We have all been flooded by posts on social media telling us to pray for Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other areas hit by disaster. I was surprised by the ones I got from secular and liberal acquaintances and friends, who suddenly seemed to believe that it was worth praying, or, at least worth posting about prayer on Facebook. When disaster strikes, it often appears as if everyone starts to believe in the power of prayer. Not only do the words “God bless you” slide so easily off the tongue, they also sound more impacting than “I’m thinking of you”. It is nice to think, even if it is just a fantasy, that there might be a being who could just fix it all.
Not to my surprise, a few articles have begun to appear on social media criticizing the glibness with which we offer our prayers. They complain that prayer is an excuse not to act. On “Romper” (a website dedicated to empowering new mothers) Jenn Rose, in an article entitled, ‘Why Praying For Mexico City & Puerto Rico Isn’t Enough’, responded negatively to Trump’s tweet “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.” Rose railed against what she suggested was just a “feel good tweet” claiming “[t]he sentiment is completely meaningless, though, without an actual promise for specific action. Who exactly is ‘with’ them? Is Trump visiting the city himself? Is he sending the National Guard to help dig out the children still missing under the rubble of a collapsed school? How will he be ‘there for’ them?” Her aversion to prayer appeared elsewhere.
Kirsten Powers, in The Washington Post, in article entitled “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ Is Starting to Sound So Profane”, called the expression “thoughts and prayers” an “inoculation against a call to action”, when used by conservatives after mass shootings. Powers, a professed believer in prayer, attacked prayer with more sympathy than Jenn Rose. “I’m not in the camp that dismisses prayer as superstitious mumbo-jumbo embraced only by the unenlightened. I’m a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power”. She qualified this, adding, “But it’s not enough. Nor is it what we hire politicians to do. We elect them to fix problems, enact policies and keep us safe.” To back up her point she quoted Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, who put it this way “If your thoughts and prayers are truly with somebody, it means you are going to do something to help them. Jesus prayed. But he prays and then he acts. We also have to act.” Certainly, these responses hit at some basic truth. Prayer should not be a way out of acting, especially if we feel called to act.
In fact, Catholics speak of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The call of John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Matt 3:3), speaks to these things. John gave up everything to lead a life of prayer and penance in the desert. He called for others to do the same. Only through prayer, fasting and almsgiving do we “make his paths straight.” Christ demands that his followers give everything they owe to the poor. He declares “[n]ot everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Many saints have taken prayer, fasting, and almsgiving quite seriously. St. Francis among them gave away a life of comfort to serve God. He took the call of the Gospel literally.
The Church teaches the importance of prayer, fasting, penance, and almsgiving with the knowledge that without these three things working together, the words “I’ll pray for you” run the risk of becoming the intentionless words of well-wishers. As Rose and Powers point out, the expression “I’m praying for you” can quickly mean nothing more than “I’m thinking of you” or even “don’t bother me.”
However, prayer exists as more than a prelude to almsgiving. I would argue that prayer is itself an action. Prayer certainly affects the individual. It can lead to real change in the world, and it prevents us from having the hubris to believe that we alone can fix all our own problems.
As much as I agree with the Jesuit priest that prayer can spark our desire to act, I believe his words could be misconstrued. An important element of prayer lies in realizing that the matter rests in God’s hands. A president who is willing to pray is not putting off acting; one would hope he is recognizing something fundamental about how the world works.
Prayer Changes Hearts
Lately, I have been thinking about the balance between action and prayer. Especially at this time of year, I tend to ask myself, if I am doing enough to repent and spread the Gospel. Is God asking me to volunteer here or attend this prayer group there. We know on the one hand that Christ cured the sick and gave sight to the blind. On the other hand, we know that Christ told the busy Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Sitting at the feet of Jesus rather than rushing about must be the beginning of true conversion, but it is not an easy thing to do in my busy life. On the blog “Integrated Catholic Life,” Randy Hain quips, “if you don’t schedule prayer time and stick to it, it will not happen.” How much time do we need? Hain says, “Making time for prayer is like making time for your family. How much time are you willing to spend a day with your loved ones?” Put this way, it seems impossible to spend too much time in prayer.
In Friends of God, Josemaria Escriva describes life as prayer, “I would like us, in our meditation today, to make up our minds once and for all that we need to aspire to become contemplative souls, in the street, in the midst of our work, by maintaining a constant conversation with our God” (238). That being said, members of Opus Dei schedule prayer in their day. Prayer must be something that we make a part of our day, but, of course, it also is personal. Prayer must be a personal fit. Work and prayer go together. I know that I could not pray all the time without losing my focus.
Prayer Changes the World
St Therese of Lisieux, who was never actually a missionary, is the patron saint of missionaries through her prayers. Her example indicates that prayer equals activity; it does not demand a counterpoint in action as Rose and Powers suggest in their articles. Christ’s words about prayer are stirring, “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-13). These words should impress on us the power of prayer. Prayer is arguably more effective than action, that is, if we truly believe. The fact is that we need both those who pray and those who act. If we believed that only the prayers of someone, who acts mean anything, we would be doing a disservice to the homebound people, who cannot act, but greatly affect us with their prayers. We would also be discrediting cloistered religious and mothers at home with infant children. The beauty is that in every circumstance of life, we can contribute through prayer.
No Prayer Leads to a Marxist View
Devaluing prayer can lead to a type of Marxism as Father Paul Pang, CSSR, points out in his article “Almsgiving, Prayer, Penance – A Reflection For Lent” for The Catholic News Archdioceses. ”Poverty without Prayer runs the danger of turning us into Marxists,” Fr. Pang states, referring to poverty in terms of a spirit of giving towards the poor. Without our belief in the power of prayer, Christians can become mere do-gooders believing that on their own thy can fix poverty. There are many in the world who have sympathy for the poor or oppressed, but they dream of a heaven on earth. On the other hand, prayer without a desire for action can become Gnosticism as Fr. Pan also warns. He means that prayer, as a substitute for action, becomes a Gnostic activity in the sense that it is a denial and even condemnation of reality. The type of response that Buddhism offers to suffering can feel this way with its emphasis on escaping reality.
Missionaries are not Marxists nor are the cloistered trying to deny reality. The Christian view weaves prayer and action together. It avoids making them opposite poles. This still leaves me with the imperative to really make prayer a part of my life, to take it seriously.
For What Should We Pray?
I often ask myself for what should I pray as well as asking if my prayers are answered. Some of these questions are answered by our search for the kingdom, which orders our thoughts and our prayers. The Catechism explains “Christian petition is centered on the desire and search for the Kingdom to come, in keeping with the teaching of Christ. There is a hierarchy in these petitions: we pray first for the Kingdom, then for what is necessary to welcome it and cooperate with its coming. This collaboration with the mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which is now that of the Church, is the object of the prayer of the apostolic community” (2632). Seeking the kingdom demands humility and acceptance.
In his US Catholic article, “How does God answer prayer,” Joel Schorn describes the humility required by prayer, while also answering the question why we pray when God already knows what we need: “Though we can be sure God knows what we need before we ask, by turning to God we entrust our lives to God’s guidance, come what may. As the 18th-century French spiritual master François Fénelon once prayed, ‘Lord, we know not what we ought to ask of you. You alone know what we need. . . . We have no other desire than to accomplish your will. Teach us to pray! Pray yourself in us.’”
Christians Must Make Prayer Meaningful
One of my non-Catholic friends was a fellow teacher I had met in Mexico, though he himself came from northern Europe. His posts on Facebook about prayer were followed up by videos of his building houses for people who had lost everything. Each post raised awareness, but also drew attention to himself. It is difficult to do good without drawing this attention. Hopefully, prayer never becomes another way to look good.
True prayer is neither an “inoculation to action” nor a prelude to action–nor is it about looking good. I feel it is itself action. It changes us from the inside out and changes our world in ways we cannot even imagine. It shatters our tower of pride and self-reliance. Prayer recalls the king of the earth and the kingdom to come. Let us be cautious, however, of praying glibly. All too often the prayers our culture makes come without any real intention of change. They are not prayed with a desire to believe more in the power of God. In a world in which prayer is sometimes used as a political troupe, Christians must show that it has a much deeper meaning.