Conventional prayer has always been part of my life. Thanks to my Catholic CCD training, I knew the “Our Father” and the “Litany of the Saints.” I had a set of rosary beads I carried with me in a small leather pouch — I’d pull them out whenever I’d feel anxious, like the morning before a test, or when I’d pass a girl who’d make me blush. I’d also be sure to say the “Fatima prayer” after I finished counting on my beads: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven especially those in need of thy mercy.”
I always felt myself achingly in need of divine mercy.
Part of the reason for that was because I was such a heavy drinker — an alcoholic drinker from my adolescence onward. I got sober while I was in graduate school in the 90s, when my fermented forays started to end in me sitting on lonely street corners on Chicago’s south side, wondering where my homeless drinking partners had gone.
After getting sober, my praying became even more intense. It had an intrusive and disturbing constancy. “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. . . . Oh my Jesus forgive me my sins. . . . ” I was counting rosary beads in my pocket, feverishly, endlessly.
A verbal vortex. A whirlpool of words.
Obsessive prayer, along with excessive guilt and anxiety, has long been associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In my life, CCD and OCD had quite an unsettling partnership.
When it came to prayer, I simply couldn’t silence my own mind. Thanks to Johnny — a Catholic charismatic healer plying his trade in North India — I learned that I didn’t have to.
I met Johnny during my dissertation research in 1995, a couple years after I got sober and the year immediately following my diagnosis of OCD. I wrote a lot about Johnny in my doctoral dissertation and subsequent articles — about his dissolute life as an Indian Air Force Officer before his conversion, about how he counseled supplicants who came to see him, how he performed exorcisms, and how he often tried to get me to put down my notebook and lay hands on the possessed myself.
My last memory of Johnny is of him standing in the railway station in the north Indian city of Varanasi on the night of my departure. I had asked him to pray over me, but he insisted that we both pray together, for each other. So, we held hands and prayed, “ohshallalalah, ohshallalalah,”
Johnny’s special prayer word encapsulated many of the lessons he taught me about what prayer could be for someone like me, someone who could not turn off his mind.
I found in some of Johnny’s insights a different way to think about prayer, a different way to go about hearing God. So here they are — five lessons a Catholic charismatic healer taught me about prayer:
1. When you pray, you’re going to have questions.
Prayer would always raise difficult questions that I found impossible to answer. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, do our prayers really matter? Is the person who gets the most prayers also the one who is the most blessed, the most favored by God? What about those who are alone, unknown, unloved — un-prayed for?
Added to that is an even more fundamental question: Is it right for me to ask God to intervene on my behalf? And if God does intervene, maybe that reveals something that’s actually pretty disturbing — namely that we humans are essentially pieces on a chessboard, being moved into different configurations by a divine hand that is presumably influenced by whomever’s prayers make it to heaven first.
Johnny told me that those questions were part of my rebellious nature — he told me that I could have been a revolutionary or a criminal, but God had given me a special blessing, and my sobriety was proof of that.
“Isn’t not taking a drink a miracle for you, every day?” Johnny would ask me.
“Yes,” I would always say.
“Then you have the only answer you need,” Johnny said, often adding, “Everyone gets a miracle.”
2. You’re never going to answer those questions.
In all honesty, the apparent anti-intellectualism of some Catholic charismatics like Johnny never sat well with me. Their focus is on the experience of God, something that is real, but often, quite literally, nonsensical. God touches us when we least expect it, in ways that are sometimes soft and subtle and sometimes hard and harsh. There’s no predicting, no choosing, and, many times, no explaining. In fact, to explain God’s presence, you have to step outside of it and thereby lose it or let it go. If we think that prayer can change God, we’re wrong.
But, prayer can change us.
3. You can move beyond the questions.
Johnny was found of petitionary prayers — asking for particular favors, intercessions, and healings. But his prayers, his litanies of requests, would always end in in “ohshallalalah, ohshallalalah.”
“What does ‘ohshallalalah’ mean?” I asked more than a couple of times.
“It means nothing at all,” Johnny would say. Here Johnny was doing something a little un-charismatic. Speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is often understood to be a divine language, or, at the very least, an unknown language that is spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
But Johnny didn’t see things that way. The closest he ever got to explaining “ohshallalalah” to me was likening it to children “cooing” for their parents.
Looking at it now, what Johnny seemed to be acknowledging — in his own unsystematic and idiosyncratic way — is that our own neatly packaged wants and desires inevitably dissolve into a basic need for God, a need that transcends the words, images, and questions that so often preoccupy us when thinking about God’s dealings with the world.
4. You have to pray, loudly.
When Johnny said “ohshallalalah,” he’d say it so everyone could hear. The Catholic charismatics I knew all prayed aloud — each with his or her own special word, adding to a cacophony of prayer with its own unpredictable dips and crescendos.
This was so disconcerting to my conventional Catholic sensibilities. I had been taught that the silent prayers of nuns and monks, the spirituality of the cloister and the abbey, were the ideal. Hence, my frustration when I could not enter silence because of my overactive mind.
Johnny told me to pray hard, and pray loudly. I choose “ohshallalalah” as an addition to my conventional recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. When I did, I found that my mind was quieted — paradoxically because it was so overwhelmed with sound.
It was then that I finally understood something of what charismatic prayer was about. It was a form of sensory deprivation through sensory overload. It was sound over silence, pushing down and pushing away all the questions, cares, and concerns that distract the mind from God.
Though Johnny would have been more than a little concerned with the connection, for me, charismatic prayer joined the spirituality of the monastery with that of the rock concert. It was contemplation via the prayerful equivalent of the mosh pit.
5. You have to fake it until you make it.
Johnny wasn’t familiar with the slogans of recovery in the Western world. For him, the healings and prophecies allowed by charismatic prayer were obvious and real. But to me, it seemed something else was a work — less obvious, but perhaps deeper.
I saw numerous healings when I was with Johnny, but they were not the healings that he and many of the other Catholic charismatics saw and claimed. I didn’t see wounded flesh immediately restored or shortened legs lengthened. More than a few times, Johnny’s specific prophecies did not turn out exactly as predicted. But I did see healings, most powerfully represented in the solidarity of laying on hands and through the clamor and din of Charismatic prayer in which participants — including me — felt released from their own imprisoning sense of individual self to enter a broader, fuller reality that drew us nearer to God.
Praying as a Catholic charismatic was a way of acting as a redeemed person. And if you didn’t actually feel redeemed, you could fake it until you did.
Johnny died over a decade ago. Friends of his told me that he was praising Jesus on his deathbed. Johnny was a rebel who did not fit into conventional Catholic or charismatic patterns of what a healer should be. His view of prayer was articulate, reflective, but quite idiosyncratic. For those of us who cannot reach silence, it might be comforting to know there are other ways to pray and experience God’s mercy — though a torrent of nonsensical words and sounds that carry us to the divine.
Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven especially those in need of thy mercy. “Ohshallalalah, ohshallalalah.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.