What does it mean when we “intercede” for someone, offer “intercessory” prayer? Is it something other than just “saying a prayer” for them? As you have probably just guessed, it is. The word “intercede” literally means to “go between.” If I offer intercessory prayer for you, I stand between you and God, “connecting” the two of you, as it were. I bring your needs before the face of God, and if it pleases Him, He will hear my prayer and grant what you need.
Why is it, though, that I don’t merely pray for my own needs and you pray for yours? Do we need each other as “go-betweens” with God? The answer lies not in any metaphysical necessity, but in the will and love of God. God is personal and He works through persons, be they angels or men, and not simply by almighty divine fiat. God is love, and what He does in and through us is love. Jean Lafrance, after reading the writings of St Silouan of Mt Athos, remarked: “He especially showed me how much God’s love impels us to intercede for our brothers” (emphasis in the original).
In her book, Secret of the Heart: Spiritual Being, Jean-Marie Howe, OCSO, writes: “In the second letter to the Corinthians,
She continues: “What is this love of which he speaks? It is the love that ‘impelled’ Christ to die in order for all to be reconciled with God… The love of Christ that inspires Christians is a love that seeks the salvation of all humanity. Ultimately, Christians are motivated, perhaps even ‘compelled,’ not by their love for Christ, but by the very love of Christ burning within their hearts…
Allow me to let her do the talking: “If one pursues this passage of Scripture a bit further, one finds that the Greek word which is translated as ‘constrains’ or ‘compels’ is used elsewhere with the additional connotation of ‘anguish’ (Lk. 12:50; 2Cor. 2:4). This love of Christ is an anguished love; perhaps this is what Pascal meant when he said that Christ would be in agony until the end of the world. The love that compels Christ can know no respite until all creation is reconciled with God. To the degree that one can say, ‘I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. ), one will be compelled by this consuming love which gives itself for the salvation of the world. This anguished love is the heart of Christian prayer; how much more central should it be to the monk’s prayer? In speaking this way, we realize that Christian intercession is intimately associated with the primordial intercession of Christ, identified both with the sin of the world and the loving will of the Father, even to the point of holocaust.”
Finally, she quotes a passage from Dom Andre Louf, who wrote the following after visiting a hermit on Mt Athos: “Suddenly, I was very, very touched by a deep impression that in this private chapel before a primitive iconostasis, in the sanctuary of this hermit I was really at the heart of the world and of the Church. There was nothing more important than to be there and pray. The only important thing in the world was to be there before the face of Christ.”
Mother Jean-Marie concludes that monks ought to have this attitude in response to all those who seek our intercession, who need us to stand for them before the face of God—He who alone can soothe the wounds of bodies and souls that ache with their need for the Savior. For monks, she says, “The only thing that matters is to be there, in the monastery, at the heart of the world, at the heart of the Church, and pray.”
Monks may have a special charism for intercession, but as members of the Body of Christ we are all called to stand before the face of God for those who entrust their needs to us, those who perhaps have lost all strength and hope and confidence to go to the Throne of Grace alone. We bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). We don’t just say prayers. We intercede, we “go between,” for the love of Christ impels us.