Monday, December 21, 2015

Never Underestimate The Power Of Prayer

The Dalai Lama, anti-prayer warrior

I was powerfully reminded recently of the old saying, “Never underestimate the power of prayer”. I had just been reading about the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has been urging people not to pray for France or for the victims of the recent Islamic terror attacks in Paris (a theme that has been taken up, much less gracefully, by more secular sources after the terror attack in San Bernadino California).

            Bemused by the apparent incongruity of a renowned religious leader discouraging prayer, I tracked down this news article, which quotes the Dalai Lama as saying:

We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It    is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place . . . We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.

            To be fair, the concept of an omnipotent Creator God who really hears our prayers appears to be foreign to the tradition in which the Dalai Lama was formed; we should not expect him to embrace a Christian concept of prayer. At the same time, St. Peter tells us to “to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and therefore it is proper to point out several false assumptions implicit in the Buddhist leader’s remarks, which are amplified in their cruder expression on the front page of the New York Daily News (picture below).
            First of all, the detractors of prayer seem to be suggesting that praying will somehow keep us from taking whatever concrete actions might be appropriate in a given situation, as if “Pray for Paris” means “Pray, and don’t do anything else.” Perhaps they’ve never heard the expression “Pray like everything depends on God, but work like everything depends on you.” In any case, nobody I know is proposing prayer as a substitute for action, so this is a (not very sophisticated) straw man argument. In the case of the people at the Daily News, it seems mostly an excuse to slam politicians they don’t like for not supporting gun control laws the newspaper promotes (one might point out that these policies were already in place in both France and California, and did nothing to hinder either attack).
            There also seems to be a misunderstanding, whether genuine or disingenuous, as to what such prayers are intended to do. Nobody is suggesting that God will restore the earthly lives of the innocent people murdered in Paris or San Bernadino in response to our prayers, or is expecting a deus ex machine whereby God simply steps in and solves our problems for us, as the Dalai Lama suggests. That is not to say that we discount the possibility of miraculous intervention (see below), but our prayers in response to human tragedies, for the most part, address things that are beyond the reach of any laws or “systematic approaches” we can enact in this world: prayers for the souls of the dead, and prayers that God bring healing and peace to the hearts of those among the living who are suffering from the tragedy (and in the case of suffering caused by evil-minded people, we pray for the conversion of the perpetrators hearts). Beyond that, we ask for the gift of God’s Grace, his divine assistance to give us the wisdom to know what we ourselves should do . . . and the strength and courage to do it. If the conclusion of that prayerful deliberation is that, for example, the application of armed force is advisable, we are happy to pray for the salvation in the next world of those on whom we are waging war in this one (we Christians are a Both/And People).
            Not that any of those things are likely to deter those pushing the “For God’s Sake, Don’t Pray!” meme, because their real (but generally unspoken) argument is that prayer is futile, that it can accomplish nothing, except maybe to give the people offering the prayers the excuse that they have done their part and can leave the real work to others. This assumption most of all we should not allow to go unchallenged; we should not underestimate the efficacy of personal witness to the power of prayer, particularly when we have seen for ourselves that prayer can have powerful, and, yes,  on occasion even miraculous results.
      Here’s a true story, for instance, something that happened to me recently. When I first came across the Dalai Lama’s anti-prayer pronouncement, and was considering how I might respond, I ran into a colleague in the hallway who wanted to talk about another person on the staff who was being treated for cancer.   That led to a discussion about a close family member of his who had been suffering from late stage cancer, and had been given less than two weeks to live. He described how he prayed for his relative, and with her, and over her as she slept. His suffering relative was still alive after two weeks; shortly after that she was cancer-free, and she is still alive and healthy today more than a dozen years after the the doctors told her she had barely enough time to get her will notarized and say good-bye. Interesting that this man, who had no idea what I had just read, and with whom I had never before discussed prayer or religion at all, should choose to share with me this personal testimony to the miraculous power of prayer just as I was formulating a response to a public attack on the practice (Coincidence? Maybe . . . but who can say for sure?). 
      Another example from my personal experience is Benedicta McCarthy, a young woman with whom, and with whose family, I was acquainted some years ago. 

Benedicta McCarthy at St. Theresa Benedicta's canonization mass

Benedicta swallowed an entire bottle of Tylenol when she was a toddler, destroying her liver. Her father, a Byzantine Rite Catholic Priest, organized a prayer campaign for her as she lay in the hospital, where the doctors who had observed a hopelessly damaged liver in the morning found a perfectly sound and healthy organ that same evening. The Vatican’s Congregation for Saints attributed Benedicta’s inexplicable (to non-believers) recovery as a miracle attributable to St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (formerly Edith Stein), for whose intercession Fr. McCarthy and his family and friends had been praying; this miracle was cited at the Saint’s canonization in 1999.
            If we want an example more relevant to the threat of jihadists, we can look to the unlikely victories of Christian armies fortified by prayer over powerful Muslim aggressors at Lepanto in 1571 or Vienna in 1683. Let the Dalai Lama and the Daily News take note: Don Juan of Austria and Jan Sobieski did not stay home, secure in the expectation that God would smite the foe in their absence. Rather, they went forth to battle knowing that the Lord would answer their prayers only if they did their own part as well.
            Prayer works: we have seen it happen. Really, aren’t the people putting their faith in fantasies those who are relying on purely human “systematic approaches” and laws to do what such things have never done and perfect human nature? So by all means, let’s pray. Let’s pray for Paris, pray for San Bernadino, pray for healing for the people suffering from the ugly crimes committed there and for the conversion of those who seek to commit such crimes. Finally, let us pray for all of us, and all humanity, that we may be willing to turn to our Lord and let our actions be informed by his grace and guided by his will.