Sunday, August 24, 2014

Some Thoughts On Prayer: A Sunday Rumination

Prayer is a good thing, right? At least, that's what Jesus thought and said, though He qualified the judgment in a rather striking fashion:

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues, and on street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." [Matthew 6:5-6]


"When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." [Matthew 6:7-8]

That once made me rather uncomfortable about my love of the Rosary, which is not only often said in company but is also a highly repetitive prayer. Yet even so, no sincere prayer will displease God, for He "hears" in a fashion quite alien to that of men -- and He knows you better than you know yourself.

Some time ago, while looking through some online catalogs of Catholic instructional and devotional materials, I purchased a small book: How To Pray Always, by Father Raoul Pius of the Society of Jesus. I didn't get much out of it in the way of actual practice, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay. But I did -- and do -- honor the core thesis: that a life lived as prayerfully as possible is a worthy thing to which to aspire. I've thought about the matter, and how one might best approach it, ever since.

Prayer will usually fall into one of four categories:

  • Petition;
  • Contrition;
  • Thanksgiving;
  • Praise and Worship.

The moods that animate each of those purposes are not bound to the act of praying. They can strike at any moment of the day, under any circumstances, no matter what might be happening. To the extent that one is conscious of them, they can become the engines of spontaneous prayer, though it will often be a less formal sort than the ritual prayers Christians tend to memorize and employ for "scheduled" occasions.

In this connection, a story Mila Kunis told about the late Robin Williams is apposite:

The duo crossed paths on the CBS studio lot several years ago while working on separate projects. Williams, who was dressed as an elephant at the time, reportedly picked up on Kunis' nerves while she was filming an episode of That 70s Show.

He said, 'Remember this moment. Remember this because things like this don't happen very often. Remember this time.' Having somebody of Robin Williams' stature tell me to just acknowledge something meant so much," she said. "He didn't mentor me. He just said, 'Step back and appreciate this. You're having an amazing time.'

"You're having an amazing time." That's you personally, Gentle Reader, right this very moment, regardless of what you're doing, or where, or why, because time itself is amazing. What you're doing, regardless of how mundane, even trivial, it may seem to you, is nevertheless unique, specifically because it's you doing it at that moment in time. It's an element in your history that deserves your full attention...and your appreciation of the opportunities it affords you, whether to profit by it, to learn from it, or to triumph over it. A word or two of thanksgiving to the Creator would not be amiss.

Quite a lot of the critics of Christianity attack prayer as a false bargain. Two avenues of attack are more popular than all others:

  • God supposedly answers all prayers, yet what we ask for in prayer isn't always forthcoming.
  • What you receive in this world is always explicable by the action of agencies other than God.

Both sorts of attack are defeasible, but one must know how to go about it.

First, to say all prayers are answered, as Christians believe, is not to say that the answer will give the petitioner the specific thing he's requested. God is not Amazon or UPS. He gives us what we need -- often even if we haven't asked for it. Second, of course you'll be able to see human agencies at work in the delivery of what you need! How do you think God, the wholly transtemporal being who actually created time, works on our domain without changing any of the laws He decreed for this universe?

Our human tensions over the matter are nicely captured by this classic piece from Laurie Kendrick:


LK: Hello?

God: Hey LK. What’s shakin’? You had a birthday recently.

LK: I did God, thanks for remembering. Hey, this is a real surprise. You never call me.

God: I felt like talking.

LK: What are you up to?

God: Oh, you know. I’m like the McDonald’s of redemption. I answer six billion prayers a day. I wake up the next morning and there are six billion more.

LK: We mortals are a pesky, relentless bunch.

God: Yes, you are, but I love ya. Anything on your mind?

LK: Yeah, there is. God, there’s a lot of crap in the world now. Heavy stuff happening. I just don’t understand why things are the way they are.

God: I know. Most of it’s hard to wrap your head around. Like why Eddie Murphy didn’t win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Dreamgirls”. And of course, there’s the whole Sanjaya thing.

LK: What was that all about?

God: Sanjaya? Oh for that, you can thank all the girls in the fifth grade class of the The Palmer School in Winnetka, Illinois.

LK: Huh?

God: Prayer circle.

LK: Interesting. Why then was Sanjaya voted off “American Idol”?

God: For that, you can thank all the the boys in the fifth grade class of The Palmer School in Winnetka, Illinois.

LK: That’s pretty funny. Still, it seems odd that we’re praying for Sanjaya when there are so many other things that need your attention.

God: People pray for a lot of different things. What’s pressing to some, won’t be to others. I don’t rate prayers or prioritize them. If you need something, you ask me, I hear you.

LK: But do you always answer every prayer?

God: Always.

LK: Doesn’t seem like it.

God: I do. Take you for example. There was that little issue of penis envy in fourth grade? Remember that? You prayed to me, asking me to turn you into a boy. I answered your prayer by keeping you a girl.

LK: But you didn’t give me what I wanted. I really wanted to become a boy. And by the way, what was I thinking?

God: Please! You were eight years old at the time and no, I didn’t give you what you wanted, but I gave you what you needed. Don’t get me wrong, sure, I could’ve done it. I could’ve snapped my fingers and you’d have gone from Laurie to Larry in a flash. But that’s not what you needed. That’s not what Madolyn Welsh needed, either.

LK: Madolyn Welsh? My college roommate?

God: If you wouldn’t have been you, you wouldn’t have gone to college, moved into the dorm and you wouldn’t have roomed with Madolyn. When her mother was killed in that car crash that fall, you wouldn’t have been there to help her. That was a very difficult and trying time for Madolyn. She needed you and you needed to be there. And the fact that you were there made a difference. It saved her life. Saved yours too. Remember? You were having a very tough freshman year.

Please read the whole thing.

The other monstrous attack on Christianity -- that is, the one that doesn't merely scoff at what we believe because of its "implausibility" -- is via human evil and suffering. A just God, the argument runs, would never have permitted all the evil and horror that afflicts our world. Therefore either God does not exist or He is not just; take your pick, silly little Christian. At which point the militant atheist usually sits back with folded arms and a smug expression.

It's a non-trivial argument. It cannot be rebuffed without recourse to an aspect of the nature of Man that is itself a matter of controversy: our God-given gift of free will, and what it implies about the applicability of prayer.

Human free will is the whole point of the dimension of time: the medium in which we exercise our powers of choice and learn from the consequences. Under the most confining circumstances imaginable, there will always be choices before us. At the very minimum, even with death imminent and unavoidable, we will always choose our own attitudes, beliefs, and convictions.

Yes, even when one's neck is on the block and the headsman raises the axe high. Consider this passage from...who else?

Frost had left the dining-room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so-since he had been initiated- he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There were not, and must not be, such things as men. But never, until this evening, had he been quite so vividly aware that the body and its movements were the only reality, that the self which seemed to watch the body leaving the dining room, and setting out for the chamber of the Head, was a nonentity. How infuriating that the body should have power thus to project a phantom self!

Thus the Frost whose existence Frost denied watched his body go into the anteroom, watched it pull up sharply at the sight of a naked and bloodied corpse. The chemical reaction called shock occurred. Frost stooped, turned the body over, and recognised Straik. A moment later his flashing pince-nez and pointed beard looked into the room of the Head itself. He hardly noticed that Wither and Filostrato lay there dead. His attention was fixed by something more serious. The bracket where the Head ought to have been was empty: the metal ring twisted, the rubber tubes tangled and broken. Then he noticed a head on the floor: stooped and examined it. It was Filostrato's. Of Alcasan's head he found no trace, unless some mess of broken bones beside Filostrato's were it.

Still not asking what he would do, or why, Frost went to the garage. The whole place was silent and empty; the snow was thick on the ground by this. He came up with as many petrol tins as he could carry. He piled all the inflammables he could think of together in the Objective Room. Then he locked himself in by locking the outer door of the ante-room. Whatever it was that dictated his actions then compelled him to push the key into the speaking-tube which communicated with the passage. When he had pushed it as far in as his fingers could reach, he took a pencil from his pocket and pushed with that. Presently he heard the clink of the key falling on the passage floor outside. That tiresome illusion, his consciousness, was screaming to protest: his body, even had he wished, had no power to attend to those screams. Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not cure the illusion of being a soul-nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

[C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength]

Lewis allowed that even that terribly evil man, one of the architects of a Satanically powered conspiracy against the whole human race, in his final moments had the freedom of will to choose to repent: to pray for deliverance from the eternal reward to which his unrepentant death would deliver him. That he refuses that final opportunity is an unforgettably vivid demonstration of the ultimate consequence of the sin of unbounded Pride.

Our freedom of the will is what distinguishes us from all else that lives. It might be the thing the militant atheist hates worst, whether he admits it or not, for it's the best practical evidence that Man is more than the cells of his body and the electrical impulses that run along his nerves. It empowers us to choose belief and its implications over unbelief and its consequences. That many billions have made "the wrong choice" -- that some of those billions have chosen to accept grisly martyrdoms rather than renounce their faiths -- confounds the atheist beyond all else.

What could sustain such resolute courage in the face of everything from scorn and humiliation to suffering and death, except fervent, unceasing prayer?

There is so much more to be said about prayer and its virtues that the subject is, for practical purposes, inexhaustible. However, no mortal man is equally inexhaustible, including myself, so I'll close here with a twofold valedictory:

  • Enjoy your Sunday, however you choose to spend it;
  • And may God bless and keep you all!


Ron Olson said...

Thanks Mr. P.

Weetabix said...

Thank you. I didn't feel uncomfortable before reading this, and yet somehow after reading it I still felt comforted.