Thursday, January 11, 2007

Prayer

Caravaggio, St Catherine of Alexandria.

Crystal has tagged me for a contemporary theology meme, which is a bit of a problem for me since I found my way back to the Church while in grad school and thus have had very little time to read things not written in or about the Middle Ages. I will give it some thought.

Meanwhile, I finished adding all of Queen Urraca's charters to my database and decided to celebrate by wasting time bouncing around the internets. I hit beliefnet and came across a couple of articles on praying for a parking place. One, by Patton Dodd, was very serious and its general tone was summed up in its title: Praying for Parking is Evil. The author's point was that a God who will find you parking but won't stop the Holocaust leaves something to be desired, and seen from that perspective it's difficult to argue with him. In the end, though, it seems terribly rigid and gloomy -- we all have to be very serious about this and frivolity is morally dangerous. The specter of Puritanism rears its dour head.

The other article, by Father James Martin, is on the opposite side of the spectrum, investigating what saints are to be prayed to for finding lost items:
St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around.
Something is lost but cannot be found.
Or finding a husband:
St. Catherine, St. Catherine,
O lend me thy aid.
And grant that I never shall die an old maid.

Or even finding a parking place:
Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini,
please find a spot for my little machiney.
Of course, serious Christians will scowl and say that the two articles cannot be compared. Dodd's article is theological, whereas Martin's is folkloric. It goes along with memories of the Irish nuns teaching school and long-away Sundays when we were altar boys. At worst it's superstitious and at best frivolous. It helps us in no way spiritually.

Or does it? Why is the playful excluded from the spiritual? The center of my own understanding of God is apophatic (as I understand that term) -- I think God is beyond our comprehension. This does not make our ways of approaching God (scripture, liturgy, theology) invalid, but we cannot approach God without our limitations. On one hand, it is important to be rigorous and use our intelligence to clarify what we mean when we speak -- we were given intelligence for a reason, after all. Also we must make moral choices based on love of God and our fellow human beings. There is, however, a kind of arrogance in being too rigid and judgmental. We must remember how limited even our greatest flights of understanding are.

I believe many of our traditions have grown around deep psychological and spiritual needs that we have, and to reject them out of hand because they do not fit a limited understanding of scripture or theology will impoverish our spirituality. Veneration of saints is a good example. Yes, if we forget Christ because we only concentrate on saints, or if we feel that a prayer is magic spell that can compel heavenly action, we are probably wandering away from where we should go. Yet praying to saints is also a way of responding to the feeling that we are in a Church, a community, that includes the living and the dead, and that after the incarnation the distance between human beings and God has been bridged.

I love reading Aquinas and other theologians because there is something magnificent in the edifices they build when they apply reason to religion. There is something holy in it as well, but it's only a part. The core is mystery. I have an acquaintance who called mystery the perennial Catholic cop-out, but to me I can't really believe that, in the end, we can completely understand the divine with our heads. That conditions how I see intercessory prayer, a subject which creates a theological difficulty. After all, if God is perfect and how God acts is perfect, how could we move God to change the way he/she is working in the world? As Dodd suggests, what kind of a God finds parking spaces but ignores our pleas for peace in Darfur? On the other hand, what kind of God does not listen to the cries of his/her children?

The question ends, like most others, in mystery. I see intercessory prayer as hope made active before God. Hope, we are told, is a virtue whereas despair is a sin. If we do not express our hope to God, to whom will we? Like thanking and praising, expressing hope in the form of prayer is a basic way of behaving towards the divine. How it functions -- where, when, why and if God intercedes in our world to change it in the direction we hope it to change -- is a mystery. Still, it would be foolish not to hope.

This includes frivolous and playful hopes as well, which can be expressed in playful ways, such as in the rhymes above. It is true if you spend all your time hoping for the superficial, you become superficial, and if your hope becomes vain desire, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Still, playfulness is part of life and I believe the playful has its place in the spirit.

8 comments:

crystal said...

Praying for Parking is Evil :-)

It seems like rejecting the inconsistancy of a God who would help find a parking place but not save a child from the tsunami is maybe to expect God to be understandable in our sense of the word.

William Barry SJ thinks the important thing about petitionary prayer is that we trust God enough to be transparent about our desires and to share them with him, whther they're for a parking place or something mre serious.

I really like James Martin's writing - I must get his new book, the one Steve mentioned.

Nice picture of Catherine.

Sandalstraps said...

For me prayer is communication - not entirely unlike a child communicating their wants and apparent needs to their parent. As a parent, I appreciate it when my son tells me what he wants, even though it is not always wise for me to grant his request.

I know, this is a fairly folksy metaphor for a theologian - shouldn't I be able to dig deeper than this? But I don't know that there is any deeper place to dig to.

My son may ask me politiely for something, or he may demand it, or he may plead for it, or he may throw a tantrum, or he may wimper, or he may communicate to me in any number of other ways. But there is rarely a direct connection between his communication of a request and my granting of that request. That, however, does not make his communication pointless exercise, any more than the fact that God acts according to the divine plan for the universe and not my immediate selfish wants makes it a pointless exercise for me to prostrate myself before the altar in prayer, communicating my desires to the sacred.

This is, of course, not a perfect metaphor. Sometimes my son brings things to my attention that I did not know in advance. Sometimes he breaks me down with his incessant whining. Sometimes he simply changes my mind. Other times he may actually talk me out of giving him something that I had wanted to give him, simply because he was so rude in asking for it. Perhaps this dynamic of our communication is not readily applicable to prayer as communication with our heavenly parent. But, in the end, it is about communication, relationship, intimacy with the divine, rather than about the granting of requests. That, however, does not mean that asking God for something is a bad prayer. It is simply an expression of where we are right now, which is a vital form of communication.

crystal said...

Sandalstraps said ... Sometimes he breaks me down with his incessant whining. Sometimes he simply changes my mind.

there are some places in the gospels (I think?) where this happens also - the woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter, but at first he wouldn't ... the woman who wanted the judge to give a verdict in her favor. I know God is supposed to be immutable, but sometimes it seems like his mind can be changed.

Sandalstraps said...

Crystal,

This is especially true if you go back to the Torah. Moses, for instance, was famous for his ability to negotiate with God, constantly haggling over the conditions of divine action.

I just don't take such stories literally. Or rather, I do take them literally, as in, in accordance with their literary nature, rather than as depictions of factual history. We can learn a great deal from such stories, but what we learn has more to do with how humans have percieved God than it has to do with the divine nature itself.

crystal said...

I have trouble distinguishing when to take (not literally but) seriously a scriptural passage. Where are biblical cliff notes when you need them? :-)

Jeff said...

Liam,

That was a really beautifully written peace.

I think it is alright for us to be human, and to accept being human in all of our frailty, which includes our coming to God with our petty, small, and niggling problems, even if they pale in comparison to matters of real importance. We can feel guilty about whether or not our little grievances are a tempest in a teapot, but he's just listening to his child who wants to talk with him, even if his child isn't making any sense. I think God wants us to come to him in any and all things. How could he not, he who has every hair on our head counted, and who has wept over us?

Besides, sometimes we really, really need that parking space.

Andrew Schamess said...

Such interesting questions, you always ask.

One thing that tempers my response when my little girl is driving me crazy begging for a Barbie doll, or a cookie, or something I consider rather trivial and not worth having: in the scheme of the universe, are my own intense desires any less trivial?

Maybe prayer is reflexive. It is a chance to articulate my desire, to hold it up to the Almighty. Maybe, by doing that, I can let go of it.

I suppose a good outcome of a parking prayer would be if I stopped my car where it was and contemplated God's perfection. And then maybe walked away and left the car, with the keys in the ignition, for someone else to have.

One other thing -- in many traditions, prayer is a communal act. Praying together, perhaps we stop wanting things at each other's expense, and act together to make the human world a bit closer to what God had intended for us.

Liam said...

Thanks everyone for your great reflections on this post.