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Can the Power of Prayer Be Diluted?

Q. If I pray for the healing of all the sick people in the world, is that less effective than praying for a few specific individuals? Does it somehow “dilute” the power of my prayer to pray for millions at a time?

A. Prayer is a mystery with regard to the ways it actually works. That is, the intricate, complex, often hidden ways in which God responds to a prayer, and the subtle ways in which it affects the one praying as well as the one being prayed for, are beyond our full knowledge or understanding. We can’t think of prayer so much in mechanical terms. It’s not as if we can apply this much pressure to this wheel, and it turns this fast, but if we apply pressure to several wheels at once, they all turn, but more slowly.

In addition, we must keep in mind that prayer is much more than simply asking for something. Having said all that (and at the risk of still sounding too “mechanical”), I think it’s reasonable to assume that a more general prayer is no less powerful in its total effect, but the power is “distributed” in a different way. When we pray for the sick of all the world, we join others around the globe who are also praying that prayer, and the cumulative effects of our prayers are powerful indeed for all the millions of people in our intentions. On the other hand, when we pray more specifically, we bring to our task all the benefits of greater focus: greater clarity about what we’re seeking; greater compassion for those in our prayers, because they are less likely to seem only an abstraction; greater joy; and a greater boost to faith, when we can actually see God’s particular answer to our particular prayer.

You might compare it to gardening: We can spend our time scattering seed far and wide, or we can invest our time cultivating a small plot. But with the small, cultivated plot, we’re more likely to see the fruit of our labors. Nevertheless, we must also remember that someone needs to be “scattering” the prayer “seed,” especially in those places where no one else is doing the job.

We all need to be praying some of what we might call the “big picture” prayers. For this reason, whenever people are petitioning Our Lord, I encourage them to include both kinds of prayers, both “deep” and “wide.” Each is efficacious in its own way.

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