Prayer is Not the Same Thing as Approval

If we really believed in the power of prayer, we might be more apt to pray for our enemies.

Article main image

The other day at Mass during the prayers of the faithful the priest said something which immediately gave me (and no doubt many another congregants) something of an idea of his ideological orientation. All he did was to pray for the Armed Forces—not to pray that they should succeed at anything or stop doing anything or begin to do anything, or anything at all. He simply prayed for “our men and women in the military.” But I realized immediately that, on the spectrum of liberal to conservative (whatever that means in an ecclesiastical context) that this priest was more conservative than I had supposed.

That a mere throw-away line in the prayers of the faithful should have been so obvious a revelation is a crying shame. After all, anyone—liberal, conservative, pacifist, or hawk—ought to be able to pray for the armed forces simply on the grounds that we all have an obligation to pray for our fellow human beings. Yet the fact is that nowadays, prayers to that effect remain almost entirely in the purview of people who inhabit a certain end of the political spectrum. This phenomenon is certainly not limited to the military. One sees it perhaps even more with figures of state: to pray simply and without elaboration for the president is almost always an indication that one approves of the president. This is equally true of popes and bishops and so on and so forth: rarely does one hear a public prayer for a Church figure for whom the compositor does not feel great affection, interest and sympathy.

It is possible of course by adding specifics to make it clear that one’s prayer does not indicate approval: to pray, for instance, that so-and-so for whom one prays may have their blind eyes opened to the light of truth, and so on. But to simply pray for someone publicly, without adding a stitch about the why, is taken to indicate personal endorsement.

But that Victorian awkwardness is a part of the past; and in those circles where prayer remains socially acceptable (that is, in church or in the rare political events that showcase religious leaders) we seem as a culture to have settled into the notion that prayer (unless supplied with ample caveats) signals our admiration of the subject being prayed for. The curious result is that our public prayers tend to be devoid of attention precisely to those people whom we consider to be most misguided and therefore theoretically in the most need of supernatural grace.

It is all very well to pray for a leader, from pastor to pope, from president to dog catcher, whom one regards as a Living Saint and Embodiment of All that Is Good in the World, a person who can from one’s ideological standpoint do no wrong — but if one indeed believes that, then they perhaps need prayer somewhat less than the unregenerate, possibly demonically-influenced characters on the other side. And yet, because we have decided collectively that unmodified prayer means approval, we no longer pray for our enemies.

From this odd and worrisome fact one might deduce a great many things. One might, for example, deduce that we no longer know how to love our enemies — that we have fallen far below the standard of previous ages, and consider those who do not share all our beliefs to be essentially unredeemable, as well as obviously unpersuadable. And in this rational explanation there may be some truth.

But I think that our reluctance to pray for those with whom we disagree is more than a mere side effect of partisan polarization. I think the problem indeed is not so much a lack of charity as a weakening of faith. Plain prayer could hardly mean plain approval if we believed in its efficacy — if we believed that the Holy Spirit were at work in the world, and that he could change the hearts of men — that he could lead to conversion or at least forestall perversion, especially in those cases where it has been promised that he will do so. If we believed all that firmly and consciously, then perhaps we might be more inclined to invoke his assistance in cases which are, humanly speaking, impossible, where the differences between pray-er and pray-ee seem unbridgeable.

If prayer indeed meant something upon which we could rely, then we would not be so ready to treat it as mere rhetoric. It would be dangerous, like a sword; indeed, swords too can be wielded against one’s enemies. We have transformed prayer from a sword into something of a hair bow, or at best a laurel wreath, with which one decks the victors of one’s own side.

We just celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost — the birthday of the Church, the culmination of the Easter season, and the beginning of ordinary time.  In the days ahead devoted to the coming of the Holy Spirit, it would behoove all of us to beg him to enkindle in our hearts the fire of his love, but also to infuse in us a deeper faith in his power to move mountains.