Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Thursday, November 24, 2022

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Pascal says that God “instituted prayer in order to allow His creatures the dignity of causality”. There are some things that are within our direct power to do: we wash our hands, and (save for Lady Macbeth) our hands become clean. Most of the events that go on in the universe are, of course, out of our hands. But that is not to say they are out of our control, for we may still pray for them.

Of course, putting a wish in a prayer does not exactly put it within our power. Quite so. And thank God for that. For think of all the wickedness that men do with their hands – we have police and prisons and restraining orders and bulletproof glass and handcuffs and straitjackets to protect us from the violence and destruction that is wrought just by men's hands. The causality exercised by our own hands is guaranteed, and therefore ruthless. 
But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left Himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man. We would have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: “Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants." That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing prayers; except on that condition, prayer would destroy us.
Now I hear another objection: "But prayers are not always granted." Ah, but here we come to God's rebuke to Job: "Who are you to call me to account? Can you hope to understand why or how I do anything? Were you there at the Creation? Can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? You, a worm that lives a few moments, and dies?" When we judge, crudely, a prayer as "granted" or "not granted," we are judging without seeing the evidence. Prayers seem to us unfulfilled not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it “works” at all it works unlimited by space and time. Here are C.S. Lewis's words on that matter: 
Don’t bother about the idea that God “has known for millions of years exactly what you are about to pray”. That isn’t what it’s like. God is hearing you now, just as simply as a mother hears a child. The difference His timelessness makes is that this now (which slips away from you even as you say the word now) is for Him infinite. If you must think of His timelessness at all, don’t think of Him having looked forward to this moment for millions of years: think that to Him you are always praying this prayer. But there’s really no need to bring it in. You have gone into the Temple (“one day in Thy court is better than a thousand”) and found Him, as always, there. That is all you need to bother about.
Thanks is merely a backwards looking prayer. God hears thanks for the good of the past as merely a prayer from a different orientation.
And that is where, it seems to me, the power of thanksgiving enters in. When normally we pray, we are asking for something, presumably in the future, and something that might not come about quite the way we expect – something that, when it comes about at all, might be quite unrecognizable to us as the fulfillment of our prayer, if even we are blessed to cross paths with the realization at all. But thanksgiving is not like that. If a prayer feels like a coin thrown desperately into the fountain, thanksgiving is like the cash you find in the pocket of an old pair of jeans. As far as that particular blessing goes, you and God are not longer separated by the vast canyons of time and the mysterious workings of the universe, for the blessing has arrived! Now, in your own time! Here, in your own hands!
George Bailey felt quite powerless when he prayed his desperate sinner's prayer at the bridge, not knowing of any way out of the charges of embezzlement against him, and of the humiliation of his family, least of all that the way out lay in jumping into the snowy river; but he had gained rich blessings – the answer to his prayers and then some – by the time his daughter Zuzu pointed out to him the ringing bell, reminding George that he had thanksgiving prayers to send up.
A particular blessing has come into your hands. The blessing unites a prayer and its fulfillment in your own time, in your own life. That is a miracle, a small part of heaven, that God allows us to experience in this life. And the key to unlocking this miracle is through sending up a prayer, and telling God, simply and earnestly: Thank You.
(Borrowed heavily from C.S. Lewis, How to Pray.)


ZZMike said...

In my Jesuit high school, it was said that God always answers prayers. The answer is "Yes", "No:, or "Perhaps another time.

That would also be the outcome of a God-free Universe.

Tim Kowal said...

"That would also be the outcome of a God-free Universe."
Perhaps, but it would reduce gratitude to a mechanistic impulse. Thanking God for a meal would have no more or less moral significance than a belch. The observation that prayer gives God's creatures the dignity of causality presupposes belief in God, without which there is no causality at all, as Hume acknowledged.