Archive for July 28th, 2008

The Paradox of Prayer

July 28, 2008

Writing about his experiences in praying for the sick, the Elder Sophrony writes:

It is still not clear to me why less intense prayer on my part might occasionally cause the illness to take a favorable turn, whereas at other times more profound supplication brought no visible improvement.

From On Prayer

He says later that he never sought the gift of healing but committed everything to the will of God, “Who knows what each man needs for his salvation.”

This is part of the paradox of prayer. We are especially accustomed in our world to think in terms of “cause and effect,” and this is easily transferred to the phenomenon of prayer. Of course, this has led to much misunderstanding and more than a little abuse. The direct connection between the fervency of prayer and the efficacy of prayer is, indeed, magic, not Christianity. And magic is a temptation even in the modern world.

The Elder Sophrony’s experience could be repeated from the lives of many priests – at least based on conversations I’ve had over the years. Most priests that I know can share stories of miraculous recoveries or astounding responses to prayer. And yet, most would also admit that these occasions remain paradoxical and not rooted within themselves or the fervency of their prayer.

This, of course, is no reason not to pray, nor to pray fervently. But it is reason to shift our understanding away from the magical and towards the personal. I have written before that all prayer has as its ultimate goal communion with God. Even when we pray for the sick, we are uniting ourselves to God and His will, and extending that union towards the one for whom we pray. With this in mind, we can understand that uniting all things in Christ brings everything towards its ultimate goal (Ephesians 1:10). Our prayer is not the cause – God is the Cause. It is in uniting ourselves and all things to God that the world comes back to its true Cause and, in that, we may rejoice.

I oftentimes suspect that the language of causation, rooted as it is in physics and the like, is probably a misleading term when applied to a universe whose true existence is rooted in Personhood. In such a universe, love is a far more important category than causation, if causation has any place at all.

Prayer frequently confronts us with paradox – but it is the paradox of God:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)