Thinking on Prayer

Originally written: 02.07.2010 while in Lesotho.

I think I should stop reading St. Thomas Aquinus, he’s giving me ideas above my station. The thought was as follows:

Prayer transforms God’s power in potentia into God’s action in the world

This is hardly, I would guess, a new thought, but it is a new one for me. It gives human action a bigger part in prayer, being almost the guiding or directing force. Perhaps prayer acts more as the gate through which God can act? The problem with that is that that implies that God cannot act and requires permission to. My problem here, as always, is the opposite of the problem raised by J.B. Phillips in his book “Your God is too small” in that the Christian God is defined as being so Big. Perhaps, then, the important words are “in potentia”. If God’s purpose is something that is a river, constantly at work in the world, prayer then, as a two-way action, doesn’t simply alter the flow of the river, but makes us aware of the way, speed, and force of the river; making us more aware of the will of God. Of course that reads suspiciously like the near-traditional description of fate, except here the river is not an impersonal force, but that of a loving God. Prayers, then, could be seen as the pebbles dropped into the river, causing ripples. This implies that the more people who pray, or perhaps the stronger that you pray, for a certain thing the more the course of the river is altered. This doesn’t, to me, seem wholly satisfactory, but then I suppose that no analogy can ever be. However, there seems to be some superficial truth in the opening statement.

There is an equivalence with this idea in Christian ritual (the original statement, that is) whereby the celebrant (ordained person) calls God’s power onto ordinary bread & wine and transforms them into the spiritual body & blood of Christ. That power is called fourth and granted by the Grace of God. How much of the Eucharistic Prayer is necessary to achieve this transformation is a big debate in theology . For me, it requires the commemoration (“On the night he was betrayed, He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them saying “Take, eat, this is my body that was given for you, do this in remembrance of me etc.”), and the call of the Holy Spirit (Heavenly Father, send your spirit upon these thy gifts of bread and wine so that they may be for us His body & blood”). It is the point of the call (during or directly following – I’m not sure, not yet being Ordained!) that the elements (bread & wine) are changed. This then, is a call on God’s power In-potentia and demonstrates (or seems to) that Man# has the ability to call and use God’s power, ot at the very least a properly# Ordained person does. The practise of (emergency) baptism by lay people is still practised and considered to have force, and there are no standard words for such (or, rather, no guarantee that such words were available at the time) and no-one has called these Baptisms invalid#. The problem with prayer then is the seemingly rare occurrences of them being answered ( we don’t have hundreds of millionaires, nor are the terminally ill healed at any scientifically validated rate). Christian theology had then looked for other forms of “answers”; the spiritual healing for the terminally ill, becoming wealthy in spirit. Though they are good and valuable answers they neatly side-step the idea that prayer should be able to move mountains and uproot fig-trees and throw them in the sea with very little faith#. Seemingly, then, the amount of faith a person has does not have an impact on the level of success one should expect from a prayer. There is also the idea that:

“All Prayers are answered; sometimes the answer is ‘No’”

Giving “no” as an answer fits with the idea of a loving Father-God. Any parent# knows that giving in to every demand of a child leads to tyranny of the spoilt. however, it is difficult to see how a loving Father-God could answer “No” to the prayer to intervene in massive humanitarian problems (like Zimbabwe# massacres) or even to help people suffering as the result of a natural disaster (which are ultimately, according to the standard Christian doctrine, the result of God’s action).

With things like the Zimbabwe massacres it is possible to point to human free will as the problem. God gave us free will#, and must therefore allow us to exercise it. It does, however make God appear to be complicit with massive human death, especially as nothing is being done to stop him (Mugabe#). There is no-doubt much prayer being said against Mugabe.

On the small scale it appears that prayer does seem to function in-line with 2000# years of Christian thought. Probably just enough to bring new believers to the faith as they experience the subjective truth of God’s presence#.

There seems to be, then, rules that govern God’s interaction with the world. They are no-doubt, subtle and complicated, and probably, ultimately, unknowable, but it seems rational that these rules can be explored in a fairly rational way. We can, of course, only speak in generalities because God (presumably) is able to transcend any of the rules at will. This does not mean that the inquiry, though it may not be wholly successful, will not in someway bare fruit. To paraphrase Aquinas, all exploration of Divine truth is profitable. It should also be remembered that the truths may not bring specific comfort, as anyone who has faced the sudden death of a child# in any capacity has found that the notion of God’s plan wholly unhelpful, or as anyone who has had to explain to a near-hysterical person why God thinks that it’s okay that they might suddenly drop dead, and how is this fair on them or their loved ones found the questions impossible to answer. The fact that we may never truly know the answer should not stop the enquiry.

So where does that leave the opening statement? It stands, I think,as a good place from which to continue thinking about God’s actions, how we perceive them, and what they say, if anything about God. It seems to me that we cannot jump straight to speaking about the general transcendent God until we have outlined how He appears in specifics, on the small scale, before taking this image out to walk in the light of world history and global problems. We should start, as any enquiry should with what we know,what we understand and how this applies, and then, once that shape is wholly tested,and ironed out, forged as it were, in the light of experience and interpretation with God can we then explore the general and far-reaching truth about God.