“We need to pray even when that seems the most lifeless thing to do.” That’s a counsel from Michael J. Buckley with which we need to challenge ourselves daily. In the face of real life, prayer can often seem like the most lifeless thing to do. What difference does prayer make?
“I will pray for you!” “Please keep me in prayer!” “Know that you have my prayers!” We use those expressions all the time. I suspect not a day goes by that most of us do not promise to pray for someone.
However, do we really believe our prayers make a difference? Do we really believe that our prayers can stop a pandemic, ease tensions within our communities, erase centuries-long misunderstandings among various religious denominations, cure someone dying of a terminal disease, bring our children back to church, or help someone forgive us? What can prayer do in the face of our own helplessness in a situation?
Jesus said there are certain demons that can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. I suspect that we find that easier to believe literally, in terms of an evil spirit being cast out of a person, than we believe that our prayer can cast out the more earthly demons of hatred, injustice, misunderstanding, division, war, racism, nationalism, bigotry, and bodily and mental illness.
These are the real demons that beset our lives, and even though we ask for God’s help in prayer, we don’t often do it with a lot of confidence that our prayers will make a difference. How can they?
The long history of Judaism and Christianity has taught us that God is not in the easy habit of positively interfering in nature and human life, at least not in ways that we can see. Miracles do happen, perhaps by the millions in ways that we cannot perceive. But, if we cannot see miracles, how are they real?
Reality has different modalities. There is the empirical and there is the mystical. Both are real, though both are not equally observable as an action of God in history. If a dead body rises from its grave (the Resurrection) or if a race of people walks dry-shod through the Red Sea (the Exodus) that is clearly an intervention of God in our world, but if some world leader has a change of heart and is suddenly more sympathetic to the poor, how do we know what prompted that?
Likewise, for everything else for which we pray. What inspired the insight that led to the discovery of a vaccine for the pandemic? Pure chance? A touch from above? You can ask that same question vis-à-vis most anything else we pray about, from the world situation to our personal health.
What is the source of an inspiration, a restoration to health, a melting of a bitterness, a change of heart, a correct decision, or a chance meeting with someone that becomes a grace for the rest of your life? Pure chance, simple luck, or a conspiracy of accidents? Or does God’s grace and guidance positively touch you because of prayer, someone else’s, or your own?
Central to our faith as Christians is the belief that we are all part of one mystical body, the body of Christ. This is not a metaphor. This body is a living organism, just as real as a physical body. Inside of a physical body, as we know, all parts influence one another, for good and for bad. Healthy enzymes help the whole body to retain its health and unhealthy viruses work at sickening the whole body.
If this is true, and it is, then there is no such thing as a truly private action. Everything we do, even in our thoughts, influences others, and thus our thoughts and actions are either health-giving enzymes or harmful viruses affecting others. Our prayers are health-giving enzymes affecting the whole body, particularly the persons and events to which we direct them. This is a doctrine of faith, not wishful thinking.
Earlier in her life, Dorothy Day was cynical about St. Thérèse of Lisieux (The Little Flower), believing that her isolation in a tiny convent and her mystical “little way” (which professed that our smallest actions affect the events of the whole world) was pious naiveté. Later, as Day gave herself over to symbolic actions for justice and peace that in effect seemed to change very little in real life, she adopted St. Thérèse as her patron saint.
What Day had come to realize through her experience was that her small and seemingly pragmatically useless actions for justice and peace were not useless at all. Small though they were, they helped open up some space, tiny at first, which slowly grew into something larger and more influential. By slipping some tiny enzymes into the body of the world, Day eventually helped create a little more health in the world.
Prayer is a sneaky, hidden antibiotic — needed precisely when it seems most useless.