When We Doubt the Power of Prayer


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 earthily 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 each other, 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 Therese 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 Dorothy gave herself over to symbolic actions for justice and peace that in effect seemed to change very little in real life, she adopted Therese as her patron saint. What Dorothy 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, Dorothy Day eventually helped create a little more health in the world.

Prayer is a sneaky, hidden antibiotic – needed precisely when it seems most useless.

September 11th – Twenty Years Later


Twenty years ago today, struggling to digest the events of September 11th, I wrote this column. Two decades later, my reaction is the same. Here’s the column.

Iris Murdoch once said that the whole world can change in fifteen seconds. She was talking about falling in love. Hatred can do the same thing: On September 11th (2001), the world changed. Two huge passenger planes, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into, and collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, killing thousands of people, as television cameras recorded the event live, showing horrific, graphic scenes over and over again. Shortly afterwards, a third hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon, even as a fourth crashed in an open field. Inside of what is supposed to be the most secure place on earth, thousands of innocent people were killed within the space of an hour.

Stunned, muted, we nonetheless tried to speak to the situation. Many of the voices we heard were hard, angry, calling for retaliation and vengeance. Most voices though were gentle, looking only for a safe, intimate place to cry, for someone to hang onto. One Internet media site simply had a blank screen, a silent gesture that spoke eloquently. What, after all, can be said?

The opening lines from the Book of Lamentations offer this haunting description: How deserted she sits, the city once thronged with people! Once the greatest of nations, she is now like a widow.

Later, this same book tells us that there are times when all you can do is to put your face to the dust and wait. Rainer Marie Rilke would agree. Here’s his advice for times like these: O you lovers that are so gentle, step occasionally into the breath of the sufferers not meant for you. … Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.

The earth knows our pain. Sometimes silence is best.

Yet a few things need to be said even in the raw immediacy of this thing. What?

First, that each life lost was unique, sacred, precious, irreplaceable. None of these persons had ever died before and none of them should have his or her name lost in the anonymity of dying with so many others. Their lives and deaths must be honored individually. This is true too for the suffering of their families and loved ones.

Second, clear voices must call us, especially our governments, towards restraint. Many see this as an attack on civilization itself. They are right. Accordingly, our task is to respond in a civilized way, holding fast always to our belief that violence is wrong, whether it be theirs or ours. The air we breathe out is the air we eventually inhale. Violence begets violence. Terrorism will not be stopped by bitter vengeance. Catharsis doesn’t bring about closure. We shouldn’t be naive about that. Nor, indeed, should we be naive in reverse. These terrorist acts with their utter disregard for life, offer a very clear picture of the world these people would create were they ever given scope and license to do so. They must be stopped and brought to justice. They pose a threat to the world; but in bringing them to justice we must never stoop to their means and, like them, be driven by a hatred that blinds one to justice and the sacredness of life.

No emergency ever allows one to bracket the fundamentals of charity and respect for life. Indeed, horrific tragedies of this sort, call us to just the opposite, namely, to fiercely re-root ourselves in all that is good and Godly – to drive with more courtesy, to take more time for what is important, and to tell those close to us that we love them. Yes, too, it calls us to seek justice and it asks for real courage and self-sacrifice in that quest. We are no longer in ordinary time.

Most of all, this calls us to prayer. What we learned again on September 11th (2001) is that all on our own, we are neither invulnerable nor immortal. We can only continue to live, and to live in joy and peace, by placing our faith in something beyond ourselves. We can never guarantee our own safety and future. We need to acknowledge that in prayer – on our knees, in our churches, to our loved ones, to God, and to everyone whose sincerity makes him or her a brother or sister inside the family of humanity.

Moreover, we are called to hope. We are a resilient people, with faith in the resurrection. Everything that is crucified eventually rises. There is always a morning after. The sun never fails to rise. We need to live our lives in the face of that, even in times of great tragedy.

I end with Rilke’s words: Even those trees you planted as children became too heavy long ago – you couldn’t carry them now. But you can carry the winds … and the open spaces.

Under a Bridge in Austin


Recently at a workshop, a woman shared her anxiety about the death of her brother. Her older brother had died from the Covid virus before there were vaccines for it, and had died because he had dangerously exposed himself to catching the virus. However, he had exposed himself to that danger for a worthy reason. A military veteran, living alone, he used much of his salary and savings to cook meals and take them to feed homeless people living under a bridge in his hometown, Austin, Texas.

That certainly seems like a noble, Christian death, except that in his adult life he had lost any explicit faith in God and in Jesus, and self-defined as an agnostic (though with no antipathy towards religion). He simply didn’t believe in God or go to church anymore. His sister who shared this story, loved him deeply, admired his feeding the homeless, but worried about his dying outside of an explicit faith and the church. Her anxiety was compounded by her other brother, a Christian fundamentalist, who is firm in the belief that dying outside of the church puts one eternally outside of salvation; in brief, you end up in hell. At a gut-level, his sister knew that this could not be true. Still she was anxious about it and wanted some assurances that her fundamentalist brother was wrong and that her anxiety about her brother’s eternal salvation was a false fear.

What does one say in the face of that?  A number of things might be said. First, that the God who Jesus incarnated and revealed is a God who is in every way the antithesis of fundamentalism and of this sort of false fear about salvation. Jesus assures us that God reads the heart in all its complexity, including its existential complexity. A fundamentalist reads only a written rubric, not the goodness of a heart. As well, scripture describes God as ‘a jealous God’. This doesn’t mean God gets jealous and angry when we are preoccupied with our own things or when we betray God through weakness and sin. Rather, it means that God, like a solicitous parent, never wants to lose us and seeks every possible means to keep us for slipping away and hurting ourselves. Moreover, in the abstract language of academic theology, God has a universal will for salvation, and that means for everyone, including agnostics and atheists.

More specifically, Jesus gives us three interpenetrating perspectives that expose the narrowness of all fundamentalist thinking regarding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

First, he gives us a parable of a man who has two sons and he asks them both to work in his field. The first son says that he will not do it, but in fact ends up doing it; the second son says he will do the work, but ends up not doing it. Which is the true son? The answer is obvious, but Jesus reinforces the parable with this comment: It is not necessarily those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of God on earth.

What this parable highlights is what theologians (from John Henry Newman through Karl Rahner) have tried to teach, namely, that someone can have a notional faith that in fact rings hollow in the light of true faith. Conversely, someone can explicitly deny what we hold in our notion of faith and yet in the light of what a genuine faith demands, have real faith since this is not necessarily manifest in one’s notion of faith but in the fruits of one’s life.

As well, we have Jesus’ shocking warning in Matthew 25 about how we ultimately will be judged for heaven or hell, namely, on whether or not we served the poor. This warning does not suggest that explicit faith and church attendance are of no consequence; they have their importance, but it is warning that there are things that are more important.

Finally, and perhaps most far-reaching in this regard, Jesus gives us the power to bind and loose. As parts of the Body of Christ, our love, like Jesus’ love, keeps a loved one connected to the community of salvation. As Gabriel Marcel puts it, to love someone is to say, you can never be lost. This woman’s love for her brother assures that he is not in hell.

All of this I might have said, but instead I simply referred to a wonderful quote from Charles Peguy the noted French poet and essayist. Peguy once suggested that when we die and appear before God, each of us will be asked this one question: “Where are the others?” (“Ou sont les autres?”). I assured the anxious woman she need not worry about her brother’s eternal salvation, despite his dying outside of an explicit faith and the church. When he stood before God and was asked the question (Where are the others?) he had a very good answer: They are under a bridge in Austin.