(RNS)-- I have a confession to make. I love to pray... for strangers.
I don't know when my praying for strangers started. Perhaps it was when an ambulance left our neighborhood and I realized that some hapless soul trapped in a failing body needed medical assistance that I was incapable of offering. So I offered what I could: a prayer.
During visits to Disneyland, I've seen families erupt into anger and frustration and I've prayed for relief from whatever pressures they brought into the happiest place on earth.
On a flight, I spotted another passenger just ahead of me wiping a tear from an eye, and I've asked God to help them remember that some day "God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
I've watched the news and seen a fiancé whose partner was washed away in a tsunami, or a mother whose child is waiting for a kidney transplant, or an elderly person about to lose their home. I've prayed for them as if they are my own family.
Catharine Doherty said in her classic book Poustinia, "If I touch God I must touch man." Shouldn't a deeper connection with God inevitably lead to a richer connection with our fellow humans?"
I've prayed for authors I interviewed on my old radio show because I've sensed their fictional work is the product of some inner, festering wound that was being lanced, their eloquent words coated in personal pain.
Once, during an advertising break, a National Book Award winner started weeping. "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but last week I tried to take my own life." A prayer was said and cell phone numbers were exchanged as my anonymous practice became more personal.
People often feel alone in this world, as if God is absent or silent or both. Maybe it's because we are failing to love as we should by being with people and praying for them. "Human beings," Rabbi Menachem Mendel said centuries ago, "are God's language."
A few weeks ago I discovered a soul mate in novelist River Jordan, whose new book, Praying for Strangers, warmly and humorously tells how she fulfilled a New Year's resolution to pray for one stranger each day for a full year.
The idea was born of a mother's heart when her two sons were being deployed to war zones and she felt compelled to pray selflessly instead of just for her boys. Cocktail parties, bus stops, book signings, newspaper articles and kitchens soon became the scene of her walk-by prayers.
Frequently, as she told a stranger she had prayed for them, it became clear she was a timely emissary from God. One women said, "I was just praying this morning and praying for other people, but I stopped and asked the Lord, `God, is there anybody in this whole wide world who is praying for me?"'
Jordan came to understand what evangelist F.B. Meyer meant when he said, "The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer."
The idea of "paying it forward" has become practically a cliché, but in a world so filled with suffering and pain, there still seems to be more than enough room for the idea of "praying it forward."
Prayer, of course, should never replace hands-on help and assistance for friends or stranger in need. But think about it: what would happen if every person on our planet said one heartfelt prayer for one stranger they encountered each day?
I can't know for sure if praying for strangers is good for them, but I can tell you that it's been good for me. Once you take seriously Jesus' commandment to love one another, you find yourself connected to the whole of humanity. And when I do something to relieve someone else's suffering, I relieve some of my own.
Dick Staub is author of the just-released About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.
c. 2011 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: April 21, 2011