Thursday, May 10, 2007

From the Audience

A recent comment:

Thanks, I just found this blog and like it. I like your approach a lot and am hoping you could shed some light.'s what I don't get. Are we supposed to believe that God directly intervenes (interferes) with daily events? If so, is that why you pray? If not, then why do you pray? I see problems either way.
-I dont understand, but I'd like to.

As many of you know, prayer is a favorite topic of mine...probably because I myself struggle with it. So any opportunity to address questions in regard to this matter often afford an opportunity to reflect on issues that I have struggled or continue to grapple with.

It is natural to pray as though God were a cosmic Spiderman, who needs only to be called upon to save the day. Many of our prayers take this form, "Oh God, let me get this answer right." "Dear Lord, please don't let me mess this recipe up." "Holy God, please let the Indians/Cavs/Browns win something important this season" (If this prayer worked, it would be definitive proof - even for Richard Dawkins - of an all-powerful God).

Jesus, it would seem, had a similar prayer: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39). For many of us, this is the prayer that leaps from our heart with a genuine hope that the hand of God will mysteriously begin to manipulate space and time in order to bring about our desired outcome. The instruction manuals for such "Deity Manipulation" read: if you pray long enough and hard enough, God will eventually do what you want. If you don't get what you pray for, it's because you prayed poorly or you are guilty of some sin that God is punishing you for.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fights against this type of prayer. Read carefully:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. (Matthew 26:39)

The prayer of Jesus is wholly realistic: he has a pretty good sense that the end of his life is imminent and that the act of betrayal perpetrated by Judas is going to bring about a painful and shameful death. Here Jesus expresses fear - Luke's account of this scene has him sweat blood - and anguish over what lies ahead of him. His request is so like our own - "Let this pass!" - and yet his prayer marks his openness to hearing and responding to God's will.

"So," one might think, "if Jesus couldn't get his prayer answered, then why should we bother praying?"

We pray because to do so is what makes us human. Prayer is the event recognizing that we are not God, that we are not all-powerful, and that we cannot control the future. Rather than calling God down from on high, prayer helps us to sift through our days and our lives in order to uncover God's abiding presence within our day-to-day goings on.

The Prayer of Gethsemane - "Not what I want, but what you want" - is a far cry from Spiderman. It does not demand that we strain our eyes to the roofs and to the skies in order to glimpse the arrival of the hero; rather, it demands that we close our eyes and allow the presence of God to be felt here and now. Such a prayer recognizes a God who is present in the world, straining and working to bring about God's Kingdom. Prayer helps to make us attentive to this presence, bringing us into alignment with it, helping us to respond to it even when it is difficult to do so.

So for the young parents whose son has leukemia, what does prayer do? Will it necessarily destroy the cancerous cells that ravage the child's fragile body? Will a boy's prayer for his grandmother rescue her from the oblivion of Alzheimer's? Will a family's novenas cure a daughter's cancer? Will prayer rescue the gunshot victim? Will it hold aloft the thrown ball as it sails toward the end-zone?

If only it were so.

Prayer is our entrance into a dialogue between God and creation. It centers us, enabling us to see how God is and continues to work to bring about God's Kingdom. This does not posit a God who afflicts babies with AIDS or cancer, but it does recognize that God is present with those children, with all children and all persons. We pray in order to see the trace of God in our lives, to have our eyes directed toward the promise of the Kingdom where "God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away" (Revelation 21:4). We pray because it is what makes us human, recognizing with Augustine that "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you." We pray because we trust that God is at work in our world, in our lives, and even if we cannot yet understand the movement of God's work, even if we can't see the totality of what God has promised, we pray in order to discern and to accept God's will.

I fear hitting the "publish" button without one further statement. I don't want to make it sound as though cancer/AIDS/drugs/etc. were all a necessary part of God's plan. But they are part of our human reality, and I reckon that God has to work with what is available. So for the parents of an ailing child, a person with a terminal or serious illness, or a city with a doomed sports team I do not wish to sound callous or blithely nonchalant saying, "Accept your lot!" Prayer affords us that opportunity to rage, to scream, to cry to a God who can accept and can hear what we have to say. I do not believe that God afflicts people or strikes them down - so the idea that AIDS is a punishment is wholly deranged. Instead, I believe these happen in our world but that God is still present to the persons, with the persons. Prayer might not take the cancer away, but it can remind us that we are not alone as the war against the cancer is waged. Prayer probably won't expunge HIV from one's body, but it can draw us closer as one Body of Christ.

I offer this for now, but I hope people will have comments and we continue the discussion as needed. I hope this gets us started.


Joe said...

Prayers, if they are congruent with God's will, sometimes -- not always, alas -- alter circumstances. However, prayers ALWAYS alter the way we react and respond to the circumstances which may or may not change.


Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

I am not much of a Catholic at all, but I don't discount miracles. I believe there might be times when cures do happen. After all, Jesus himself, and the disciples in Acts, seemed to go around healing people. But you seem to discount this as a possibility in your post here about prayer.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

I don't discount miracles, but I am STRONGLY resistant to any idea that they are tied to the amount of prayer that one does. The reason the Church rejects 'magic' is because it purports to have control over the deity. A miracle is a manifestation of God's graciousness, God's intiative, a work of divine agency. We can hope for a miracle, pray for a miracle, but the idea that our prayers control miracles smack of paganism.

This is an area where I am far more conservative that most others. I really do believe that prayer helps to widen our vision, to dispose ever more completely toward receiving and responding to God's grace. Prayers offered 'for' another draw us together in one Body and support the one who is prayed for. But I am far to Augustinian (and Ignatian) to hold anything but that miracles are of God's initiative, not human. I think miracles happen every day...but I think it is only through the eyes of prayer that we begin to recognize the presence of God in all things (Jesuit catch phrase) - which is the point, I might add, of the Jesuit Examen.

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

Ahhh OK I get the distinction. Thanks for the very clear reply. I need to reread what you said I think, but for me here it is time for bed now. Enjoy the Friday I am just leaving behind ;-)

Joe said...

Miracle-wise, the person(s) involved MUST be open to the will of God.

After all, in the Gospels. you don't see Jesus telling the disciples to hold down some leper that He may heal him/her regardless of how the leper feeels about it.


Heather said...

You know I struggled with prayer lots, because as a child I grew up in a home with lots of abuse and it seemed God was remarkably silent. I have since realized where God was in the midst of the abuse, and have found comfort, but it took a lot of searching to find Him.

Regarding prayer, I realize that where I can mess up is that I forget that God is Sovereign. And He answers prayers but in His time frame, His way. I so often petition God and then tell Him how to answer the prayer. In His sovereignty He often has a better way than my limited understanding.

We want God to fix things our way, but forgetting that it is our way that messed things up. God works for a deep healing - and it has nothing to do with what we perceive our external circumstances are. God is healing us where it matters the most for eternity, not just this brief wink of time that we are here on earth.

That being said, I firmly believe that God is a healer - He made us and He can heal us completely. We need to have faith and keep pressing towards Him like the woman with the issue of blood or the four friends who tore up a roof to get to Jesus. Jesus even told us to keep seeking, knocking, praying.

God's answer can be delayed by things that have nothing to do with us, like in Daniel when the angel was delayed 21 days by principalities of the kings of Persia, even though God immediately sent an answer.

God, like any good parent, does not just give in to the demands of His kids, if all we are doing is asking for things, not thanking Him, not spending time with Him just to seek Him and know Him, not enjoying His company, He will not create spoiled brats, He wants relationship.

Just a few thoughts, hope I haven't posted too much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this discussion, I came here to understand the tin whistle rolls and then I found this pretty exchange of ideas.

I agree with the concept that many times we can be like both of the thieves near to Jesus on the cross: one ask Him why he doesn't make anything to solve his *problem*, the other one is happy because God is there with him.
(I borrow this example from one italian priest).

Christopher said...

I agree that when human prayer attempts to control God it can blur the demarcation line between God and his creation. However, I also believe that although God is not our personal superhero or vending machine, He is greatly influenced by the cries of His children. And yes, sometimes - but certainly not as often as we would like, these supplications can result in the bending or outright breaking of natural law.

I would like to reference the parable of the widow and the unjust judge found in Luke 18:1-8. If a cold hearted judge will eventually give in to the persistence of a poor widow, how much more will our persistence in earnest and humble prayer move our Father on our behalf?

So yes, I am open to the possibility that certain miracles are tied to the earnestness of one's prayer life, but not out of domination or control, just out of love.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hi Christopher,

Thanks for your comment.

I would point out, however, that in the parable referenced (Lk 18:1-8) that we are dealing with two different economies. Within the economy of this world, the judge capitulates to the woman's request because he fears that her incessant pleading lest she wear him out.

The economy of the Father is held in stark contrast. In this case, it is the Father who knows the form of justice. Whereas the judge answers the cries of the woman, the Father's justice (the Kingdom) is the answer to the cries of the people. What I'm pointing to is the ordering - the woman re-orients the judge while it is God's justice that is is the answer to the cries of the people.

Again, I'm operating out of a concept of grace as God's ever-offered gift of self as relationship (yeah Rahner!). The cries of the people is the opening, the question, the restlessness that finds repose within God's Kingdom.

I'm not saying that God does not respond to prayer. I'm saying that God's response (and our recognition of it) involves us becoming in tune with God, not vice versa. We do not draw God into our economy through prayer; rather, prayer is our entrance into the economy of the Kingdom, our kneeling before the Holy One who hears and answers all.

Joe said...

When we pray with proper disposition, we are drawn ever closer to God and, in doing so WE INEVITABLY CHANGE. Even if the circumstances that prompted us to pray do not change (my uncle Wilbur being cured of lycanthropy, say) by us changing and being better conformed with God can see His hand in all things and accepting His will becomes part of our nature.


Anonymous said...

hello, i originally posed the question you answered so well about prayer. and now that i know you're willing to take audience questions, may i pose another? do you ever look to the cross and simply see a guy dying? once again, i'm not meaning to be disrespectful.