Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why We Pray: A Midweek Rumination

     [I stumbled upon this in my Archives while searching for something else. It appears that I wrote it several years ago, but never posted it anywhere. It nicely expresses the mood I’m in this morning: i.e., utterly sick of politics and greatly relieved and refreshed by my morning prayers. There’s a moral in that that the whole country could stand to learn. -- FWP]

     “You do not ‘have’ a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” – Clive Staples Lewis

     I attend a Thursday evening prayer group, semi-regularly. The group is small and fairly constant in attendance; we know one another by name, and swap personal news just as might any group of well-acquainted Americans who’ve converged for non-emergency purposes. The degree of congeniality is quite normal for a group of Catholics who’ve come together to pray.

     One of the attendees, a fellow named Bill who’s been stricken with cancer of several varieties, told us about a cancer support group that meets at a local Catholic church. The attendees of that group aren’t all Christians. As a result, Bill said, the Christians in the group feel inhibited about speaking of their faith and its importance to their perseverance in the face of suffering and physical limitation.

     I was appalled, and said so. To my mind, one of the saddest things about our era is that Christians should feel they must censor themselves for fear of offending non-believers. This, while the adherents of Islam freely hold mass prayer meetings that block city streets at high noon, and demand that “infidels” refrain from criticizing their faith or linking it with the terrorist plague afflicting the globe!

     The others remained silent, until Bill reminded us of the exhortation of Saint Francis of Assisi:

“At all times preach the Gospels. When necessary, use words.”

     It was a much-needed reminder.

     Possibly the aspect of Christian behavior that most baffles non-Christians is our attachment to ritual prayer. Catholics, especially, rely heavily upon a small group of prayers that are unvarying in form. A non-Christian might wonder at the point of it all. What does it achieve to repeat the same formula over and over, with no evidence that God or any of His saints is listening?

     The question flows from the strain of pragmatism deep in the American spirit. We value results. We tend, quite rationally, to abandon lines of endeavor that don’t deliver – and rather promptly, at that. Ours is a step-along-briskly / get-where-you’re-going sort of ethic. It makes no room for activities that yield nothing.

     Except for when it does: movies, television, casual sports, video games, leisure reading, window shopping, endless hours spent chatting at the local saloon or diddling on the World Wide Web, and so forth. We don’t stop to question those apparently pointless expenditures of time and effort. Their justification is too obvious: We enjoy them. We get some pleasure, some diversion, and some relief of care from them. What more reason do we need?

     Prayer is like that, and more. Prayer isn’t a burdensome thing, nor is it obligatory in some quantity prescribed by an external authority. We believe that God smiles upon prayer, and that He sometimes provides divine help to those who pray for some temporal boon. But more than that, prayer provides him who willingly prays with certain bounties intrinsic to the act of praying. It is a good thing in and of itself.

     We derive many of the same physiological and emotional benefits from prayer as we do from other leisure activities. It relaxes and calms us. It diverts us from dwelling on our worldly cares. It also provides a pleasure unique to prayer: the pleasure that comes from releasing our burdens into the arms of One eternally willing to carry them for us while we pray. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a long hot bath after a strenuous, trying day has an inkling of the personal benefits of prayer.

     And there’s still more.

     A pragmatic attitude is inherently a temporal one. It partakes wholly of our nature as creatures under the veil of Time, ruled by laws of cause and effect. We envision goals and design paths toward them. In short, we follow The Algorithm:

     1. Select a technique that you think will get you what you think you want.
     2. Will this technique require you to lose body parts, go to jail, or burn in Hell?
          a. If so, return to step 1.
          b. If not, proceed to step 3.
     3. Do a little of it.
     4. Are you at your goal, approaching it, or receding from it?
          a. If at your goal, stop.
          b. If approaching, return to step 3.
          c. If receding, return to step 1.

     It’s a fine approach to life under the veil of Time. But Christians believe, just as C. S. Lewis said, that we are souls: eternal beings with a little temporal persistence here and now. Our bodies will eventually fail us, but our souls will not. Too complete an immersion in temporal matters, too monomaniacal a concentration on tangible results, can cause us to forget that.

     Prayer is one of the best reminders of our eternal nature. God stands outside time. We hope eventually to join Him. While we wear the flesh our closest approach to Him is through prayer.

     I wrote the above not just for the edification of non-Christians, but also because a great many Christians are prone to denying themselves the benefits of prayer when their temporal cares press too closely upon them. Truly, there’s no better time to pray, even if it must be a quick Our Father behind the steering wheel, or a Hail Mary muttered as one runs from pillar to post. Yet even a sincere Christian will occasionally be moved to question the use: Why just keep repeating this old formula? I must have done it ten thousand times since I first learned it. If God hasn’t heard me yet, why keep on?

     It’s a question the non-Christian asks even more pointedly, of course: a ritual, no matter its form or purpose, will always seem pointless to those not devoted to it. That’s our pragmatism talking again.

     What it overlooks is twofold: the benefits of prayer as described above, and the great helix of spiritual ascent prefigured by the most famous of all prophetic dreams:

     Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." [Genesis 28:10-15]

     For Christian worship is not two-dimensional, but three. It isn’t just a flat, circular repetition of rote formulas prescribed by others long dead, which we’re commanded to repeat pointlessly until our tongues fail us. It’s a journey into faith: a helical ladder on which the soul ascends, through the forms of prayer and the meditations they elicit, to an ever better understanding of God's will, and an ever greater appreciation of His love.

     May He bless and keep you all.


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Anonymous said...

Ask and ye shall receive. As the country song says, we must at times thank God for unanswered prayers. Why keep doing it? Because as you said it works. That is, if you are asking for good things that are also in accordance with His will. I think the Lord's Prayer is the most powerful in part because we remember to ask "Thy will be done". Acceptance of and trust in God make life so much easier.

Linda Fox said...

I tell non-Catholics that the prayers are unvarying because, when you really need prayer, your brain is least able to come up with something that expresses your feelings. So, we pray as we do because:
- it is comforting to pray familiar prayers
- they are things of beauty
- they come directly from the Bible, for the most part
- they connect us with souls who are no longer with us on Earth
- they connect us with all the other Catholic souls in the world