Why We Pray
Word Magazine May 1973 Page 3-5
WHY WE PRAY
By Father Alexander Turner
The Christian use of prayer seems inconsistent to the non-Christian. He may understand such a practice by primitive peoples, bedeviled by fears and superstitions, living under the shadow of name-forces. Entreaty would be needed to cope with a deity both amoral and capricious and appropriately susceptible to persuasion. But the Christian God is supposed to be different both in personality and morals. First of all, he knows everything so it is unnecessary to tell him of human need. And of course he knows how good he is, so flattery would be superfluous. Secondly, if he is good, as Christians claim, we should get everything from him without begging. The logic is convincing and many have followed it to various conclusions which agree only in condemning as untenable the Christian combination of an all-wise, all-loving God with a primitive concept of man’s relation to him.
One of these alternative conclusions is that everything is already perfect and that we need only recognize the fact to make them appear what they are. This presupposes, though it carefully avoids admitting, a congenital blindness in man. On no other basis could so many be so wrong so much of the time! And if such a congenital blindness exists, everything is far from perfect. Another escape from the dilemma is deism: a religious philosophy which had some vogue in the eighteenth century and which is now in a limited revival. Deism stated that God created the world and then left it completely on its own, being neither inmanent in it nor responsive to prayer. And a third attempt to escape the dilemma takes the form of an ingenious explanation that man is complete master of his destiny and that he only seems to pray to an external deity when he is actually praying to himself, or realizing his own innate powers. Still another modern religion makes God a sort of super-machine with much emphasis on forces and law and so on. In this scheme of things man’s salvation is a mechanical matter; he must achieve through knowledge and effort as he does in the physical world and. by implication, the best that this world has to offer is all there is. Prayer holds no place in such a philosophy.
There is also the tendency to look upon God as the sum total of things, or the ‘indwelling spirit’, and so on. What confused thinking this represents. The word ‘God’ means something other than you and me and the lamp post. If we begin to call all these things God, we are missing the point altogether, discarding the concept which the word ‘God’ represents, and substituting something entirely different: a fancied unity which cannot exist under the conditions we know to prevail in our world. If a unity of things exists, it exists in a spiritual state which must be quite different from the trees and sky which this philosophy would call God. Such a philosophy caters to human pride, exalts man, debases God, and ends in atheism.
The theories are many and they all present their own contradictions and troubles, shifting the basic difficulty from one place to another. That basic difficulty is the reconciliation of our concept of God with what we know by experience of the world which we believe God has made. It is not to be exorcised by false estimates of man or of God or by denying the evidence of our senses. Restless probing first in one direction and then another simply underscores the situation, and therein lies the first lesson one must learn if he is to grasp the nature of prayer. The world is on its own to a very large extent and we are left to do the best we can with it by our own efforts. But there are also many conditions which we cannot deal with alone. So much is self-evident.
Next, we have the conviction that God, who created the world, is all-knowing and all-powerful. Between the apparent condition of the world and the nature of God as we know him to be there is an unavoidable tension, and this tension is of the very essence of religion as a human experience. It is simply another face of the recurrent duality, science and theology; spirit and matter; mercy and justice; inspiration and technic.
This paradox is ubiquitous and we must accept it. But it is far more digestible than the alternatives contrived to escape it. For example, it is more plausible that the world is a haphazard state of affairs and that human fortunes are in a state of flux and flow than to believe that what we take for human misery and mischances are an optical illusion. It is easier to believe that one infinite first cause of all secondary causes exists eternally in and of himself, than to believe that John Doe is God in disguise. Less imagination is required to see that an all-merciful God can coexist with a world of individual human responsibilities and chances (and missteps!) than to conceive of a being who caused things but who is himself but a law. A law is the way we see things behave under certain conditions. What would you think of a friend who sought to pay you a compliment by saying that you were not a person at all but something like the force of gravity?
The Christian God is therefore a person. Or we may call him super-personal if we beware the pitfall of mechanics. He may not share our limitations but he must embrace the attributes and qualities and powers which we respect in humanity. He must be more than a law, for the world where we see laws operating is his creation. He must be more than a piece of machinery, for several reasons: he made the things which make machinery possible; he gave man the intellect to devise machinery; and machinery at its best will always be sub-human and ignoble by comparisons with beings who have made it. God is neither unconscious nor automatic.
The presently popular machine god results from the wave of awe which we feel at new scientific discoveries and mechanical developments. A savage would react as we do if he saw a telephone. The fact that a machine can do something which man cannot do without it is not at all remarkable. Otherwise even clocks would be terrifying. Can we not dispose once and for all of this recurrent tendency to be set off base by any new discovery? Atomic fission has no more solved the riddle of the universe, nor resolved basic human problems than did evolution. And it would even seem now that the more we learn, the deeper we are sinking in a psychological, cultural and social morass. We can expect the homely God of the Christians to go on doing business when robots have ceased to be objects of veneration and become household gadgets.
The miracle of personality, of consciousness, of free choice (which we know so directly from experience and which is so easily ‘disproved’ by behaviourism) — these promise a certain order of supernatural evidence in the ever-expanding mystery of subjective experience. Only if we are prepared to debase our concept of God to the shabbiest levels of claptrap pantheism can we deny personality, consciousness, intelligence to God, and hence, deny the validity of converse with him which is called prayer.
This brings the matter more clearly into focus. We know certain things to begin with. God is a being who is conscious and powerful and possessed of self-determination. We can infer that from the world he has made, which could only develop as it has by virtue of a creative, intelligent guidance. We know enough of ourselves to realize that God cannot be deficient in those capacities and attributes which we enjoy to a limited degree. Finally, the fact that we can recognize the defects and limitations of these attributes in ourselves attests to their unlimited and perfect state in the supreme being.
We are creatures, God is creator. ‘It is he who has made us and not we ourselves.’ As sons of God we have a relationship to him which is subordinate, filial, reverent, suppliant. If we accept this common sense view of things and it has been the ideological substratum of Judaism and Christianity from the beginning — if we accept it, then we have no alternative but to accept prayer as the normal converse between creature and creator. That is the natural child-parent relationship, and any other would be unnatural and unhealthy. Christians will not be surprised that psychology in now moving to cure psychic complaints through a restored religious orientation. The Church has been doing so through the sacrament of penance for many centuries. It can teach us that lesson which some are trying so hard to forget: that man is and must know himself to be a subordinate being; that his destiny is not realized in mere selfish satisfaction; that he is summoned to a higher service than that of his physical nature; that the unregulated, self-indulgent life can lead to mental and moral collapse.
Christianity is humiliating to man. It is primitive. Small wonder that every variety of neo-paganism has striven so energetically against it! But it is realistic in a way which is impossible to gnosticism and pantheism. When these speak of salvation by knowledge they are really denying the existence of anything beyond the world of knowledge. And the whole point of religion is to reach out beyond the sweep of human experience into the regions beyond. It is there that man’s salvation resides and not in any creation of his own, or in any rational discoveries or contrivances.
The best of men are but unfinished versions of what they should be. Yet they will be the first to profess their own unworthiness and need of supernatural help. The need of those less reach to acknowledge their limitations is more apparent. That suggests why the greatest are least and the least, greatest, why the meek shall inherit the earth, and why what we do to the least of men is done to God himself. It takes a peculiar order of sophistication to replace self—love with love of God; to find fulfillment in the ends of human destiny rather than in the beguiling means which should serve those ends.
We instinctively practice this principle in our daily affairs by placing the interests of others before our own. That is why we reach for the check and stand aside to let another pass before us. At this point the critical reader will rush to object that our good impulses are often a mere subconscious way of asserting ourselves to obtain the esteem of others. There are several reasons why this does not affect the argument. One genuine unselfish impulse is not obliterated by a thousand counterfeits. There are too many who do their good works in secret for us to think that each kindness is nothing but an effort to appear big. It may be deplorably neglected, but there is, buried in the soul, that divine capacity for putting oneself last.
How can we behave toward the presiding intelligence of the universe with less dignity, less decorum, than we show our neighbors? It is true that man is predisposed to approach other beings in a certain way unless they are sub-human. What would we think of someone who snatched things from us without asking on the pretext that a request would imply our ignorance (of our friend’s need) or our selfishness (because we might refuse?) Yet this is the end to which both pantheism and anosticism lead us by denying any effectual personality to the Almighty and by bidding us to wrest what we need from environment, with no romantic digressions life worship. How could one worship a God who was unconscious, automatic or oneself? In this all orders of neo-paganism agree: they remove from religion the very civilized element which raises human nature above the brute level and most vividly prefigures man’s ultimate communion with his creator. In this they have missed the very purpose of religion. While it may be true that God needs no consideration from man, it is also true that man needs the exercise of his filial nature, constituted as it is, with instincts almost as powerful as sex and hunger. We would have to be pretty naive to think that these were nothing but a psychological red herring!
Thus, in each of these attempts at escape, we are brought right back to the dilemma with which we started. It is one which will always be with us as long as man exists and commits himself to that better estate beyond the veil of the flesh. We must learn to accept this dilemma as part of the world we inhabit. Any theory which claims to resolve it must pay the price of common sense or of a real understanding of the problem itself.
The Christian practice of prayer is therefore realistic in its acknowledgement of things as they are. It is idealistic in its estimate of God. It is practical in uniting these two according to the needs we feel and the world we inhabit and the indicated attributes of God. It keeps mystery where we know it to be — beyond the scope of the senses —and it does no tricks with mirrors. Christian prayer is civilized because it expresses toward the supreme being in a superlative degree the attitude which we should exhibit toward each other in a lesser degree.
So much for the human aspect of prayer. We cannot know as much of its supernatural aspect, of how it works and why it should be answered or not. God’s dispositions are closed to reason and open, if at all, only to the pure and loving soul which can penetrate where love and justice are mysteriously conjoined, whence both physical laws and divine mercy have their origin. It must be sufficient to realize that God and the world are in a reciprocal relationship and trust that as our homage and entreaty spring spontaneously from the hearts which he has made, so his grace and help will respond to prayer according to the best purposes he has in view for us. We do know that prayer without effort is dead, just as faith is, without works. But as we must make our own efforts in the physical world, so we must make a spiritual effort which is sincere and consistent. One would not ask a king to shine shoes. We must not insult God by asking Him to do what we have brains and hands to do for ourselves, or to pick up the stray ends we are too dumb or lazy to pick up for ourselves.
Perfect prayer is prayer united to labor in an integrated spirit-body relationship. It sanctifies the means of achievement, harmonizes the human will with the divine, and invokes help when we fail.
Basilian Tract No. 10, First Published in the Basilian V:4, Summer, 1950