My thanks to David Neaum (Chaplain and Fellow, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), for offering a sounding board for another aspect of my slightly weird theology. A good chaplain is an invaluable thing.
As a good Anglo-Catholic, I feel I am long overdue a confession, so here goes.
I have a problem with prayer.
I don’t just mean I am bad at it. I do struggle to keep focused – I end up either wanting to go and do something substantial (which is unhelpful half way through a Eucharist), or find my mind wandering to what’s for supper, or the mistake I made in the anthem. But far more than that, I am honestly not sure prayer has an impact, at least, not the way most people think.
The idea of prayer is that it allows one to develop a relationship with God. What people believe about the extent of that relationship varies – some people think that God sends signs as direct answers, or that they feel moved to act in a certain way. Some people believe in divine healing in answer to prayer, or even that praying will help them find their keys. But in all of these conceptions, prayer is reciprocal. It is a conversation.
Now, if we accept that God is transcendent (which is pretty much fundamental to the definition of God), then any relationship relies on God choosing to reveal something of His nature or will. But this suggests our prayers make God react. Indeed, in many cases, our prayers seem to be asking something physical of God – some miraculous intervention to bring peace, healing, winning lottery numbers, good weather for a wedding. Well, if God chooses to answer some prayers, why not answer all prayers? Perhaps some prayers are somehow not ‘good’ enough – in which case why is my prayer for a friend with cancer less valuable that someone else’s prayer for a successful driving test? What metric is God working from? The alternative is that God answers prayers on a purely arbitrary basis (since He could answer all prayers). We haven’t accepted that shit from our kings for 800 years, why on earth would anyone worship a God who behaves in such a way?
I can only conclude that God does not directly respond to prayer. God is bigger than that. All times and experiences are present to God, and part of what God is. He shares in all our experiences from, every mother hugging a daughter, to every three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach. God constantly suffers and rejoices as we do. This is embodied in Gethsemane, Golgotha and the Easter Garden. But more than that, all our lives are constantly present to God, so to think of God replying is to misunderstand his nature. God will always act as God, because all eternity is present to him. We only experience God as responsive because we exist in time, and see cause and effect. Where there is no time, there is no cause and effect, only being. God is constantly giving Himself out of love for us. It is not just an experience for God, it is His nature. What we experience as a relationship is His very being.
So if prayer doesn’t change God, what is its purpose? He does not intervene directly as a result of some prayers because they are somehow better, nor on some arbitrary basis (though all prayers are present to God’s existence). Prayer does not reap some physical response, where God miraculously removes cancer cells. There is no divine voice from the clouds.
+Justin Welby, who we must assume is relatively authoritative on such matters, recently tweeted that “Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ.” This may well be true. Inasmuch as Jesus was human and divine, He embodies the perfect ideal of wisdom, justice and love, and prayer allows us to cultivate such virtues. But it is not clear exactly how +Justin thinks this happens. If prayer simply offers the chance to focus our minds on what we should be thankful for, or what we need to work on, it is not clear to me how prayer is any better thank any other meditative practice.
If I want to encounter the divine, I am most likely to manage through poetry, art or music – something with a magic which can’t quite be explained. Such things are a way of catching a snippet of what God is, in an allegorical way. That seems to be what prayer is really about. Augustine believed that there was no meaningful distinction between the natural and the miraculous since every moment is founded upon the divine will of God. The music of John Sheppard, the poetry of George Herbert, the art of Hans Memling, the very buildings of Durham Cathedral, are all glimpses of, and responses to the Divine will. Prayer is an opening of the self to notice God in everything, and to make all that we are a part of this pattern.
G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“You say grace before meals. Alright. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Every moment is an act of divine will, so all moments are miraculous, and every interaction with each moment a chance to participate in the unfolding of God’s nature. Prayer isn’t sitting back and waiting for God to answer. It is seeking the better answer in a world crammed full of God. That sounds like something I can get behind.