It’s Charismatic Prayer Sharing, Thursday nights at 8:00 P.M. in the Community Room of the large Catholic church I attend with my family. Because I’ve been wanting to learn to pray better, I went recently.

Lou, the man I’d talked to on the phone, walked over and greeted me. Another, Stan, a seraphic, unkempt. round little man with a wooden cross on a leather thong around his neck, traveled the room hugging people and bestowing upon each a great boisterous “Shalom!”

Before the meeting, facilitator Lou—possibly the world’s kindest man—explained to me and several other newcomers what might happen. “We’re going to listen to a tape of singing and some speaking. Let the Spirit flow into you. Afterwards, we’ll have some testimony from various people, and then you might hear speaking in tongues, you might hear prophesying, you might see miracles. When people prophesy, they do it in the first person, but remember that it’s not them speaking but the Holy Spirit speaking through them.” Lou then led us in one of the evening’s many prayers beginning, “Oh, Lord, we just ask that you . . . “

He turned on the tape, and immediately half of the group of 30 raised their hands in the air, palms open and up, beseechingly. I’d seen an occasional parishioner do this at my little Episcopal church, but it always seemed out of place, self-conscious, show-offy. Here I felt odd and embarrassed. We sang and listened to uplifting words for nearly an hour. The whole point of the tape was that our purpose in life is to praise God, and I can buy that. A few of the songs spoke of lying down before the Lord, and at those points Stan stretched himself full-length on the linoleum.

When the tape was finished, Stan, a presence at the front of the room, hands folded on his chest, forefingers to his lips, raised his head and sang out, “O my people, how many times do I have to remind you that I love you? And how many times will you question what I ask you to do?” At least that was the gist of his message, which went on for five minutes. A sensible-looking woman whose job it was to take notes on the prophesies became a prophet herself “O my people, I will shelter you, you will be safe. Do not fear. In me is your refuge.” All solid biblical stuff. A priest (the church’s priests weren’t there) read Bible verses which didn’t seem to fit (but then I don’t always see the connection between the first and second readings and the gospel, either, and I’m used to taking such things on faith).

A woman stood and said, “I don’t know if this should come now or later, but I have a strong feeling that someone in this room is having leg or knee problems tonight, in the left leg. That’s all,” she added self-effacingly, and sat down. Group: “Praise the Lord!” Lou said, “Okay, is there anyone here with pain in the leg or knee tonight?” A man sitting next to me said he was experiencing pain in his left leg, a problem that had been recurring for years. “Praise the Lord!”

Lou, who wore a loose, lace-up medical slipper on one foot, confessed, choosing his words thoughtfully: “Last week the Lord told me to do something, and I disobeyed. Then I woke up a few days ago, and my foot hurt. I don’t remember doing anything to it, but it got worse and worse, and it hurt so bad today that I went to the doctor—and he couldn’t find anything wrong with it!

“Praise the Lord!”

“I know now that God is trying to get my attention, to chastise me for intentionally disobeying him last week. So now I’m asking for your forgiveness—and I’m really asking for it, my friends.”

“You’re forgiven, Lou! We forgive you!”

“And I know that with your forgiveness and prayers, I’ll be healed tonight.”

“Praise the Lord!”

A woman on my right began calmly enough—”I’ve been coming here for a long time, and for years I’ve been telling you about my husband’s illness, and you and the Lord helped me through it”—but then broke down. “Well, last week I went to Rochester, and they said I have cancer, and they’re trying to keep it from going into my liver, and I have to take chemotherapy, and it hurts so bad, and my hair’s falling out, and I’m so ashamed because I’m losing my faith! Why does all this have to happen to me!?”

Three or four women ran to her and laid their hands on her. One of them announced to the rest of us, “The Lord’s just told me that Anna’s going to need at least 10 people to walk with her and help her get through this. Not just one, but 10. Are there 10 people here who are willing to help her?” I squirmed; what did she want? Prayer, or visits, or minute-by-minute companionship? Several others stood up, but most of us didn’t. The ones who remained seated raised their palms to Heaven. Lou, sensing the dilemma, made haste to say that we were to pray for Anna, to let the spirit of the Lord fill us. Stan, hands to forehead: “I’m not sure what this means, but the Lord has said to me that you should change your name from ‘Anna,’ which means ‘bitter,’ to ‘Mora,’ which means ‘I praise God.'”

Lou moved closer to Anna and put his hands on her stomach: “Oh, Lord, we just pray that you’ll heal our sister. Satan, I bind you and cast you out from Anna’s stomach. I bind you and cast you out from her liver. Lord, we just ask you to heal Anna’s cancer, and to make her—what are they called?— white corpuscles healthier. Lord, we just pray that you’ll restore our sister to perfect health.” Their sister was in her 70’s. Some people spoke in tongues, and the group prayed over Anna for 15 minutes.

Then the man with the sore leg got up and sat on a chair in the front of the room, and they put their hands on him and prayed in tongues, and the women whom the Lord had told about his pain measured his legs and felt them and prayed over him. Stan helped to jog God’s memory of how Man is made: “Ask the Lord to make the joint healthy,” he reminded Lou. And, “Remember to ask the Lord to heal the surrounding tissue.” Lou thanked him and obliged.

When they were done, Lou sat down in the chair, and the man with the sore leg (I wasn’t aware of any miracles that night), along with Stan and a fashionable, vivacious young mother who’d brought her five-year-old son, prayed over his sore foot. Several others, including an intense teenage boy who spoke in the most elegant tongue imaginable (some peoples’ sounded to me like maracas or cats moaning after a fight), prayed over a 50-year-old man who had had a crippling disease for much of his life. “O Lord, we just ask that you heal our brother, let him walk upright, without crutches.” The man looked unexpectant but grateful for whatever might come his way.