If faith and prayer are solely what Frank Bruni calls “magical thinking” then, yes, I agree with him that it is a stumbling block on the way to facing the serious problems before all humankind right now. But surely that is not all it is or can be.
I’ve studied prayer for many years and as I see it, there are at least two kinds of praying. One that we may as well call magical thinking and one that can give us what we need most in a dangerous moment.
A well-known story about prayer shows us the difference:
A desperate man is on the roof of his house as floodwaters rise, threatening to sweep him away. He prays for God to rescue him. As he prays, a woman in a rowboat comes by and offers him aid. He refuses, saying, “No, I have faith that God will rescue me.” The woman rows on and the man continues praying. Next, a motorboat comes by. The man praying refuses help again. Finally, a helicopter comes and again the man praying refuses help, saying that he has faith that God will rescue him. The man drowns and goes to heaven where he angrily confronts God with the question, “Why didn’t you rescue me?” And God replies, “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter. What did you expect?”
The man’s magical thinking blinds him to God’s answer to his prayers, which could have given him the courage to slide off that roof into a boat or reach for that fragile rope to be pulled up to safety.
So how do we know the difference between magical thinking and real prayer?
Jesus said a lot about both and modeled how to pray even more often. He tips us off to false prayer in his warning. “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by men (Matthew 6:5).” Perhaps Gov. Rick Perry comes to your mind too as an example of what Jesus is warning of here.
In contrast, Jesus teaches, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:6).” Pray, then watch for what happens next — perhaps the courage to swim to a passing rescue boat.
I can give an example of when my private prayer was answered. For years, I began each morning with the Prayer of St. Francis which ends, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be loved as to love, to be understood as to understand.” After years of this, someone pointed out to me recently, that God had granted my request. God kindled and sustains a passion in me to understand those who have no interest at all in understanding me. No matter. Day after day I seek them out to understand them. Prayer answered. Wow.
I join Gov. Perry in a yearning for God to help us in our distress. And I remember Jesus’ great commandments to love God and my neighbor. This is what saves me, I think, from magical thinking because I know that what God gives us first of all as the answer to our prayer is each other — our neighbors.
When Jesus saw that the multitudes were hungry (as many are today in body and all are in spirit) His prayer was not for pie from the sky. He asked his followers to give what they had and to share it with their neighbor. There was enough for all with plenty left over (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17).
Just like this story, we are not lacking in resources to face the difficulties before us. I like Frank Bruni’s prescription: “To get us out of this mess, we need a full range of extant remedies, a tireless search for new ones and the nimbleness and open-mindedness to evaluate progress dispassionately and adapt our strategy accordingly.” God has already given us these. My prayer is for the willingness to share them.
We are lacking the political — or better, the neighborly — will to join our forces which is the only path to better times. This is what I pray for. And I pray that mine is prayer, and not just magical thinking.
Janet Edwards | Aug 10, 2011 11:39 AM