Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Post hoc ergo propter hoc" Prayer

I lost my breviary last night and had to resort to a copy of the breviary in Latin which I don't like doing since, being an Anglican Catholic, it's important that I say my prayers in English. Of course it was good for me to practise my Latin which is very rusty. However, frustrated after a day of not quite getting the rhythm of the psalms right, I said a prayer to St Anthony and within 10 minutes I found that pesky breviary which had fallen down the back of a table!

Of course, those of you with a rational mind and/or Protestant sensibilities will balk at what I've done. Have I just given into a popish superstition, or have I just committed a "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy?

To the charge of the former, prayers to the saints are no different from asking a friend to pray for you. That doesn't mean that you should not pray to God yourself, but rather that you pray with someone. Membership of the Church means that we are all united in Christ even if that unity is not an organisational one. We believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, the Communion of the Saints, and in Eternal life - a life not bound by Time - for those who love God and believe in His name, so to deny that the saints pray for us flies in the face of believing that they have communion with us or that they have eternal life.

When we ask people to pray for us, we gain solidarity in being with the Church. A lost breviary is not that important in the grand scheme of things, but it is irksome and that which is irksome can lead one into sin if one is not careful. To know that there are folk on your side is comforting and can draw you back from falling into sin. St Anthony is the go-to saint for lost things, and I didn't expect him to appear and get down on his hands and knees and look under the piano. I simply asked him to pray for me for help. I also prayed to God for help - that's the deal. That help came, and now I can say my office for the Nativity of St John the Baptist in English.

Ah! But then, the skeptical reader will say "Post hoc ergo propter hoc!" ("after this therefore because of this") meaning that they say that I believe that my prayer was the cause of finding my breviary. The post hoc ergo propter hoc (PHEPH) fallacy is a confusion of coincidences. If M.R.James whistles at night and a wind just happens to blow, he might infer that his whistling has caused the wind to blow. That is PHEPH. Did I find my breviary because I prayed for it? If I'm honest, I cannot be sure, and I am very glad I cannot because there is something very sinister that could lurk at the bottom of the way we pray for things. If I didn't find it, then I believe I would have been given a way forward - a way I might not have been comfortable with but which would have been better for me if I accepted it as part of God's way forward.

I have said before that we should not treat God like a genie. When we pray, we need to make sure that we honour the majesty and supreme authority of God, making sure that we are complicit with His will. He wants us to be more than just happy which is why we don't get our own way with superficial happiness. Since God is infinite, little things matter to Him, but what is more important to Him is that we should not fall into sin. We need to pray for our own suffering (yes, that's fine), but we pray for the suffering of others too which may be more than we could ever imagine, or even different from what we can imagine!

No doubt we all have The List in our Parishes, a collection, read out at Mass each week, of names of people who need our prayers. This list never seems to change much; week-in, week-out we read Edith's name not knowing who on Earth Edith is, but knowing that she has been on the list a long time. Why isn't she getting better? Likewise, The List seems remarkably incomplete. Why are some people's names missed off? Is it deliberate? Are we failing in our duty to pray for the needs of folk regardless of who they are, where they are, or whether they are even Christian? We are bound to pray for the whole world. Indeed, when I raise the chalice at the Offertory, I pray on behalf of my congregation for our salvation and that of the whole world.

This is where I believe Archbishop Cranmer has it spot on with his prayer for all sorts and conditions of men.

Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those, who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [*especially those for whom our prayers are desired;] that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them, according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions.

What I find particularly helpful is that it is not specific about how God is to answer prayer. The man who has lost an arm wants it back. While it is perfectly possible for God to restore it (as Jesus did with the ear of Malchus) that's often not the way forward. The majority of amputees do not receive their missing limbs back again, and that's a source of sorrow for the amputee. It should also be a source of sorrow for the Church, indeed every reasonable human being. However, if we are Christian, then we have to trust God implicitly that the loss of a limb will change the world for the better in some remarkably profound way and wait for His promise of glory. Our Lord Jesus reminds us not to cling on to things earthly so that we can find life with Him, nor does He view our sufferings and labours as worthless. He sees them as part of Himself, even as He sees the Church as part of Himself and us as part of each other.

When we pray, we pray for God's will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Human beings can oppose God's will since He has given us that very freedom to do so, but we pray in that freedom that our will be joined to His. Out of all suffering caused by Human Disobedience (and it may yet possibly be that all our suffering is caused by human disobedience somewhere down the line), God provides Salvation. We have to remember the sovereign authority of God which acts supremely in unfathomable ways even around the free-will that we possess. Things happen for a reason, and we might not know the source of that reason, but we do know that the happening is a consequence of God's law. We may not know how our own prayer affects the world but we can be sure that it does, not by changing the mind of God, but rather by bringing ourselves and all that we are to Him in trust, humility and love, so that we might be permitted to see what He will do and be given patience to wait until He does it. If we take this approach then accusations of PHEPH become vacuous.

We do pray to change the world, it's just that those changes may not be seen with eyes that will not see. We pray that we might all, each and every one of us, may know God better, and that we recognize the part we play in attending to the suffering of others too.

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