Q. Is prayer more effective if it is limited in scope?
A. I think the first thing we must note is that 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 knowing 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 petition (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, for example, 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 sympathy for those we intercede for, 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.
There’s a certain parallel here to the successful business strategy of employing “measurable objectives.” In a sense, the more specific and concrete our prayer goals, the more likely we are to see them accomplished. Viewed from this angle, then, more specific prayer appears to have a greater effectiveness, or potential for effectiveness.
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 the small, cultivated plot is more likely to manifest more obviously 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.
I think, for example, of a deacon I know who regularly prays at Mass “for all those who have asked for our prayers.” Then he adds: “And for all those who have no one to pray for them.” Those are beautiful and powerful intercessions.
For all these reasons, 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.