My parish priest, Father Fran, once told a story during a homily: A little boy came to his father and said, “Daddy, can I please, please have a little brother? I want a little brother!” The man smiled knowingly and replied, “All right. If you pray really hard, every day, twice a day, for about six months, to God for a little brother, your mommy will go to a hospital and bring you one.”
So the boy began to pray earnestly, twice a day for a brother. But six months is a long time for a child, and after a couple of months he got disappointed in his effort and gave up. Of course, we all know what was going on, so after six months the boy’s parents went to a hospital and soon returned, and Mom was carrying something in her arms. Dad called the boy, “Come, see what Mommy brought you from the hospital!” And the boy saw a baby – and then another one! Mommy brought twins.
“Well? Aren’t you glad you prayed so hard all this time?”
The boy looked at his new brothers and then at his father, and said, “You know, Daddy, I stopped praying three months ago. And aren’t you glad I did?”
The church laughed at the little boy’s naïveté – we the big boys and girls all knew his prayer counter didn’t accumulate babies in his mother’s womb – and that was the point of the homily. And yet, as we were laughing, I was thinking of just how childish our adult conception of prayer often is. We will not divide the number of prayers by the number of offspring, but we will pray for children in probably the same words that little boy did. We will pray for success on an exam, for good weather during a vacation, for speedy resolution to a conflict, for courage, and for a chance meeting with a future spouse. We pray that someone’s tumor be benign and for recovery if it’s not. We pray that a phone ring, that a plane get safely home, that elections turn out the way we like, and to win a lottery.
And if we pray for what we want, when we don’t get what we want, we must think at least on some level that we didn’t pray hard enough. And if we get what we want, we must think at least a little that our prayer worked.
The little boy from the story simply articulates the absurdity of our worldview – the approach to prayer most of us carry to adulthood.
Now. Let me say up front that I am not against supplication in prayer. I do not advocate that everyone stop all requests flying up to the heavens. Why, then, do I use such strong and, you might feel, offensive language – “absurdity” – to describe the practice? Let me explain.
We have inherited supplicative prayer from a very long tradition, for most of the length of which Abrahamic humanity’s image of God has been somewhat anthropomorphic, if not visually, emotionally and relationally. Easy rolling of tradition wraps us up in an essentially medieval conception of God who “hears” prayers and “grants” or “denies” requests like a feudal lord holding court, and unless we dig beneath the surface of this framework, unless we think deeply of how prayer fits with our insights into the cosmic, immanent/transcendent, mysterious nature of God, we remain like children who say words and see phenomena but misunderstand every relationship between them because the broader context and underlying causes elude us. It is then that we offer up prayers for things and wait, though not for an audible, for a pretty literal “yes” or “no.” It is then that we paint God as a potentate on his couch dealing out favors and punishments. It is then we can become absurd – because at best this picture is a bit silly. And at worst, it is blasphemous.
I am sure you already understand exactly what I’m saying, but allow me to offer a few examples.
You are hosting a week of stargazing events, and the confluence of stars and comets you’ve been awaiting won’t come around for years. You are praying for clear nights. Your neighbor’s daughter is graduating from high school. He is praying for nice days. A farmer two miles down the road is watching the ground dry out and the green turn to yellow; the crops are sensitive and crying out for water. He is praying for rain. What of conflicting prayers? Whose prayer wins? The one’s who prays harder? The one’s who needs it more?
You are faced with the nightmare of cancer. Perhaps, you are waiting for pathology results. Perhaps, you are starting chemo. You are praying with all your might for a good outcome — for life, for less pain. Do you think your asking is making a difference? Will it change God’s mind? He plans to kill you with cancer, but if you pray, He might not? Or is God helping but less if you don’t ask for help? Then, how much should you pray? Should you ever stop to do anything else? Do you think God doesn’t know? God loves you more if you call on His name? God is not with those who don’t pray for help? Is that any kind of god you want to pray to? If God “lets you live,” will He kill another instead? Or let everyone live? Eliminate death — and therefore birth? From a certain point of view, if God answers your prayer for life, the world will come to an end.
You are embarking on an exciting journey of a new career, and you have an interview. You pray it go well. This is what you really, really want. Do you think you can get God on your side by praying? Do you not think God is already on your side? Should God be looking out for you, for the interviewer (who is praying she find the most suitable candidate), the company’s clients (who are praying they get most competent help), another candidate (who is praying he can feed his four children tomorrow)? Do you really think, if you don’t remind Him, God doesn’t know what you want – or do you think you know what you need? It’s an old cliché that God doesn’t give us what we want but what we need. We are charged with saying this because we know that we don’t often get what we want no matter how hard we pray, so we console ourselves. Maybe so, but if I’ve learned anything at all in my four decades on this Earth, it’s that the things I sometimes most desperately wanted weren’t always good for me, and the things it turns out I truly needed I didn’t expect and didn’t know were there to want.
Now, as I said, I am not advocating that all Abrahamic peoples everywhere cease their supplication. I am not, in fact, against what we in the Church call “prayer intentions” – prayer requests focused on something specific for someone and ranging from the healing of Mary’s big toe to increased conscience in the hearts of the world leaders. Although at some point, upon reflection, I have found myself feeling acutely silly and futile filing a petition with God’s secretariat and now rarely do it, I still participate in the collective intercessions of my Church at Mass and in group prayer, I accept – if passively – requests for prayers people hand to me when they find out my discernment of religious life or simply when they like me, and on occasion I discover that, in a moment when my whole being strains and stretches to comprehend something unfathomable and immense yet so within reach, another grain of shining knowledge – in the last instant before revelation – my own lips fold into a “please” and “please” again, and only then “thank you.”
This is because I don’t think of prayer intentions as offensive to God per se, only if we are so shallow in our thinking as to limit God to a question-answer format. I think that prayer intentions are good if we understand them in the context of the greater complexity of God’s reality, and this is how I understand them: prayer intentions formulate what we judge good, articulate our hopes, focus our energies, and strengthen our connection through the Divine “medium” of Love so those energies can help those hopes be fulfilled for the sake of that good throughout the world.
Here is what I mean: My regular readers know that my cosmology is very much based on a complete interconnection of all things real, with Love – as the temporal form of God’s eternal nature, or “good” – being the fabric of this reality, the basis and unifying flow of all from all to all. I am not nearly prepared to discuss the levels of complexity, expressions and workings of these “spiritual mechanics,” but relevant to the efficacy of prayer may be the very fact that all things are connected, inseparable, on the most basic level not even of subsistence but of existence.
In different vernaculars, traditions, and cultures, we have noted ineffable ties between people and things by talking about auras, vibes, the ether, the noosphere, and more. I think of prayer – any prayer – as the opening of all the proverbial hatches of our beings to the in-and-out flow of Love. Turning the ever-connecting trickle that always makes us belong to Creation into a sweeping stream. And then, types of prayer differ. Ecstatic prayer floods us with a roaring river, frothing and foaming and overflowing. Contemplation dissolves us in the ocean of Love so almost completely that temporality touches eternity, and God only knows if the drop of this creature that reconstituted afterwards is quite the same as the one that dissolved. Supplication focuses the stream in a particular direction.
We are connected through love. That means, we are connected through compassion. We can feel each other’s joy and pain. When we feel too much or not enough, we pray.
Like a body that stills all other sensation if blissful pleasure is flooding one of its channels by sound or by touch – or forgets all other feeling if one of its parts is pulsing in agony – we draw our energy from the joy that we share with each other, and we focus it on those who are in pain for healing, and on our hopes for their fulfillment, and we pour that energy out in prayer, as surely as a human body does by way of blood flow and nerve signals, through the flow of Love. In the words of Father Fran, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes us.”
Now. This would be a perfect way to end my essay – succinct and poignant. It summarizes my point as well as the point of Father Fran’s homily, the one he started with the story about a little boy and his twin brothers. And I believe I’ve made it clear how much I agree.
The problem is, I agree only to a point. So there won’t be a succinct and poignant end to this reflection because I can’t leave us without a caveat, and for that I am going back, as I tend to do, to the Hebrew Scriptures.
You see, this fluctuation in our thinking between habitual effort of adjusting God’s plan through prayer and jealously guarding God’s omniscient sovereignty straddles a fine, familiar line. I’ve heard trepidation in many people’s voices at the mention of changing God’s mind or interfering with God’s plan. The thinking is, we can’t. And yet we ask. We are not going to stop – in our mythological, ritual, and scriptural roots, we are Jews, after all, and the excellent practice of talking back to God comes to us from Ancient Israel, from our own Judeo-Christian tradition. Arguing with God. Bargaining with God. Getting God to change His mind.
I’ll give you one example only, and it’s one most of you know well. The Genesis narrative tells of a day when God came to visit Abraham the faithful patriarch. God came in the form of three men – strangers, received as guests – and after, let’s say, dinner, Abraham walked the Lord out on their way, at which time the divine trio allowed him into their plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the cities’ abominable sinfulness. God wasn’t looking for commentary; the information was just a token of their acknowledgment of Abraham’s importance – but Abraham spoke up. He actually stood in God’s way and called God on the justice of their actions. “What if there are 50 innocent people in that city?” He asked (I am paraphrasing). “Won’t it be unfair for you to destroy them along with the sinners?”
Guess what? God changes their mind and agrees to spare the city if 50 good people could be found in Sodom. You would think the grateful Abraham would go home proud of his accomplishment, but he is not done. “What if there are only 45 innocents? You’re okay being an unjust god if I overestimated by five?” (I’m still paraphrasing.)
“Fine,” God relents. “I’ll spare the city for the sake of 45.”
“And if there’s 40?”
“I’ll let it stand for 40.”
“Sounds fair. We’ll keep it for 20.”
“What if there’s only 10?”
God agrees that 10 is a sufficient number of good people to save the city, and this is where Abraham stops pushing. I don’t know why. Is he willing to sacrifice ten? Is he starting to see a frown spreading across three faces of God? Who knows. We find out later that the angels sent to Sodom will find only one good man there (since his women do not count as “people”) and, as a compromise, save the man and burn the city down.
The point of the story for us, of course, is the long – long! – haggling process between man and God that even I, as I read, begin to find tediously impudent. Abraham manages to curb God’s freedom of movement, insult them, argue with them, and get, if not his way, certainly a major change of policy. This is not humanity following the Law in order to be good. This is humanity teaching ethics to its God. This is humanity shaping the future Law from its inner gut feeling of justice. Changing the image of God to our notion of Good.
I’ve never been much for the literal reading of the Bible, of course. This section of Genesis 18, to me, is very much about prayer – the mutual interpenetration of human and divine realities at the intersection of our current level of understanding that results in discernment. You know: the poking of reality to see how much it can hold before we fall through, the rubbing of it to see how hot it can get before we get burned. What is right? What is the balance of courage and wisdom that equals righteousness? Here, where God stands as both authority and conscience, where Abraham is challenged to judge and to save, the question of what it is we change when we talk to God is particularly acute.
But Genesis 18’s idea that God’s mind can be changed doesn’t inspire me to bargain any more than its image of a wrathful deity judge obscure from me the God who is Love. To me, Genesis 18 is an attempt to formulate what is good by reaching inside and reaching out. It’s a prayer.
And so, I come back to the original point of my caveat.
Yes, prayer changes us. That’s the goal of prayer. We send our thoughts, our helpful emotions, our strength out there into the “ether” to lend them to others. We send ourselves. We spread ourselves out to the places that ache to be filled with love. We focus on task and discern the right path. If we do it right, I think, prayer works. Then it’s good.
But I think that prayer also changes God. Not because it changes God’s mind on who will win the lottery or who will survive cancer. Prayer changes God because God, by virtue of extending Himself into our ever-changing world, is in constant and dynamic flux toward that which we call the Kingdom of Heaven. At least that – and then everything else of which we are clueless. I submit that every change of this universe changes God because our reality is of God. We are Him, and He is us, fluid together.
I often wonder if temporality – its inherent property of change – is not the very point of Creation.