In Green Dolphin Street, Elizabeth Goudge’s novel set partly in the Channel Islands in the 1830s there’s a marvelous scene in which a young girl meets an elderly nun which illustrates the power of intercessory prayer in a powerful and poetic way.
Young Marguerite wanders into a forbidden bay while on a picnic with her family and is trapped in a cave by the rising tide. She climbs up the perilously steep cliff face where centuries ago monks had carved steps into the rock and finds herself on a little green ledge with a statue of Mary and a little unused door upon which she knocks.
Afterward it seemed to everyone an absolute miracle that she had survived that very dangerous climb. It would have taxed the skill of an experienced climber, and she was only a child. Her courage and strength were a nine days’ wonder on the Island.
It was the first time in her life that she had put her faith in God’s protection to the test, and it had not failed her. . . .
She sat up and looked about her. She was completely enclosed by a wall of vapor. Mists came up very suddenly at this time of the year, turning the blue of a happy day to the grey of a sorrowful one with alarming rapidity, but she had never known a mist come up quite so quickly and thoroughly as this one had. She could see nothing but a patch of green grass, a locked door in a stone wall, and above it the statue of the Madonna. She and the Madonna were quite alone together in a sort of little room hollowed out of the mist. It was queer and very strange.
She looked up at the Madonna. The statue seemed now almost more than life size, a tall magnificent figure, sturdy as a peasant woman but with the carriage of a queen. A great cloak wrapped her from head to feet, the hood pulled far over her eyes to shield them from the western sun. But nothing protected the child upon her arm. The folds of her cloak had fallen back from about him and he faced the Atlantic Ocean with bared head and tiny hand held up in blessing. The warm protection of God was about his human mother, but he himself had none. The statue was so worn by the buffetings of wind and rain that the features of the mother and child were almost worn away, but the watchful strength of the mother was still there clearly in the stone, and the eager, selfless courage of the child.
And then, as the fog obscures the statue of the Madonna, Marguerite bangs on the door, suddenly terrified, despairing that anyone would come to her rescue:
She stood with her body stretched against the door and hammered and hammered, and her throat was constricted with her fear and her heart pounded so much that she could scarcely hear the sound of her own hammering.
There was the beating of powerful wings overhead and some great creature came sweeping down out of the mist, and she shrank against the door in even greater fear. But it was a gull. His wingtips touched her in passing, and the wind of his flight lifted her hair. It was a seagull and she was not afraid anymore. She could hear him crying somewhere far down in the mist. She was protected and it was all going to be quite all right. Her common sense returned.
By itself this is a beautiful scene of a child who escapes from peril with lovely imagery of God’s protection, but the following scene was amazingly beautiful in a different way, it moved me beyond words.
At the same time that Marguerite is scaling the cliff a nun, elderly Mère Madeleine, is in the convent chapel offering her holy hour for all children of the world, drifting between her prayers and thinking of her aches and pains:
“Mother of God, who heldest thy child safely in thine arms, hold safely all children in danger. Mon Dieu, I wish it were not in my knees. I should prefer it in the shoulders, which are not used in prayer. Holy Jesu, who wept childish tears, comfort all children who fear or weep. The rubbing did no good. I should try the liniment. Holy Mother, Marie Watch-All, hold out thine arms and gather all children to the knowledge of thy love. I wish I were not deaf. I liked to hear the birds. Little Jesu, save all children. Holy Mother, bless all children. Holy angels, guard all children. . . . Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore. . . .”
Her prayer is beautiful, even though she grumbles and complains. And it seems to have done its work, safeguarding young Marguerite up the treacherous cliff.
At last her lips were still, her hands quiet, her face an old cameo carved from ivory. Anyone entering the chapel would have seen her only as a motionless shadow before the statue of the Holy Child, a rosy cheeked urchin in a blue robe, his arms full of roses, candles burning at his feet, and a golden halo behind his curly head.
Mère Madeleine lost all count of time. She did not need to think of it, for at the time appointed another nun would come to take up her link in the chain of prayer that did not cease in the chapel day or night. She did not know how long she had been praying when the knocking disturbed her soul and brought her with folded wings to earth.
The chapel was very old, its windows mere slits in the huge thickness of the walls. The statue of the Holy Child was right under the tower, close to the locked west door, or old deaf Mère Madeleine would not have heard the knocking. As it was she heard it so faintly that she thought it was a knocking within her, the Holy Child knocking at her heart. I hear you,” she said to the rosy-cheeked urchin. “The door is unlocked. I unlocked it half a century ago. You know that. What are you knocking for?”
But the knocking continued, and she turned her head sideways in vague bewilderment, as a bird does when it listens for some sound beneath the ground. The she groped for her stick, got up, mumbling to herself, and shuffled over to the locked west door, where she put her head against the wood and listened. Yes, there it was, a rhythmic pounding; though to her deaf ears it sounded no louder than the light tapping of a bird’s beak upon the bark of a tree. Yet her muddled old mind grasped the fact that to the Holy Child, or whoever it was out there, this door must be opened.
When the door is finally opened Marguerite appears to Mère Madeleine as the Holy Child, even after the door is opened. She’s a vision, a golden-haired in a blue robe, dressed almost like the statue of the Christ child in the chapel. Both the girl and the nun have a deep spiritual experience, a sort of communion in which the nun intercedes for the child and the child is a sign of the efficacy of her prayers.
There’s also a very lovely bit about the lay sister, Soeur Angélique, who is scrubbing the floor and helps the elderly nun to open the ancient door. She is left to take over the holy hour in the chapel to fill out Mère Madeleine’s time and although she is a slow, unlettered peasant who does not really know how to pray beyond the one rote prayer taught to her by the superior, somehow during her fifteen minutes of vigil she is healed of an old wound, of the terrible memory of her husband and two little boys lost in a storm at sea.
Soeur Angélique wrung her great hands and rolled her little black eyes in distress. The lay sisters were not as a rule called upon to pray alone in the chapel. She had no words. None had been taught her to meet this situation, and Reverend Mother, with Marguerite’s hand in hers and Mère Madeleine hobbling after, had already left the chapel. But holy obedience was holy obedience, and wiping the perspiration of her distress off her forehead with the back of her hand, she descended to earth like a landslide before the Holy Child and knelt there swaying herself and sighing volubly. So she was found by Mère Agnes fifteen minutes later, swaying and sighing, and weeping because all that while– a good hour, so she thought– no words had come to her; nothing but that dreadful memory of two little boys drowning in a stormy sea. “Mother of God, but I am a fool!” she ejaculated in exasperation as she went back to her work in the sacristy. But she found, as she bent to her scrubbing, that she had left the pain of that terrible memory behind her in the chapel. Perhaps the Holy Mother had taken it from her and would use it instead of a prayer. The Holy Mother had been a good housekeeper in her day, and doubtless knew how to make use of all the bits and pieces that came to hand.
The healing of Soeur Angélique’s wounded memory is no less miraculous than Marguerite’s rescue, and I do not doubt that her fifteen minutes of wordless sighs were also efficacious intercessions for some other child in need.
“a tiny pin point of light piercing my being”
Meanwhile, I also stumbled across this anecdote online, which illuminates beautifully another aspect of intercessory prayer:
A story told by one of the Missionary of Charity sisters about evangelization and intercessory prayer in Adoratio 2011.
“One day, a gentleman suffering with AIDS appeared at the door and asked to speak to a sister. We sat down. He began:
Some weeks ago while carousing in a nightclub, I had an incredible experience. Sometime after midnight, sitting drinking with my friends, I was suddenly aware of a tiny pin point of light piercing my being and in that instant I became aware of being bound in chains. As the light increased, I began to struggle against the chains. The more I struggled, the brighter the light became. The more the light increased, the more I struggled until the chains broke and I was flooded with light. *And I was free!* I went out into the street. Early morning I found a priest and made my confession after many years. I went to tell my friends “We are all slaves.” They wanted no more to do with me. They said I had become mad. So now I go quietly to the infectious disease clinics and to waiting rooms and speak to people, one by one, about what Jesus has done for me. I will continue this until I die.
Someone, somewhere, obtained that light for this man. Perhaps it was the fruit of someone’s Adoration in those hours of the night?”
The story in itself is marvelous, but it’s the final reflection—perhaps it was the fruit of someone’s late night adoration?— that gave me a tingle in my spine. How many times have I been up with a baby, sleepless with sickness, praying for those who need prayers. I know and believe my prayers are fruitful, that while God can do anything on his own, he also longs to make use of our intercessory prayers for each other, which bind us together as one Body in Christ and which allow us to be truly connected, truly of use even to people we will never meet in this life. It is common these days to sneer at prayer as being useless, an empty noise. Do something useful! the scoffers sneer. And yet to those of us with faith, we know that while we are certainly called to perform the corporal works of mercy, to reach out physically to those in need, that our prayers are not empty gestures. They have genuine power to save.
“an instrument through which strength can flow”
The juxtaposition of the two stories about two different people in danger saved by prayer struck me at once. They speak eloquently one to the other. It brings me back, too, to In This House of Brede and the long night vigil that Phillipa and her sister Benedictines keep Penny’s life is in danger. When Penny’s husband, Donald, calls to update Philippa about her condition, Philippa first tells him that he must go to the hospital to be with his wife and then that the nuns will be with him, keeping vigil in prayer:
“Of course you must stay— and we shall be with you.”
“Yes. Lady Abbess appealed to the community. She said she would give special leave to anyone who would give time for prayers during the night for a girl who was desperately ill. They will come.”
“But the nuns don’t know her.” He sounded incredulous.
“They know her need. We won’t let Penny go.”
Watching, keeping vigil, in the stretches of the night, Philippa found that Abbess Hester’s old rebuke was as just now as it had been two years ago and that she, Dame Philippa, was still a novice in prayer. Abbess Catherine told her she might watch from the end of Matins at ten until midnight,“ again from two until four. “Then go to bed until after Lauds. You must get some rest.”
For the first hour, three nuns knelt with her. Dame Beatrice, Dame Colette, young Dame Sophie. From eleven Philippa was alone and that hour seemed unending, yet she was grateful for the little experience she had — grateful that I am able to pray at all, she thought, remembering old times when crises had broken through the veneer of every day, as this had now for Donald and Penny. She remembered those hectic disjointed prayers that could not find words, let alone thoughts; the blind appeals where now, at least, she turned naturally to the fount she was coming to know more and more. “You can do nothing of yourself,” the old Abbess had said. “But you can make yourself an instrument through which strength can flow.”[ . . . ]
Now Philippa knelt, trying to join herself steadily to that bed in London with the machinery of a big hospital round it, and to Penny lying still and flat under the sheet — it must be hot in London — the drips fastened to arms and legs. Donald in a chair perhaps by her, or worn out, asleep.
Sometimes Philippa found words: “O God, at whose bidding the sands of our lives run fast or slow, accept the prayers of thy servants for her in her sickness. We implore thy pity. Save her from peril and change our fear to joy.” Fear to joy. Fear to joy. Fear to joy. The words hammered in Philippa’s brain. “Restore her in body and mind.” Sometimes it was without words: the healings in the Gospels grew vivid: Peter’s wife’s mother, ill of a fever: the nobleman’s son: “Come down before it is too late,” the nobleman had entreated. The servant of the centurion, the blind and the lame and the possessed: the lepers: the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment — even to touch it was enough; power went out of him and she was healed. Philippa said the steady decades of the rosary she took from her pocket — our Lady’s lifeline, Sister Priscilla called it; saying the beads, she declared, made a chain at whose end was a firm anchor; now each bead was for Penny, but the effort of holding her in unbroken thought made Philippa so tired that she would have swayed but for the wooden ledge against which she knelt, and the lamps seemed to swim in their own light. “With the manifold help of thy compassion ” She had to gather herself again. “Give me strength to comfort them” and, how little, infinitesimal we are, she thought.
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The story of the man in the nightclub, the story of Mere Madeleine and Marguerite, the story of Brede’s night vigil for Penny, they all move me to tears. In the case of the man in the nightclub it’s all the more powerful and mysterious because he is totally unaware of the person whose prayerful intercession has sought for him such a grace. He doesn’t know the person through whom that strength flowed.
And yet, he knows exactly what to do with it. He brings his story to others in need of grace. He knows that ultimately it is Jesus who healed him. And I keep thinking of some unknown soul awake in prayer in the night hours interceding powerfully for a person in dire need, for a child of God in danger. And how wonderfully that prayer was answered. Like Philippa, I am a novice in prayer. Much more of a novice than she is. I don’t pray as I ought. And I need these stories to remind me of the power of prayer, the necessity of prayer.
To the Holy Child the door must be opened.