Tag: prayer

Mary’s prayer

Apart from the obvious doctrinal associations with Christmas, keeping the 1st January as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God has the feel of placing the coming year under her patronage.


I want to say something in favour of the idea of Mary as patron, as someone we cry out to when things are tough. I’ve fallen back myself on the kind of folk religion which whispers a Hail Mary or touches her icon, a type of prayer that an earlier, more sophisticated and more stupid, version of myself would have decried. There is something very human about claiming the patronage of Mary – we’re reaching out to one of us (and she is one of us, the sillier excesses of saccharine piety have never quite been able to hide the peasant women), asking for help. We’re reminded that we’re never alone; David Cameron’s pernicious ideological slogan “we’re all in it together” was not true of British society, it is true of the communion of saints. More than that though, because Marian devotion has flourished at a popular level, for all its many problems, it has had the capacity to preserve parts of religiosity underplayed by official theology and liturgy. A case in point is emotion – I don’t mean the soppy fake emotion of Victorian hymns to our Lady – I mean the fear and longing, the desire and the pain, of the anguished cry for help, all there in the words “Mary, pray for me”. That patriarchal society genders emotion as female means, I think, that in our present situation Mary is a uniquely natural recipient of this kind of prayer – before anyone supposes this blasphemous, remember that part of belief in the Incarnation is belief that Christ, as a human being, is limited, in particular he is limited by being male, but not female.

The patronage of Mary shows us to be fully human, with needs and emotions, and to exist in community with others. That is what we are called to be by our creation and redemption, and it is good to be reminded of it at the beginning of the year.


There’s something about Mary

“May is Mary’s month” – thus Gerald Manley Hopkins. Or, as a rather less proficient poet would have us sing, “The happy birds Te Deum sing, ’tis Mary’s month of May”. The latter lines do capture what is undoubtedly the case: there is something more than a little naff about a lot of what happens under the umbrella of May devotion to our Lady. It is variously theologically dodgy, saccharine, and shot through with dubious ideas of Christian femininity. No sensible person should doubt these things. (It’s an unfortunate feature of religion in a fallen world that the Church contains people who are not sensible). The problem is, I think that in the years since Vatican II people have understood a correct criticism of pre-conciliar Marian devotion, but used it a diminish the role of marian devotion in the praying life of the Church, rather than to reform it.


OL Tenderness

So it’s no bad thing to have a month during which we focus on Mary. Doing this is simply part of the Catholic ‘thing’. At one level we don’t need reasons for doing it at all. There’s a temptation towards didacticism in contemporary Catholicism that supposes we need to have a reason for everything we do. This is particularly apparent in discussions of liturgy. However, reasons are often superfluous. We just are this people, living out this relationship to God in this way. To ask, of many things, why we do this is to misunderstand the nature of our characteristic activities. It is akin to asking for a deep philosophical justification for a family’s Christmas routine.

With respect to many marian devotions I think this attitude of “this is just what we do” is all we need – the rosary, litanies, votive masses and so on. But as I hinted above, there are aspects of what gets seen as ‘traditional’ devotion to our Lady (although is generally of fairly recent vintage) which needs to be assessed in the light of God’s self-communication as this is witnessed to in scripture and the Church’s teaching. It is often when we have made a mess of the tradition we have been given that we need to step back and ask what is genuinely of value and what needs to be recovered. Here is a modest suggestion as to how we might go about doing that.

The Second Vatican Council chose to include its teaching about Mary in the document on the Church. This makes profound sense, since Mary’s role in the ongoing story with our salvation can only be grasped if we see that in her we see particularly clearly the Father’s relationship to his People. She stands at the culmination of the covenant with Israel, at the birth of the Church, and is the sign of the Church both in its pilgrimage (saying ‘yes’ at the annunciation, standing by the cross) and in its glory (conceived free from sin, assumed into heaven). There is a lot here. How then might we go about better relating to Mary in a way that better reflects this ecclesial focus of her significance? That, it seems to me, is the challenge the Council set us (all of us, in our praying lives and self-understanding, not just the bishops). I’m not sure we’ve faced up to it yet.

The rosary

October is traditionally the month associated with the rosary; last Friday was the feast of our Lady of the Rosary.


It is fair to say that the rosary is not fashionable in most Catholic circles. There are some good reasons for this. The form of prayer has attracted more than its fair share of piety and sickly sentimentality. There are some tracts about the devotion you would be well advised not to read too soon after eating. Being something protestants definitely don’t do, it has also served as a badge of jealously guarded Catholic particularity. None of these things are at all admirable and each is perfectly sufficient to put a reasonable person off their beads.

There are also, however, lots of very bad reasons to regard the rosary with suspicion, and these are probably the dominant ones. I am on my guard the second I hear anyone describe the prayer as ‘mechanical’. We are, after all, creatures of habit and spontaneity is not necessarily a good thing, as the speeches of Donald Trump confirm. There is worse to come: to varying extents people will intimate that it is not sufficiently inward-orientated, reflective, ‘spiritual’ (a word that when not used in its New Testament sense to denote the things of the Holy Spirit, ought to be banned from Christian discourse), deep, conducive to self-exploration or otherwise sensitive to the need for the thriving 21st century market in ‘spirituality’ (a word that, when not used in its medieval sense to denote the distinctive pattern of life of a religious order or fraternity, ought similarly to be banned).

The problem with the rosary, from this perspective, is that it is vulgar and material. You pass beads through your hands and repeat prayers. Your mind can wander, and to the extent that it is directed towards anything to do with the prayer, it is on drearily familiar stories from the Bible and tradition. There are no techniques to learn, no breathing exercises: prayer is supposed to be difficult, or else why would it be worth doing? Worse still, it is all deeply impersonal. Saying prayers said by millions across the world daily; how could that be suited to my personal spiritual needs?

All of this is really a complaint not about the rosary, but about the fact that we are human beings. A perennial temptation , and one on which it is very easy to put a holy gloss, is to try to be something other than the kind of things we in fact are. In particular, human history has been full of people – including those Alibigensians St Dominic founded his order to oppose – who would rather not be animal, embodied, social creatures. Praying with beads is, for these sort of people, a horrible reminder of our gross physicality. We would prefer to be exalted, angelic beings, able to focus on anything perpetually but the dreary world around us – the other people, the worries, concerns, noises, and affections that get called ‘distractions’, and above which we fancy prayer will raise us.

This attitude is disastrous, since as long as we deny what we in fact are, we are closed to God working in us through prayer. The central Christian truth is that God loves us just as we are. The only thing that stands in the way of that love coming to fruition is us not believing that God loves us just as we are, because we find ourselves unlovable. So we try to be something different instead, telling ourselves that God will love us if only we are more inward, more spiritual, less human. God, who will not force his love on us, and who calls us to be what he created us to be, can do nothing with this attitude other than provide the means for it to change, for us to simply allow ourselves to be loved.

This is, I think what the rosary does. Drawing us back to earth, to our commonality with others praying in the same words, allowing our minds to wander whilst keeping the rhythm of prayer, inviting us to think about how the story of our redemption speaks of a young woman and her son – it is all very human, very grounded. In this it speaks of the God who saves us as we are, since there is no other way we could be saved.

Healing, miracles, and magic


Yesterday, whilst browsing the internet semi-conscious, one hand firmly gripping a cup of strong coffee, my usual way of spending Saturday morning, I was stuck by an article at the Independent. It was the headline that caught my attention: “People who are impressed by inspirational quotes have lower IQs, study says”. I sighed inwardly; yet another piece in a liberal broadsheet about the stupidity of people who are, we assume, not amongst the newspaper’s target audience. Much though the mushrooming use of supposedly inspirational quotes is annoying, I mused, doesn’t it tell us rather more about the society that produces it than about its consumers? What kind of world packages hope in oblong digital dollops? And what is lacking in circumstances where people feel the need for that kind of hope?

This wasn’t what commanded my attention, however. The article included an explanation of the research by its lead author:

Those more receptive to bullshit [the coy Indy asteriskes part of this word] are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability – numeracy, verbal and fluid intelligence), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

Fewer than two hours into the weekend, I sighed again. I certainly recognise the phenomena of widespread credulity, superstition, and conspiracy theory, although again I think they force fundamental questions about our society rather than being an imprimatur for sneering. But the pairing of “religious” with “paranormal” beliefs in a context where both are clearly intended to be negatively evaluated was yet another example of the routine dismissing of people with religious beliefs as in some way lacking. (It won’t do, by the way, to appeal to “science” here – this is just the neutral presentation of research finding – scientists devise their research questions and report their own research, and neither are value-neutral processes).

So I read the original research article, and came across this passage, which purports to explain the concept of an ontological confusion:

Consider the belief that prayers have the capacity to heal (i.e., spiritual healing). Such beliefs are taken to result from conflation of mental phenomenon,which are subjective and immaterial, and physical phenomenon, which are objective and material.

This is not the clearest piece of academic writing ever consigned to print, but here is what I take to be the basic idea. Ontological confusions are the kind of mistakes expressed in language by category errors, attempting to say of some entity something that cannot be said of an entity of that kind. So if I say “The number two is brave”, “Teresa May is equal to the sum of the squares on adjacent sides”, or “God is big” I commit an ontological confusion. Now the thought is supposed to be that to say that prayer (“a subjective and immaterial phenomenon”) can bring about a physical effect (the healing of illness) is to render oneself guilty of ontological confusion.

Ought we to believe that prayers can heal? A straw poll of adherents of the monotheistic faiths worldwide would almost certainly get the answer ‘yes’. But there’s a fatal ambiguity in the question.

Prayer is something human beings do (Christians of course also believe that it is something God does, bringing us to pray by grace, and making present his eternal life as Trinity in our prayers – but we do not think that God can compete with our agency). It is not, as the authors suggest something “subjective and immaterial”; here they themselves have fallen foul of one of the foremost superstitions of the age, dualism – on the contrary, prayer is conducted by animals of a certain kind (us), in a public language (either aloud or ‘internally’), and often accompanied by bodily gestures. It is no more immaterial or subjective than the coffee I was drinking. Nevertheless, it is perfectly true that we, through our actions, cannot bring about the healing of illness other than through the natural order of things governed by the processes described in the natural sciences and pscyhology. We cannot do magic. To the extent that there’s an implicit criticism here of ‘faith healing’ (elsewhere the authors don’t distinguish this clearly from prayer for healing) and the kind of glitzy idolatrous Christianity which advertises itself by appealing to the miracles its ministers can bring about, that is all for the good.

But when we pray for someone to be healed we pray that God will heal the suffering person. If the action of our praying can’t, in an unmediated manner, bring about healing (other than to the extent that the normal causal order permits, by a placebo effect, for instance), can God? Well, yes: God is not a thing in the world, bound by its laws, but is rather the reason that world and those laws exist. To speak of God healing is not to make the mistake of thinking that one thing in the world could act upon another in a magical way, because God is not a thing in the world. The classification of divine healing with magic, and of belief in it as superstition, involves a misunderstanding of the word “God” – it doesn’t name a thing, a bit of the world. Communicating this is one of the most urgent tasks facing Christians today. And it isn’t helped by the fact that many Christians do talk of God as though he were one more wordly cause amongst others, in this case some kind of super form of celestial antibiotic. The language of “divine intervention” doesn’t help here; something to which I’ll return in a moment.

It’s worth distinguishing two ways in which God can bring about healing. God acts in every agent and every event in the world, since he is their cause, in a unique sense of that word, as creator. So, in particular, when a surgeon removes a tumour or a drug increases serotonin levels in the brain, God brings about that healing. This is not a metaphor, nor an expression of the deistic thought that God ‘got the universe going’ at the Big Bang so is, in a sense, responsible for everything that happens subsequently. God is not responsible for neurosurgery in the same way that the Queen is responsible for Prince Charles talking to tomato plants. God is directly the creative cause of the operation, holding it in being over and against nothing. We can agree, then with Sirach‘s call to “Treat the doctor with the honour that is his due, in consideration of his services; for he too has been created by the Lord.” Recovery through medical intervention is one form of divine healing, and in viewing it as an answer to a prayer for healing we incorporate it into the story of the world’s redemption.


However, God can also heal without a created entity also bringing about the healing. This is what is meant by a healing miracle. I think that Catholics are not bound to believe that any given case of a reported healing miracle took place, or was indeed a miracle (it would be wrong to think of the resurrection, in which we certainly are bound to believe, to be a kind of super-healing miracle) – although I also think that once one believes in God (and so that healing miracles are possible), a sober historical critical approach to scripture would deliver the result that they have taken place. But we are bound to believe that healing miracles are possible. For God to exist is for there to be a creator, and so for there to be that which can bring things about ex nihilo. God does this in every healing. It is not that in the case of the miracle he is more present than he is when the doctor stitches a wound: no, God is not more present (what could that mean?); the difference is that a created cause is absent. For this reason talk of “divine intervention” here seems muddled – I don’t particularly like the expression in general, much though it is wrongly thought to be a touchstone of orthodoxy in some quarters, but I can live with it as a pictorial way of talking about God’s action in salvation history. As a description of miracles, though, it is a disaster. I can only intervene in a situation to which I am not already present. The gods in Greek mythology can be described as intervening. God, meanwhile, is continually present to his creation as creator.

The relationship between intercessory prayer and divine healing is interesting, but not of the moment. God can, we believe, heal. Whether or not prayer can heal depends on precisely what is meant. In no way does any of this involve ontological confusion. Nor is believing it credulous or superstitious, unless belief in God is those things. And to make that claim the atheist needs an argument.

Yet, none of these are the most important issues around prayer for healing. Far more important are the heart-rending complaints: “why didn’t God heal my daughter?”, “why doesn’t he listen?”. I think there are things that can be said here, but it would often be heartless to say them. The only answer we have is practical, the expression of divine love in our lives: in context this might look like a listening hand or an arm around the shoulder. Ultimately it looks like the Cross. Still, in a more general sense, the confusion around such prayer is indicative of a deeper and deadening confusion, of God with an item in the world. This is a barrier to the reception of the faith. And for that reason it should be tackled.



By comparison with fasting and almsgiving, I’m nervous about the topic of prayer. This isn’t because I think it isn’t important, or even because I don’t do it. Part of the problem is that writing about prayer is, in our culture, an exercise in putting oneself on display to an extent unparalleled even by writing about sex. One either enters the territory of the kind of spiritual Alan Partridges who slip the word ‘Jesus’ into every other sentence and can be seen sporting P.U.S.H. bracelets (Pray Until Something Happens, apparently), or else one discloses something uniquely personal. This last thought wouldn’t be entirely wrong were it not for the word ‘uniquely’, as though prayer were something solely between me and God, with the rest of the human race, or even the Church, not getting a look in. The personal is not the same as the private. But we can’t, or I should say I can’t, entirely escape the world that formed us, and so I feel uncomfortable writing about prayer.

More than this, there’s two ideas I find floating around whenever I try to articulate anything about prayer, both suggesting an inadequacy in my own practice. One, more often encountered amongst non-Catholics (the Christian Union from my student days spring to mind), tells me that prayer should be like talking to my friends, as informal and unforced as a chat in the pub. Well, it doesn’t feel very much like that when in the day’s first caffeine-lightened haze I thumb through a breviary. Another, ecumenical in its adherents, suggests that prayer is an inward, deeply profound business, hidden from the mass of humanity, and above all difficult. Thus the abundance of techniques and books about something called ‘spirituality’. In an unhealthily pious younger phase I tried, and failed, to learn some of these techniques.

Neither view is entirely wrong. After all, on the one hand, ‘I call you friends‘, and on the other, prayer would be difficult, were it not – considered as a technique, as something we might do, with a bit of practice – impossible.

Those friends in the pub are the same kind of thing as me. They are part of my world, sharing my concerns and my language. I can work on my friendships with them, learning about them, sharing myself with them, engaging in shared activities, and forming over time a common history. God, on the other hand, is not the same kind of thing as me, or any kind of thing. God does not inhabit the world, he is not one of the things I can encounter as a find my way around it. I certainly can, as human beings have down through history, believe that God exists and want to worship him or win his favour. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is neither friendship nor conversation. It remains true, of course, that God without whom I cannot exist is, in St Augustine’s phrase, closer to me than I am to myself. But that isn’t a basis for the kind of equal relationship that deserves the name ‘friendship’ and is a precondition for what Christians call ‘prayer’. I cannot be friends with the air I breathe.

And so it would have remained had God not shown us that his own life was a form of friendship, of loving exchange between the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit. He showed us this in the life of Jesus, in his relationship with the one he called Father, and his gift of the Spirit. Jesus was the first human being to pray, in the strict sense of that word, because in his prayer to the Father the eternal conversation of God’s being spoke in human words. In fact, there is an important sense in which Jesus’ prayer is the only prayer, the human prayer of the Son to the Father. We, the ones he calls his friends, come to share in that prayer. By our baptism we join the conversation.

Thus Herbert McCabe:

All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing in the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son.

The point he’s making in the piece from which this quote comes is that a customary dichotomy between (private) prayers and the Mass is an utter mistake. Prayer is first what happens when I gather with a bunch of people, young and old, earnest and distracted, late, irritating, and whatever else the Church in its wonderful mess might be, here is prayer, because here Christ prays sacrificially to the Father under the sacramental signs. So, in particular, prayer is never private, simply because it is only as one of us, the Body united to the Head, that I can pray at all, by participation in that one and only prayer.

We, or I (as one of us), continue this participation in what McCabe writes about as ‘the reflections that we call our prayers’. Like conversations with those pub friends these are more diverse in form than either of the characters from my first paragraph suppose. Friends meet together ritualistically (‘every first Saturday evening, see you there’), engage in idle asides, phone one another to ask for help, or to share good news, and sometimes deliberately mark out significant periods of time to spend together every once in a while. In a similar way we have the liturgy of the hours, the rosary and similar devotions, our informal prayers, and even those techniques.

And yet it’s never quite the same as those pub friendships. Our relationship to the Father is altogether more secure, founded as it is on utter self-giving love. It is, meanwhile, not comprehensible in the way my human friendships can sometimes be. I do not understand the divine life in which I participate; Aquinas says that we are united to God in this life ‘as to one unknown’. So even the mystery-merchants who glory in the fact that prayer is deep and difficult have a point. One suspects sometimes that such people consider this depth an unconditionally good thing, a sign of the praying person’s membership of a spiritual elite. This is to end the story prematurely: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ I do not yet know the nature of this uniquely wonderful friendship in which I share, and which grounds my very being. My unknowing, though, is not the destination but the journey.

So, I think, it’s probably good that I feel inadequate, and to an extent unsatisfied, by prayer. What we now call ‘prayer’ isn’t our ultimate destiny. Just as the Mass anticipates, even whilst making present, the banquet of the Kingdom, so our sharing at the moment in Christ’s prayer speaks of what will one day be, when he is all in all.