I’ve read two things this week that have really disquieted me. First, I read about a practice of the Communists during the 1950’s to make a ‘red corner’ in their places of work, and if they met with difficulties they were advised to go to this area, where there was a picture of Stalin, and to think of him. Pravda printed this advice ‘If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him – of Stalin – and your work will go well.’
Wow. I’ve been thinking a lot since reading that about prayer, all sorts of prayer; the current belief in ‘mindfulness’ , and then I remembered the new wave (it was new last year – maybe it’s petered out by now) of ‘non-church’ gatherings on Sunday mornings, where people would hear feel-good messages, encouragements, ideas… a bit like Ted Talks but longer, more social, and very self-consciously non-church. These meetings were all the rage among aspirational young families yearning for community life. They reported feeling good after joining with others and they even used the word ‘fellowship’, borrowing the jargon of the church. But they didn’t want God. Whoever they sang to when, together, they sang Lennon’s ‘Imagine ‘, it wasn’t God.
It intrigues me that Christian prayers, which we value so very highly, are echoed by the world to smaller gods, to success, to mankind, to a general feeling of benevolence and well-wishing, to do-goodery. Even John Lennon’s nihilistic empty lyrics were a sort of prayer to nothing and no one. And of course I’ve been searching to define the difference. I’m like someone in a light mist, I can see where I am, I understand where I’m going, but I can’t quite make out the sharp edges of the answer.
Tonight, online, I read about the Catholic canonisation of Cardinal Newman, dead 130 years ago. To be canonised the RC church requires evidence of two miracles and there’s a story in the Times that a woman, in imminent danger of a miscarriage, with a ruptured placenta, prayed to Cardinal Newman and was instantly healed.
Prayer. Prayer? Is this prayer? It’s not what I call prayer. None of these practices are what I know as prayer. They may well be genuine and sincere invocations, cries for help, and they might make us feel a temporary lift of our mood, but not all invocations are good. It depends on who we’re invoking and what we’re asking for.
When I was a teenager I turned away from Catholicism because I was taught that God would reduce my mother’s time in purgatory if I prayed long and hard. Even as a not very bright 17 year old I could see that a god like this was corrupt, bribable, and his ethics were shabbier than even mine. A god with no integrity. If Mary Gannon would have her time reduced by her praying child, but the soul next to her would serve a full sentence because no one was praying for her… where’s the fairness, the justice, the purity? How could I worship a god like that? I couldn’t. (I know that the Catholic Church, like all other churches, makes mistakes, and I known that what I was taught back in the 60’s is not what my Catholic friends teach now)
I’ve asked myself a question posed by Philip Yancey ‘Does a person with many praying friends stand a better chance of healing than one who also has cancer but with only a few friends praying for her?” It’s the same question I asked all those years ago… is this who God is? A capricious self-serving despot, someone we can coax and wheedle? A god who plays favourites?
Questions are great. Questions asked in humility, trusting God, and not quite demanding THE answer, will be answered. Our answer, when it comes, may be simple and even incomplete but it will be entirely satisfying.
Is God capricious and bribable? Is his integrity even less than mine, is he less trustworthy than the friends I trust? Does he sway and change with the wind, in response to fawning supplicants? If he was here with me now and we were discussing a family problem, would I look at him with pity, realising that he was a people pleaser, and not even as honest as shabby old me? Are prayers just a load of old flannel flanneling a tyrant?
In the intervening decades, since turning my back on Purgatory and Limbo and Confession and prayers to the dead, I’ve learnt a few things. Even me! And now, when I ponder the mystery and the joy of turning to Jesus, our servant God, it doesn’t weaken my faith that I don’t have all the answers to the questions posed by prayer, because I do have an answer about the nature of God.
I know the nature of God.
Was God capricious and self-serving when He sent his Son, an indivisible part of His divinity, into this world as a vulnerable child? Was he a cruel despot when He died for me, and all the sins that I bloody well keep on committing*? Proverbs 21 tells us ‘A man is known by his actions’ and I would add ‘And God is known by His.’
The God I pray to is righteous and pure. He can’t wink at sin, or be flattered by entreaty. He isn’t moved by bribes or blandishments. He is straighter than straight. I can’t hoodwink him. He is justice, pure justice. But he is love, pure love. And when I come to him, whatever state I’m in, I don’t need the prayers of others to be accepted and to sit at his feet. I don’t need to bribe the doorman with twenty Hail Marys and three Our fathers, and a fiver for a Mass for the dead. My price has been paid. But I’m glad of the prayers of friends, because they are an incarnation of the love God has given us for each other. Do I mean ‘incarnation’? OK, they’re a realisation or proof positive of the love God has given us for Him and for each other.
Prayers bring us into the life of God and prove his reality. We share his heart beat, we thrum with it, as it fills our hearts and souls with his life blood. When we pray and are aware of his presence, of his listening ear and his quiet voice, when we see answers to prayer, when we feel the support of others praying for us, it’s OK if we don’t understand. It’s all too much for our tiny minds, but we know. We know. When I pray, I know God. That’s why I pray. To get in there with him. Wowser. What a blinder that is. Amazing.
We pray not to persuade God, but to enter into God, being transformed. Prayer breathes God into us, fills us, so that our prayers, breathed out in submission and joy, are his. At one with God. Our prayers, his breath.
*I fell headlong into a right old doozie last week. Think I’m going to tell you? Hah! You’ve got another think coming. I told God, and that was enough. If you’re feeling bad about something right now, lay down that burden (Oops!That sounds like an old Alabama Spiritual), tell God you’re sorry, take out that sin and look at it, then dump it. Move on. Really, move on. Greater things are waiting. Apologise where you need to, no excuses. Step back into His love. He’s waiting for you. He will transform you.