Q: The question I would most like to ask God is what is the purpose of prayer? When someone is sick, we are asked to pray for them. And if they die, it's often said that it was the will of God. But if they recover, the power of prayer is often given credit. Do you think enough prayers will change God's mind? It seems like that would give an unfair advantage to those who have large or devout families, yet we all know good, prayerful people whose lives are seemingly full of suffering. I enjoy your column and miss Monsignor Tom. -- Anonymous
A: The ancient Babylonians in Mesopotamia built a ziggurat (Esagila) -- a stepped pyramid -- and every New Year the high priest would climb to the top, offer a sacrifice and prayers, and the people believed that the sacrifice and prayers caused the god Marduk to begin the New Year. The Bible has the New Year begin because God created the world to have the New Year begin every year, and we are supposed to pray to give thanks for the New Year that is coming anyway.
These two models of prayer from 4,000 years ago are still the only two models of prayer today. Either we believe that prayers change God or we believe that prayers change us. I am a believer that prayers change us. Our prayers get us out in front of things that are going to happen or are not going to happen anyway. Our prayers help remind us to be grateful for the things that sustain us, and conversely our prayers help us hold on to hope in the face of loss and disappointment. Our prayers only change us.
The Babylonian option degrades prayer into a form of magic in which we imagine that our will expressed in prayer can change God's will. This is not true or spiritually coherent, and it is not the teaching of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Our prayers cannot make God do what we want. Prayer as magic is not the product of faith but of human frailty, need and weakness. We want what we want. Even if what we want is noble and not venal, such a belief undermines true prayer and true faith. Sometimes our prayers are not answered, or to be more precise, sometimes our prayers are answered with a "no" instead of a "yes." This can lead to a crisis of faith. However, if we never pray for anything we do not have already, we will never be disappointed. We pray to give thanks for what we have right now, which is enough. That is the purpose of prayer. Remember the words of Meister Eckhart: "If the only prayer you ever say is 'Thank You,' it will be enough."
There are some prayers that look like petitions from us to God but actually they are something quite different. When we pray to God to keep us from temptation, we are really praying to help ourselves mobilize the strength of will to keep ourselves from temptation. When we pray to win a game or succeed at a task, we are really praying for the focus and determination to do our best in the task at hand.
There is yet another purpose of prayer that is also not a petition to God to buy us a Mercedes-Benz. Prayer can be a confession to God and thus become a reminder of our weakness in the face of life's challenges. As Piglet said, "It is hard to be brave when you're only a very small animal." We are very small animals and the world is very large. Remembering what we actually are is essential if we are going to try to become better in the future. Prayer helps us to do that. Prayer helps us to cut through our self-deceptions and illusions and lies. Prayer helps us to see ourselves as we really are instead of what we pretend to be before others. God can handle the difference. As the great Christian essayist and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, "We must lay before Him what is in us; not what ought to be in us."
I quoted the recently deceased great poet Mary Oliver last week on praying and I quote her again,
"Just / pay attention, then patch / a few words together and don't try / to make them elaborate, this isn't / a contest but the doorway / into thanks."
So let me urge us all to use our prayers to open all our doorways into thanks. I believe then, with all my heart and soul, that when those prayers are concluded and we say "Amen" we will have forgotten what we wanted from God and will remember only what we have already received.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2019 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.