By Anne Pharr

Prayer That Cultivates Empathy: Loving God, Loving Neighbor

When The Well asked me to write a series about how Christians in higher education sustain their faith in the workplace, it resonated as an especially fitting topic for me — someone who has an ongoing fascination with practices that cultivate and deepen our relationship with God. 

For this second piece, I had the opportunity to talk with a faculty member, Elizabeth, who serves on the English faculty at a liberal arts college in the South.

In addition to being a wife and mother to two daughters, Elizabeth is a medievalist, studying 14th and 15th century religious texts. The rhythm of her academic year includes teaching during the fall and spring terms and devoting time to research during the summer months. On a late July morning, she graciously took time away from her current project — transcribing a text by an anonymous medieval writer — to talk with me. 

Prayer as Seeing the World

When I asked Elizabeth if she could identify a spiritual practice that sustains her in the workplace, she didn’t hesitate. “The big one is prayer, which is something I came to late. I grew up evangelical and knew about quiet times, but I wasn’t able to sustain that habit. For one thing, when I am praying on my own, without guidance on how or for whom to pray, I tend to run through the same list day after day. And that ‘same list’ — centered on my own immediate circle of concern — can get kind of narcissistic.”

Now an Anglican, Elizabeth uses the daily office as a guide to her personal times of prayer. “Following the liturgy of my denomination allows me to pray with greater intentionality. It also continually brings me into awareness of the broader world around me."

“Whether I am reading and praying the Psalms, reflecting on the Scripture lesson, or praying for that day’s designated groups, the daily office first calls me to an encounter with others. As I attend to the Scripture writer’s wisdom, as I notice and perhaps find myself in those being portrayed, or as I pray for groups of people whose needs may be very different than my own, I am looking outwards — listening, learning, and empathizing.” 

“Today’s office, for example, includes a prayer for two groups for whom I might not think to remember on my own: prisoners and those who struggle with addiction. The daily office walks me through how to go to God for these people — his beloved creations. I pray those words and say amen to them. On other days, I might be praying for the environment, members of the armed services, or clergy along with my for children, friends, loved ones in need.”

“The important thing about this way of praying,” she summarizes, “is that I am not talking first.”

Prayer as Seeing My Place

“For me,” Elizabeth reflects, “prayer is a vital reminder that I am just a tiny person in our enormous world. In that way, it serves as an antidote for the kind of pride that might be mistaken as a sense of calling.”

Yet it is also an antidote for the sense of helplessness that might be mistaken for humility. 

Remaining aware of the world’s overwhelming needs might seem like a recipe for feeling impotent. But Elizabeth’s experience is much different. “Prayer allows me to step into the day more lightly — feeling less like we are nearing the end of the world and instead knowing again the assurance that, although everything certainly isn’t up to me, God can use my life in some way. 

“On the days when I begin with prayer, I am re-anchored, able to rest more readily in the truth that nothing is lost with God. I remember that my acts of obedience, though seemingly small, can be one way he accomplishes his kingdom purposes — although we might not always see the results.”

Prayer as Seeing My Students

Not surprisingly, prayer finds its way into Elizabeth’s teaching as well.

“Although my students aren’t aware of it, there are class sessions when I pray for each one of them. Perhaps as I watch them take an exam, I will spend time looking at each student in the room and silently praying for him or her by name.”

“Hopefully, my prayers impact them in some way, though I am unlikely to know how. But praying for my students undoubtedly impacts me by reorienting my attention outwards, and by reminding me that each of my students is one of God’s beloved creations.”

Sometimes, that same truth finds its way into a class session as well, as illustrated by one group’s response to the literature they were reading. The students were studying the medieval English poem Piers Plowman, and had arrived at a moment in which the characters argue over whether to give generously to the poor within their community or whether to demand that the poor earn their own way out of poverty. “Our discussion moved from the characters’ dilemma to the very similar one we face when determining how to respond to those within our community who are in need.”

In one scene, the narrator comes to a powerful realization:

“...they’re my blood brothers, for God bought us all.
Truth taught me once to love each one of them
And to help them in all things always as needed.”
(lines 217-19)

As they discussed Piers’ assertion that he and those in poverty were family through the blood of Christ, Elizabeth observed a subtle shift in her students’ discussion, “from a disengaged stance about ‘the other’ to an awareness that even — and especially — those who may seem different or less than us are actually our brothers and sisters. This means they are people for whom we are called to care — perhaps, at times, in sacrificial ways.” 

“Today, people assume bad faith on the part of the other person when we disagree. What is lost when that happens is Christian love.” On that day in class, Elizabeth sensed that some students took steps away from an indifferent, detached, or even condescending perspective about those who are different in some way, and moved towards empathy and solidarity — their shared identity as God’s beloved creations.   

It is that same perspective that is informed by and serves as a foundation for Elizabeth’s spiritual practice: prayer that looks, listens, and finds connection with the many “other” voices and stories found in Scripture; prayer that includes a gentle but vigilant attention to the needs in our world; prayer that anchors her one life firmly within God’s larger kingdom purposes.

About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English as well as College Success at Pellissippi State Community College, Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998. Through PSCC's Student Success Program, she connects struggling students with campus and community resources to help them pursue their academic goals.  Along with some of her colleagues, Anne has also developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential, whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by under-resourced students. Besides spending time with family and friends, her passions include music, reading, exercise, Blue Bell ice cream, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably each morning. Anne maintains two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).

 

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