation to overwhelming forces beyond their control.

In such circumstances, what's needed is something far deeper than just theories and practices that work well in safe environments with ample resources. Our students are hungry for practical teaching, but they also want to know and experience God in the midst of their suffering. Here is where prayer has become so important to them and to the work we are doing with them.

We now set aside 10 percent of our leadership training courses for sessions on prayer, often introducing labyrinth prayer as a tool for seeking God in a sacred space. The labyrinth precedes Christ but was adopted by Christians in various patterns, for uses that we cannot fully recover. The most well-known European labyrinth was built directly in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral in France at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The twisting and turning pattern on the ground resembles a maze but holds no tricks or obstacles. Walkers traverse a single path that takes them to the center, where one will usually pause for extended prayer.

Wherever we go, if possible, Jill will build a labyrinth, using whatever materials are available, and lead prayer walks as part of our curriculum. In most every context, none of the program participants has ever heard of a labyrinth. Yet, in every setting, those who walk enthusiastically welcome the new method for prayer that transcends language, culture, and denominational particularities.

The results are consistent and powerful. Most talk about experiencing peace. Many feel joy or overwhelming gratitude. After one walk in Butembo, in the middle of a Congolese war zone for the past fifteen years, several pastors and students returned to the classroom ahead of the rest. As I approached the door, I heard them singing together about the love of God in Swahili. Before someone translated their words for me, I could feel the depth of their peacefulness and heartfelt adoration. They had received more from praying on the labyrinth than I could have ever taught them or facilitated through group discussion.

In Myanmar, the reports from the walkers were similar. One woman called the labyrinth her "prayer village." A young lecturer in the seminary was able to quiet his mind and focus for the first time in two years during his first walk. When another found new strength to face her seemingly hopeless situation, she told us, "This is the first time I believe that things can change."

Routinely, the experience of walking the labyrinth serves as a metaphor for life -- a mirror for what the walkers are experiencing elsewhere. By winding back and forth along the single pathway to the center and back out again, many gain insight into themselves or their circumstances. Some experience new motivation for their work or renewal in their relationship with God.

For example, one construction worker at HEAL Africa compound (Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo) said, "When I prayed the labyrinth, I realized that even though there are many challenges, and different things happen, the important thing in the spiritual life is to keep going. Perseverance is necessary." A young man in scrubs told Jill, "As I walked, I saw the way was long and very difficult. Then I realized that what needed to change was my attitude. The way was long, but I had the possibility of choosing what I thought about it." After another walk, a woman waiting for a fistula repair surgery after being raped, wanted us to know, "This is the path of my life. I am walking to God."

They walk, they pray -- without liturgy, with few instructions -- and they find God. Some rediscover Jesus and find great encouragement from his experience of suffering and message of hope. Most simply sense God's presence or hear a pertinent word from the Holy Spirit that comforts, encourages, or strengthens them to carry on.

Prayer, then -- especially labyrinth prayer -- has been transformative for many who are suffering in ways that many of us cannot fully fathom. In prayer, they are seeking comfort, healing, guidance, and strength to face the daunting task of creating and developing solutions to their country's problems and challenges. They cannot fulfill their callings on their own, and they know it.

At Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries, we are trying to take our guidance from what the pastors and leaders are telling us is most meaningful and needed. We teach, train, coach, and, perhaps above all, seek to help those who are suffering to connect to God, who gives them far more than we could give them on our own.

For more information on the labyrinth and Jill's books on labyrinth prayer, see www.jillgeoffrion.com. For more on my books, which form the basis for the courses we teach, see www.spirit-ledleader.com.

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