Prayer: Superstition or Trust?

Hi! Remember me? I used to blog regularly before life went crazy. Anyway, I am just taking a break from doing the dishes, because, as I was doing the dishes, I was listening to a podcast of Sunday Nights with John Cleary. Now, I know that this blog is rapidly descending into a critique of Sunday Nights, but, if nothing else, they do provide stuff on that program to get you thinking.

The program I was listening to this time was John Cleary interviewing Fr Richard Leonard sj, he of the film review fame. Now, I have nothing at all against Fr Leonard – his film reviews for the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting are generally spot on. But I do take issue with somethings he had to say in this interview.

The interview is about his new book “Where the hell is God?”. It is, according to Fr Leonard himself (I haven’t read it) a reflection on the age old question of God and suffering in the light of his own experience of his younger sister’s accident that left her a quadraplegic.

Okay. First let me say that I cannot say anything about another person’s experience of God or suffering. That is uniquely theirs to talk about. Secondly, I don’t think Fr Leonard, or anyone else writing on such a subject, can say of another person “Your way of understanding how God works in this is wrong.” Fr Leonard actually says as much in this interview. He speaks of people treating the Christian God like the ancient Greek god Zeus, who was a “weather God”, a god who needed “sacrifice, prayers and penance” to keep in the good books. He goes through a series of categories of letters that he and his mother received after his sister’s accident. Now, granted that Fr Leonard and his mother found these letters less than helpful – and they have their complete right to say so btw – nevertheless it is another thing entirely for him to turn around and say of people with such views “You have the wrong view of God”. Noone has ever made sense of the question of how a good God can still allow suffering to take place. Fr Leonard has his answer – God as “friend” – others have their answers. Personally, they are as good as eachother in my book. If you can make sense of this, good on you. I’m not about to burst your bubble.

But I do draw the line when Fr Leonard begins to talk about valid and invalid kinds of prayer. Okay, I share Fr Leonard’s distaste in the bride-to-be who asks Father to pray for good weather for her wedding day, just as I share the distaste of football fans who pray for their team’s victory. But it is another thing altogether to reject, as Fr Leonard does in this interview, prayers for (for eg.) rain. John Cleary wants to assert a theology of prayer (common in its smug wisdom) where the goal of prayer is to change us, not God. God cannot be changed, Fr Leonard – a good Jesuit – asserts. From all I can gather, Fr Leonard seems to reject intercessory prayer altogether in this interview. As a kid, I knew that my father’s livelihood depended upon the rain. To pray for rain was, for my father, quite a different matter from the bride’s prayer. His was a prayer for survival. It was a prayer of absolute trust in the one in whom he placed all his trust.

I remember long ago reading somewhere (probably in his Table Talk) where Martin Luther railed against the “monks who mumble prayers night and day but never ask God for so much as a mug of beer”. There are so many passages in the Scriptures which speak directly of the importance of praying for the needs of both oneself and others that it really does lead one to think that anyone who directly rejects either intercessory prayer or prayer for one’s own needs (eg. “give us this day our daily bread”?) has actually lost touch with the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. “Ask and you shall receive”, jesus said. “Whatever you ask in my name”. “What father would give his son who asks for an egg a scorpian?”. Etc. etc. One cannot but conclude that God wants us to pray for our needs and the needs of others. My daughter thanks God for Harry Potter and asks that she and her friends will enjoy themselves at school tomorrow. Is that an invalid form of prayer? To childish? To immature? To primative? Didn’t someone say: “Unless you become like a little child….”

Ultimately, the kind of prayer that asks for what you need and asks for the needs of others to be fulfilled is not the kind of prayer that one addresses to “Zeus”. It is the kind of prayer one addresses to one’s Father in heaven, the Father whose Son actually invited us to pray that way in his name. You can’t make sense of this kind of a God. This kind of a God is like your parents – and what kid understands his parent? If mum and dad love me, as they say they do, why do they make my life so miserable? Yet, when I want or need something, I will still turn them for the help I need. Prayer to “Our Father in heaven” is the kind of prayer that exhibits TRUST. Trust, ultimately, is the only thing that can answer the mystery of the Good God and Suffering. Any form of prayer that expresses real trust in God – trust that he will work all things to the good of those who love him for the sake of Jesus Christ – is true Christian prayer. It isn’t superstition.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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4 Responses to Prayer: Superstition or Trust?

  1. Catherine says:

    I enjoyed this post of your David:)

  2. PM says:

    Fr Leonard is half-right but seems to draw the wrong conclusions. He is voicing a common misunderstanding – as he is a Jesuit, I suspect it may have something to do with the (now rather dated) fashion for Teilhard’s muddled thinking.

    Of course God’s will can’t, strictly speaking, change. Nothing in God can change because God is outside time – that is what ‘eternal’ means. Language that implies anything else, even in the Scriptures, is metaphor and if we take it too literally, we do indeed end up with a better-behaved version of Zeus.

    But, as Aquinas explains in ST II ii 83.2, it can be part of God’s eternal providence that things should change for us, that we should receive the things He has prepared for us, precisely in accordance with our prayer. God doesn’t have to wait for us to ask Him and then scratch His (metaphorical) beard while He works out what to do; he has always known what we will ask for. In Cajetan’s gloss, our prayer is an ‘efficient dispositive cause’, part of God’s providential governance of the world.

    And it is all for our benefit – we can’t add anything to God’s perfect happiness. Even if we don’t get exactly what we ask for, we benefit by putting ourselves in the hands of God’s providential care. The passage where Jesus says “ask and you shall receive” ends “How much more will He give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” So it’s eminently worth praying.

    I’d also take issue with the thought that there’s something unworthy about a bride praying for fine weather for her wedding day. That is a good thing to want, and to ask for it is an act of faith and hope in divine providence. One of the best theologians I have ever come across (Herbert McCabe) suggested that half of our difficulties in praying come from praying for edifiying but bogus wants rather than the things that are really on our minds. And if that means admitting to God and ourselves that we’re more self-seeking creatures than we’d like to think we are, so much the better. It’s part of the divine condescension to meet us where we are. In time, God will lead us to desire the higher spiritual gifts. But we won’t get very far in prayer if we start out trying to pretend we’re John of the Cross!

  3. John Nolan says:

    I am with Luther on this. I have often prayed to God for a mug (in Pom terms a pint) of beer and He has never let me down.

  4. Keep it simple says:

    “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
    Jesus seems to have had no problem with asking God in a simple and direct manner for something !

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