Tuesday, June 2, 2009

10-21-2007: 29th Ordinary Time (C)

Exodus 17:8-13/Psalm 121/2 Timothy 3:14-4:2/Luke 18:1-8
I met Maureen McMahon when I was just ordained. She was the embodiment of Jesus’ injunction in today’s gospel to pray always. Maureen never seemed to stop praying. Early to church to do her morning bit, she’d have to get all of the standard prayers in by lunchtime or she’d fall behind and have to stay up late trying to catch up. If you were talking with Maureen, she’d even manage to slip in an ejaculation or two in mid-sentence, as she gasped to catch her breath. Her lips never stopped moving. Her biggest problem was she’d be so consumed with her rosaries and novenas that she’d forget to take her anti-depressant medication and end up in the hospital for a week. I suppose Maureen could have had it worse; her addictive bent could have attached her to alcohol or drugs. In this sense she was the proof of that Marxist adage, saying her prayers as if she were shooting up -- religion being the opium of the people. Prayer was her whole life but, truth be told, it wasn’t a life any healthy person would want.

God doesn’t come off looking very noble in today’s readings. Every time Moses lets his arms drop, after being told by God to keep them uplifted in prayer, the enemy begins to win the battle. And in the gospel parable Jesus compares God to the unjust judge who only does what he’s supposed to do when the old widow won’t stop badgering him – so badger God with your prayers, Jesus seems to suggest. You get the impression that it really does depend on us to get what we need and are desperate to have – because God is oblivious at best; or worse, just simply capricious and cruel.

Carl Jung, on an early trip to America, visited the Taos Pueblo where he met the Anasazi chief Mountain Lake. Jung was fascinated by the religion of this ancient people and would carry on a correspondence with Mountain Lake for decades. Jung learned from him that his tribe believed that their prayers actually caused the sun to rise each day and travel its path across the sky. Mountain Lake told Jung that if they could no longer pray, the sun would eventually cease to rise and the world would end. Mountain Lake believed that the survival of the earth itself was the responsibility of the Anasazi people. Not much different from that basic message of the Bible itself: that God chose a specific people to receive his law and fulfill the responsibilities he had placed on them – they would be his chosen people. And so, if Moses did not fulfill the command to pray in a certain manner, the enemies of Israel would win the battle. Such notions cause a people to consider themselves quite important in the scheme of things – thinking yourself chosen tends to do that.

But once you begin to wonder why a good God would act in such a manner, you begin to wonder about the role of prayer itself. Could an omnipotent God really care less about how many words we mutter addressed to him? And if prayer can effect changes in events and reverse outcomes what does that say about God’s immovable will, his supposedly loving nature – he seems a fickle deity indeed. The temptation is to abandon faith for magic -- the perceived ability to control nature and history by incantation: to think our trivial mumbling really can change God’s mind.

When C.S. Lewis’ wife was dying from cancer, a friend saw him praying in the chapel at Oxford. “Don’t be too despondent,” a friend said. “I’m sure God will hear your prayers.” Lewis replied: “I don’t know if he does or not. You see, I’m not praying to change God’s mind; I’m praying to change mine.” Although it seems a part of every religion, including Catholicism, to believe that we owe God our prayers and worship, it doesn’t make much sense to think he gains anything by them. But if indeed prayer somehow makes our minds and hearts more akin to his mysterious nature, more at ease with life and its challenges, more free than less -- then prayer might be something to consider.

As far as changing outcomes: if God exists outside of time then the way we think of things – cause and effect -- might not really apply regarding prayer. Lewis’ wife had a miraculous remission of her cancer which Lewis attributed not so much to prayer but to the healing touch of an Anglican priest. She would not live all that much longer but he was grateful for the extra months: a gift not so much for her, but for him. Perhaps, despite the experiences of Moses, Mountain Lake and Maureen McMahon, prayer is more about freedom than anything else. As Shakespeare would have it
Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
and my ending is despair,
unless I be relieved by prayer,
which pierces so that its assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.

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