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Catholic 101: Why we pray

church{Spoiler alert: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy}

Every time something dreadful happens, a lot of people you’ve never known to even have any sort of faith would join those who do in calling for prayers for the place affected, followed by people who sanctimoniously preach that we don’t need to pray. We need to act. They were smugly retweeting the cartoon of the beheaded Pope Francis just days before the Bloomsbury attack, kind of missing the point that he truly believes in what he says, and dying a martyr is the ambition of those who believe that. They’re also missing the point that very few advocate that prayer alone is the answer, but we still advocate that it is part of it and there’s a reason for that. The CCC part 4, section 1, 2558 defines prayer with these words: “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God.”

Obviously if you are one of those people who think prayer is just words into thin air this won’t make any sense to you, because you don’t believe (cf Isaiah 7:9). Some of you adopt a live and let live philosophy, while others find it’s their moral duty to let us know that they do. However, to quote Mr Spock it is “highly illogical” that you would judge our actions by your standards. You can look down on our emotions from your rational throne (stay tuned for the Fides et Ratio episode), but you can’t make sense of human actions with Vulcan standards. We’re the inferior race, and you should judge us by our own inferior internal logic. Which, I promise you, is there. To make your job easier, I’ll be your Dr McCoy.

Those who pray can rely on the hope that the battle has already been won. In the Book of Revelation chapter 21, a new heaven (the sky) and a new earth are prophesied, and so is a new Jerusalem. Earlier in chapter 12 there is the prophesy of the battle between good and evil that has inspired 11 seasons of Supernatural. These events are referred to time and again if you read the Bible cover to cover. You could say that the all the books put together are to foretell these events. From your Vulcan point of view this is just emotional, but for us humans prayer becomes the recognition that we can’t do things on our own (and we don’t have to because…God).

1. Christians pray because Jesus Himself prayed too.
Jesus was (God incarnate into) a man on a mission. 38 times in 101 pages of the four Gospels He was shown to pray, plus a bonus 4 more mentions in the epistles. Now the facile objection is He ended up on a cross (and He prayed on it, too!), but He got there by irritating the Jews by doing stuff. So Jesus prayed before doing stuff, because He wanted the stuff He was going to do to be aligned with God’s plan. Now, you judge by your Vulcan standards, but it’s perfectly logical in our lowly human standards that, since we believe in God, we want our actions to be aligned to His will and so we pray before acting, too. Prayer informs our action (the UK’s leopard-print-wearing Prime Minister said it too), and directs it because we know we don’t have all the answers and we certainly don’t see the bigger picture from our tiny human perspective (shoutout to this marvellous reflection by The Liturgists).

2. Asking God for things shows our willingness to make things work
This is a misconception I have struggled with myself. We know God has perfect knowledge of everything, and that He has a will for it. Jesus prayed “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”(Luke 22:42). So why pray? The relationship aspect I got it, but the petitionary one was aliens to me (excuse my choice of language). Many would bring up passages in the Bible that seem to suggest God changes His will after our requests. In Genesis 18, Abraham pleaded with God for the people of Sodom: if there were righteous people in the city, the city would be spared. In Exodus 15 Moses interceded for the people of Israel, and they found an oasis. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of His executors in Luke 23. There are plenty more examples, and in John 16:23-24 we’re told that “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give you”. St James, in his letter, says that the prayers of the righteous have great power (James 5:6). This point of view is unsatisfactory. Either God is perfect or He isn’t, and if He isn’t then He isn’t God so it’s a no brainer. So what’s the deal there? Why ask for things?
Then I realised one of the worst things for us humans is feeling like we depend on others, so it takes a lot to give up control and let God take care of us. Remember when we were little and really all we wanted was being treated as the grown-ups we thought we were? It’s not about the end result of the prayer: by the act of asking itself we show our disposition. It’s an act of humility. Again, you can see that while it appears rather silly by your Vulcan standards, it’s perfectly logical by ours.

3. Prayers aren’t always answered the way we expect, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t answered. 
In the first novel of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of hyper-intelligent beings builds a supercomputer (Deep Thought) to find the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. After 7½ million years Deep thought gives them the answer: 42. It was obviously a disappointment. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was, so they build a better super computer: planet earth. The story goes on.
Sometimes we ask for things and when we don’t get them it’s normal that it feels like the answer 42.
And you, my Vulcan friend, jump to the conclusion that clearly the question wasn’t answered because there was no one out there to answer it.

But let’s look at a culturally relevant example: Donald Trump has been making the headlines recently for a blanket ban on entering the US from traveller coming from 7 Muslim countries in an attempt to improve vetting of the bad guys. The world was polarised, with many welcoming this poorly thought-out, headline-grabbing policy because they perceive themselves as under threat from a growing population that follows a religion that has some ambiguous passages in their holy books that have been taken by the bad guys to justify violence against everyone else (including people who, actually, are Muslims too). Plenty have been shouting about the death of Christianity and how it’s great to see an adulterer former liberal that bullies everyone stand up for it. However, they are putting their faith in human means rather than God. Despite the difficulties in assessing the rate of conversions among Muslims due to cultural circumstances, research and the testimonies of missionaries are highlighting the growth in conversions to the Christian faith after 9/11, while the growth of Islam seems to be largely predicted to be dependent on demographic factors (source). As we have assessed from the start, humans are emotional beings and therefore there is no guarantee these predictions will not turn out wrong (they’ve already been questioned). So it appears sensible to us humans that we could have been staring at the answer all along, just not knowing it.

I hope, my Vulcan friend, that this brief excursion into why humans pray even in the aftermath of tragedy has made you a bit more sympathetic towards us, and the next time someone says to pray for something you will just shrug, instead of preaching to the converted about how stupid that is.

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3 Comments

  • Reply Lux G.

    Oh, Alessia. I’ve been looking for great Catholic bloggers and I’m so glad I’ve found your space here. 🙂

    I mean it’s great to read faith stories and opinions from other Christians because Christ is our God too, but it’s nice to read from another Catholic’s perspective—traditional or not. 🙂

    February 15, 2017 at 12:52 am
    • Reply Alessia

      I’m hardly a great blogger but I strive to be a Catholic one so welcome on board <3 it makes me so happy that you've reached out, nice to meet you!

      February 16, 2017 at 11:07 am
  • Reply The Blond Pond - Catholic 101: Holy Week | The Blond Pond

    […] are good people striving to serve God as they know Him (and converting to Christianity in droves, as I mentioned before, so why wouldn’t you want them where you can evangelise them?) or they are bad people, and […]

    January 29, 2019 at 7:30 pm
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