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.Or finding a husband:
Something is lost but cannot be found.
St. Catherine, St. Catherine,Or even finding a parking place:
O lend me thy aid.
And grant that I never shall die an old maid.
Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini,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.
please find a spot for my little machiney.
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.