Occasionally, I read in the papers an account of someone who has experienced tragedy in their life and announces that even if they still believe in God, they no longer pray. They simply no longer feel that there is any point to it. No one is listening and no one is coming to help. In contrast to the bitter resignation of those deeply wounded by terrible events, especially intended hurt spurred on by malice and hatred, I have been deeply impressed by the faith of the people of Ukraine, who even in the midst of pitiless bombardment, pray and when possible proclaim their faith in public worship.
I am reminded here of the gripping story related by Elie Wiesel in his play “The Trial of God” [trans. by Marion Wiesel, intro. by Robert McAfee Brown (New York: Schocken, 1995)] which describes the decision of a group of rabbis when imprisoned and no doubt awaiting death in the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz to put God on trial for the murder of the Jewish people. Wiesel testifies that he witnessed the event himself when a teenager in the prison camp.
After nights of argument, the rabbis decide that God is guilty of abandoning his people, committing a crime against humanity. After the dreadful silence following the verdict, the oldest member of the group, a Talmudic scholar, announces that it is time for evening prayer.
The story of Lot in the Book of Genesis is not merely about the destruction of the sin-ridden cities, but of persistence in prayer, the point of Jesus’ teaching and parables in today’s gospel reading. In Genesis, Lot haggles with God like Teyve in “Fiddler on the Roof,” failing in the end only because it was not possible to find even a handful of decent people in the cities.
Jesus urges not only persistence in prayer, but steadfast belief in the mercy and forgiveness of God. In the second reading, by contrast to the catastrophe that befalls the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, Paul extols not only the mercy and forbearance or God, but God’s total forgiveness achieved by the death of Jesus, the total and final sin offering. The word Paul uses here, ‘paraptoma’ in Greek, means something like “falling aside” or “deviation” — perhaps not as strong as “sin,” but less ambiguous than “trespass.” It is not the ordinary word for “sin,” but implies tasking a wrong step or just going off the path. Paul uses it to cover a multitude of sins, as the saying goes, including both serious errors and a gradual falling away from the right path. All that has been wiped out, erased by being nailed to the cross.
God does not wait for us to ask for forgiveness, which is preemptively extended, as Paul insists. We have only to accept it.
In the end, God wasn’t able to spare Sodom, not because God lacked mercy, but because the people refused to repent — unlike the people of Nineveh in the story of Jonah. The Canaanites brought destruction on themselves.
There’s something a little mercenary about always petitioning God for favors, as if, in Meister Eckhart’s words, God was a cow we turn to when we need milk or cheese or even steak. We’re not concerned with the cow, but with ourselves. It’s very easy to turn prayer into a form of self-centeredness and God into some kind of wish-granting machine. In the end, true prayer really asks that we first get ourselves right with God — not that God get things right with us.
So should we pray for other people and for help when we need it? Of course. But we should do it in the right way. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Arthur famously says to Sir Bedivere:
…Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
But we should also be aware that some forms of prayer are better than others — something we might remember from our catechism classes long ago. From a spiritual viewpoint, adoration, praising God out of gratitude or love, is a higher form of praying than wheedling.
Nevertheless, a few years ago research done on prayer indicated that praying is good for us in general and, perhaps more importantly, good for others. [The Journal of Psychology and Theology 19:71-83.] A more recent study showed that in a carefully regulated experiment, people who were ill improved significantly more than a control group when they were prayed for, even if they did not know people were praying for them. It also seems that people’s happiness in life is related to the way they pray.
What happens when people pray also suggests that it is less important how often a person prays than how well — happier people prayed less frequently, but more attentively. It also seems clear that they were more concerned about God and other people than with themselves.
How then are we to understand the words of Jesus? “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you?” Perhaps Soren Kierkegaard said it best: Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays. When we pray rightly, then, as Jesus taught us, our prayer is always answered, because it turns us to God and God’s saving will for the world. The miracle we are praying for is that we — all of us — will become more faithful and loving, more receptive to God’s gift, and above all, perhaps, to the merciful presence of God in our midst — even when things are not going the way we think they should.
Pray, then, for the people of Ukraine, for those suffering from hunger and natural disaster, and for peace in the world. Then do something about it.