postheadericon God, a Crutch? Reflections on Prayer

God, a Crutch? Reflections on Prayer

Joseph Mattam, SJ


              Once there was a tax collector; a sinner, according to the Jewish estimate. He desired to ‘see’ Jesus, the great Rabbi everyone spoke about. As he was short of stature he had to climb a tree – he would do whatever was needed to see Jesus. He sees Jesus; Jesus sees him and his life is transformed completely, he becomes a new man, a just, caring and sharing person. He is saved; Jesus said (Lk 19.1-10).

              The Religious, especially the women religious in India, spend a minimum of three hours daily in prayer, with Jesus. Some lay people also have long prayers; including some of the more recent devotions. This is true also of some of the seminaries where there are such a lot of vocal prayers. When I was in a seminary I joined the community once in their morning prayers and I have had enough. I could never bring myself again to join them. In recent years there is a flooding of religious literature with new prayers, new devotions, like the Mercy Chaplet. Everyday seems to bring in a new devotion, a new novena, new set of prayers.

              Through prayer, do people experience transformation like that of Zacchaeus? Many religious and lay people doubt it. Many, while they are very faithful to their prayers, continue to be unforgiving, intolerant, unjust, judgemental and dishonest in their ways.  Does contact with God/Jesus leave them untouched? Most people spend time in asking God for one or other favour and they claim that God ‘hears’ their prayers. Our Shrines like Velankani, centres like Potta, other ‘healing centres’ and ‘intercessory centres’ all claim that God answers their prayer. We are also aware that saints are made on the basis of their obtaining from God healing and other favours through their intercession. God seems to be conditioned by the name and fame of the place, and the status of the person making the prayer, as God seems to give more favours in such famous places and not in our ordinary villages or cities, and in response to the prayers of the ‘saints’, the ‘higher ups’. Since this is what happens among us, we make God to our image. This is the conviction of many in the Catholic Church; I do not dispute this, but would like to bring to our attention a couple of facts and point out that we do not seem to bother about the bad name we give to God with our theories.

              I suggest that the understanding of such ‘miracles’ as God’s ‘special intervention’ in the world must keep two facts in mind. First, the most important things in one’s life are all freely, gratuitously given without anyone praying for them. Is there anything as precious as one’s own life, one’s parents, brothers/sisters and all other relatives; nature with all its immense beauty and bounty: the air we breathe 24 hours of the day, water, grains which produce more than a hundredfold, the trees, flowers, fruits; realities of our faith: Jesus, the Spirit, the Church, the sacraments – the list is endless. All such precious, absolutely necessary and indispensable gifts are freely given, not in answer to one’s prayers. Hence to understand prayer primarily as a mechanism to obtain favours from God seems to me is to belittle this most beautiful of relations to one’s God, Father/Mother.

              Secondly, we must look at these ‘special interventions’ in the context of the world with its many natural and human-made mighty problems, where God does not seem to intervene. For example, slavery (millions kept as slaves for centuries), casteism (just think of the inhuman treatment meted out to the so called ‘untouchables’ for centuries), colonialism, the near extermination of the indigenous populations of the Americas (Genocide);  the Holocaust by Hitler, Apartheid; the millions killed by Stalin and Mao; the Rwanda killings; the perpetuation of abject poverty and misery for millions; incurable sickness of people who cannot afford the medicine for it, be it AIDS or Fluorosis (some estimated 30 million in the world); victims of paedophiles; all types of injustices against God's children, the female infanticide in India (by now, millions), the never ending wars in the world; thousands of children are born handicapped; volcanoes, tsunami, earthquakes and other natural calamities in which many thousands die each year and many more events like these. God does not seem to intervene in such massively important events involving billions of God’s innocent children. God did not intervene when God’s innocent Son was being unjustly murdered. If this be the case, do we so easily presume that God ‘specially intervenes’ in some practically unimportant events like the sickness of an individual in some corner of the world?  Some would argue that this shows God’s preference for the simple and the poor - but the fact is that the really very poor like the “slaves”, the “untouchables”, girl children in India, and other poor continue to suffer (an estimated 60.000,000 starve each year) without any special divine intervention in favour of them; but God seems to intervene in the case of the Religious and other pious people, who are often not poor. There are, of course, thousands who complain that God never ‘hears’ them.

              We seem to forget that long time ago, God had put humans in charge of God’s creation, and we are told, “God rested” (Gen 1. 26-2.3), hence, God rightly seems to leave the big problems for us to solve.  Then would God be intervening to solve small problems and leave the big ones to us? Are we not making God a little bit too small? Are not all problems, big and small, a challenge to our creativity, freedom and love? If ever a problem has been solved, it is because humans intervened creatively and lovingly.      
             Some people seem to hold on to a ‘paternalistic’ God (one who, instead of us, does things which we can do for ourselves). This is to treat God as a crutch. Jesus had shown us that such a God does not exist; when the people had nothing to eat in the desert he did not tell them to pray to the Father, but told them “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6.17). Jesus responded creatively and lovingly as demanded by any situation and thanked the Father for his action. As examples for God’s providence, Jesus spoke of the birds and the lilies; both work very hard to feed and protect themselves; birds work from morning to evening, and fly thousands of miles to protect themselves from the cold and other inclemency of the weather; every part of the plants works day and night (Matt 6.25-33). God’s providence is precisely in how God enables each to be its own provider and protector; parents, especially the mothers, are the providence of God for the babies.

              Hence, should not prayer be understood in the way the Bible presents it? See Psalm 131: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high....but I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother…” or “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46.10). “You have only to keep still” (Exod.14.14). I do not deny that the Bible has also other images of prayer. Or as Tagore says: “Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat, only thou and I, and never a soul in the world would know of this our pilgrimage to no country and to no end. In that shoreless ocean, at thy silently listening smile, my songs would swell in melodies free as waves, free from all bondage of words” (Gitanjali 42). Prayer is ultimately alert, attentive silence in God’s presence, silence in God, with God. It is the silent song of a grateful heart reaching out to its benevolent, generous source, Father/Mother.

             In our urge to inform God what God should be doing and in our greed to get more and more we have forgotten the art of this “be still”. By having increased the volume of ‘prayers’ we have lost the art of prayer. The shrines and other centres force us to move away from ‘prayer’ to saying volumes of prayers. Prayer books are good business, certainly. We have also forgotten what Jesus had told us: “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mat 5.7-8; 6.32). That is why God has provided us with everything – how we use, distribute everything is our responsibility.
             The only prayer that Jesus taught, the “Our Father” is a profession of who we are and a promise to bring about God’s Kingdom. We confess that God is our loving Father/Mother; hence our relation to God should be one of loving obedience, not of greed and fear. We confess that we are all brothers and sisters; hence we owe unconditional love towards one another, and accept that the earth belongs to all; hence we commit ourselves to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth by sharing bread, forgiving one another, protecting and caring for one another. This prayer is a call to act in such a way that we glorify God by what we do, and thus bring about God’s Kingdom. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6.33). Jesus’ words need to be interpreted in the light of the context: people of his time believed that everything happens because God makes it happen (“God causes the sun to rise” Matt 6.45); we have to go beyond this belief and understand Jesus’ words on the basis of his actions.

              People complain that when they are silent in prayer their mind wanders, they get lots of “distractions”, and hence they cannot pray. When I was a novice more than half a century ago I was told to discard the distractions, push them out, and come back to prayer. But what are these ‘distractions’? They are not things coming from outside taking us away somewhere, but we are just becoming aware of all the problems that are within us: our wrong attitudes, anger, hurt feelings, aversions, hatred, attachments, fears, pre-occupations, worries, conflicts, unforgiving situations and the like. All of them are calling for our attention and action. If you want to put this in another way, God is inviting us to rectify our attitudes, come to proper, healthy attitudes. This is what happened to Zacchaeus. Jesus’ look on him opened his eyes and he saw that he was a cheat, that he did not care for the poor – and suddenly he changed. Jesus had told us this long time ago: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5. 23-24). We do not seem to pay attention to what Jesus is inviting us to do each day through our ‘distractions’ when we are silent, and hence we do not improve, we continue in our old ways. Prayer appears difficult. Unless we face these ‘distractions’ and act on them, they will not leave us in peace.

              Yet, Jesus did say, “Ask and you shall receive…, find.., door will be opened to you” (Lk 11. 9-10). When I was a student of theology, our scripture professor, Fr Volckaert told us that it means, when you pray, “God gives God self, God opens self to us, God is found”, and Luke makes it explicit: “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Lk 11.13). We believe that God dwells in us, so what Luke seems to say is that when we pray, we are consciously opening ourselves to the Mystery of God, like a stream becoming conscious of the fountain whence it springs.  What we ‘receive’ in prayer is God, the source of all power, strength and creativity; and by coming into conscious contact with the Source we are strengthened and are able to do more than we ever suspected. The hidden source of power within is touched, hence in prayer we are coming into conscious communion with God our Father/Mother/Friend – this is the source of our transformation, like that of Zacchaeus.

              Then are all our prayers of petition useless? No, they express our faith, and our dependence on God, and our love and good will for others. True love is effective; it is the greatest power on earth; it brings about what it desires. God works through our love and concern for one another; all God’s gifts, beginning with the gift of life, are imparted to us through one another, through creation. God is always active in and through us. That is why we say God was at work in Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Gandhiji, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and so many others. God acts in and through God’s lieutenants, images, sons and daughters on earth.

              When we recognise this, we will be led to thanksgiving. This might lead us to be less greedy and more grateful. Because of our stress on ‘the special interventions’ of God, we forget to be grateful for the innumerable and precious gifts that God gives continuously through nature, through one another.

              God does not seem to want us to use God as a crutch; God wants us to be responsible for our life, for our world, find solutions for our problems and then thank God, as Jesus always did. For, ultimately it is the dynamic indwelling presence of God in us that enables us to be creators of ourselves and of our world, and thus glorify God. Through prayer one is becoming aware of this indwelling presence of God, and is led to continual thanksgiving. God is glorified when God’s children behave in a worthy, responsible and loving manner, and not treat God as a crutch.


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