Saturday, August 27, 2011

If prayer can't change God, what good is it? The example of St. Monica

St. Monica, woman of prayer

August 27th, Feast of St. Monica
The proper translation of the opening prayer of today’s Mass would read something like this: “O God, consoler of the sorrowing, who mercifully received the pious tears of blessed Monica for the conversion of her son Augustine, grant unto us that, by the intervention of these two, we may mourn our sins and find the indulgence of your grace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ …”
The current translation reads: “God of mercy, comfort of those in sorrow, the tears of Saint Monica moved you to convert her son Saint Augustine to the faith of Christ. By their prayers, help us to turn from our sins and to find your loving forgiveness. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ …”
Notice the significant difference in the way these two collects present the manner in which prayer and God’s providence work – in the first, prayer is incorporated into God’s plan and is received by him as a means to effecting this plan; in the second, prayer is thought to move and change the divine plan, as though prayer did violence to the Almighty. Hence, the second prayer is misleading at best and perhaps even heretical. [however, for a defense of this second prayer, see our earlier article, which we still stand by]
But, if we admit that prayer (simply speaking) cannot move God, what good is it?

God is the unmoved Mover, prayers do not move him
If we speak simply and plainly, we must admit that prayers cannot move God. It would be utterly absurd to think that a creature could move his creator. All created causal power is itself caused by God – hence, all comes from God as its first cause and, therefore, nothing can move God. The Trinity is pure act in which there is no potency, no deficiency, nothing left to be done or completed. Therefore, we assert that God must be the uncaused Cause and the unmoved Mover.
Looking at it from another perspective, we mention also that God already loves his creatures perfectly. How absurd it would be to think that our prayers could make God to love us more! Is this our God? Does he wait for us to “earn” his love? No, we do not earn God’s love either through prayer or through any other work – rather, his love moves us to prayer and to other good works, which in turn help us to be more open to receiving his always perfect love.
Does prayer change things? - Two errors to be avoided
St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the power of prayer most directly in his question of “Whether the prayers of the saints further predestination?” (ST I, q.23, a.8) His simple answer is, Yes, the prayers of the saints do further predestination – i.e. prayers really do make a difference, even when it comes to the divine plan of salvation – but he warns against two errors.
“Concerning this question, there were different errors. Some, regarding the certainty of divine predestination, said that prayers were superfluous, as also anything else done to attain salvation; because whether these things were done or not, the predestined would attain, and the reprobate would not attain, eternal salvation. But against this opinion are all the warnings of Holy Scripture, exhorting us to prayer and other good works.
“Others declared that the divine predestination was altered through prayer. This is stated to have the opinion of the Egyptians, who thought that the divine ordination, which they called fate, could be frustrated by certain sacrifices and prayers. Against this also is the authority of Scripture. For it is said: But the triumpher in Israel will not spare and will not be moved to repentance (1 Samuel 15:29); and that the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance (Romans 11:29).
There are two things which we cannot say:
1) Prayers make no difference at all, because everything is already determined and our free will and good works don’t have any effect on whether we (or others) are saved.
2) Prayers do violence to the Most High and force him to change his mind even against his most holy will.
What good is prayer?
Some will say that prayer doesn’t really make a difference in the world or in God’s plan, but only helps us to accept our lot in life. This is a grave error. Prayer really does change things, it really does make a difference. By prayer, we can do all things – for prayer is all powerful!
While it is true that prayer does not (simply and absolutely) change God, it is also true that the good Lord regularly chooses to wait for our prayers before accomplishing his own will. Hence, to use a specific example, when God desires to save someone (and we mean when he desires this simply and absolutely, such that the person is among the predestined and elect souls who will certainly be saved), he yet chooses not to save them without their prayers. So, St. Augustine: “He who made you without you, will not save you without you.” That is, God will not save any who have attained to the use of reason without also moving them to will salvation and to merit it through prayers and good works.
Hence, prayer works and makes a difference not as though it changes God absolutely, but insofar as the Almighty chooses to receive our prayers as a means of accomplishing what he had already willed to accomplish from all eternity, namely, the salvation of his elect – and the divine plan truly would not be accomplished without our prayers, not because God needs our prayers but because he has willed that our prayers would be incorporated into his plan.
An example: Table manners
We might compare this (by way of analogy, and only by analogy) to the way a father teaches his son table etiquette.
Imagine that a family is gathered together at table for the evening meal. The father desires that the son eat a healthy meal and receive the nourishment which his body requires. However, the father will not pass the boy the food (which he already desires him to have) until the child ask for it in the proper manner. Hence, when the son says: “Father, can I have the potatoes?” The father may well reply, “What do you say?” When the boy responds, “May I please have the potatoes?” (this time using both proper grammar and table etiquette), the father is happy to give the boy a healthy serving of those delectable spuds.
Now, did the supplication of the boy move the father to give him the potatoes? In one sense, perhaps yes – insofar as the father chose to wait for his son’s request. However, simply speaking, the father had already intended to nourish the boy, and the child’s request was also intended by the father as a means of accomplishing what he had already planned – and so we say that, in the plainest sense of the words, the boy did not move his father.
Returning to the question of how our prayers work in relation to the divine plan, we may now understand the words of St. John Chrystostom in reference to the prayers of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 16: “She presses Christ prudently, convincingly, and yet modestly by his own words; and, by her humble faith and reasoning, she conquers him who was willing to be conquered by her prayers.” [from the commentary of Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide]

St. Monica, pray for us!


Alfredo said...

Thank you for pointing out the questionable translation of the opening prayer of today's liturgy. I had exactly the same reaction that you did when I heard the prayer this morning. As someone who makes his living in part by translating medieval Latin texts into English, I never cease to be amazed by the theological ignorance (and worse) evinced by many of the liturgical translations we are currently saddled with.

Anonymous said...

II-II, Q. 83, a. 2, c: For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words "that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give," as Gregory says (Dial. i, 8)

It is worth noting that St. Thomas, in his commentary on the Lord's Prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, notes the destruction of these two errors. The first is destroyed by acknowledging God as our Father, that is, as someone who cares about us. The second is destroyed by acknowledging that he is "in heaven", thus removing the notion of a changeable disposition. So these two major errors regarding prayer are swept away in the very first line of the prayer Christ gave us as a model of prayer!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anon (5:37am),
Thank you for the excellent quote from the Summa and for the reference to St. Thomas' commentary on the Our Father (in his commentary on Matthew).

Also, by way of reminder, please use a pseudonym when leaving a comment.

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father Ryan,

I had never heard the table manners analogy of prayer before, excellent! I hope you don't mind if I plagiarize it... God bless you, Father.

CH (CPT) Brian Stanley, USA said...

CS Lewis, paraphrased: I pray not to change God, but to change me -- I am the one who needs a change of heart.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this Father. That table manners analogy is a perfect analogy to use when one is arguing the point with someone who doesnt believe in prayer or argues the use of prayer. This whole article really is great. Please please keep up the great work.


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