There’s never a time you can’t pray, and that’s an empowering thing, says Luke Stocking. CNS photo/Karen Bonar

Luke Stocking: Prayer has no limits

  • February 2, 2020

The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become so common it has its own Wikipedia page. The page outlines in detail the use of the expression by prominent public figures in times of crisis — most notably following natural disasters or American gun violence — and also offers both a criticism and defence of this practice. 

The criticism is that “thoughts and prayers” is a mere platitude which is not backed up by any specific action or policy change. The defence is that prayer is one of the most powerful responses a person can make in times of crisis, as backed up by scientific study. 

The criticisms particularly have challenged me. I am simultaneously sympathetic and angered by them as I reflect on the critiques from the perspective of my own journey in prayer.

In a job interview I was once asked this question: “How would you answer a priest who told you that social justice is fine, but it distracts us from the importance of prayer?” 

As a Catholic with a vocation to live and give witness to the social teachings of our faith, I bristle at the notion that prayer and social justice are somehow different aspects of our faith that are at odds with one another or in some kind of competition. I don’t believe that we must choose what is more important, prayer or action for social justice. 

For me they are not even two sides of the same coin, because to think that would be to see them as distinct and different realities in the life of a Catholic. Prayer and social justice are, instead, part of one indivisible reality — the vocation of the human person to draw ever closer to their Creator.

Sometimes to be a bit provocative I tell people that the only thing I have been arrested for in my life is praying. Nobody minds when Catholics pray for an end to the imperialism of war in the privacy of their own homes. But if that prayer is said beneath the nose of an A-10 Warthog fighter jet on display at a military arms bazaar (as several of us did as young activists in the Catholic Worker movement many years ago), it becomes socially unacceptable. Catholics engaged in the various social movements of our times — climate action, pro-life, gun control, etc. — will identify with this. 

Prayer is not the withdrawal from history or something that stands apart from it. Prayer is not the abdication of responsibility. It is not the rejection of the reality of our earthly lives in the hope of our heavenly one. Prayer is the means by which we attempt to pierce open the world around us so that God’s plan of love will flow forth. 

“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” It is something we often say in the regular course of our Catholic lives. I reached a point in my own spiritual life where I realized that I was guilty of letting it become a platitude myself. Rarely would I make good on my promise. 

Realizing this one day, I resolved to become more mindful about it. I incorporated prayers of petition from these promises into my own daily prayer life. Inspired by someone I lived with in the Catholic Worker years ago, I began to keep an actual prayer list on my phone. 

I noticed two things over time. 

In some cases, prayer was serving as a personal call to action. The prayer, repeated daily, became the voice of my own conscience. Sometimes the action I was being called to by God would come to me during the prayer itself. In other cases, the prayer led to the humility to accept that there was no action I could take beyond making my prayer to God. 

The other thing that happened is that the prayer list grew. It grew to a point where there was literally not enough time in a day to act on each prayer. In this I realized that while God created us with limits in our ability to act, there is no limit to our ability to engage in one particular action — the action of prayer. 

You can always pray. Prayer is after all not only a noun but a verb. Rather than this being a limiting or negative thing, I see it as empowering. 

Prayer and action must be united in our lives as part of a healthy and living spirituality, even reaching a point where they are indistinguishable parts of the same whole. By this spirituality we do not simply choose to either pray or act, but rather transcend the very limits of our human abilities so that action for change never becomes impossible.

(Stocking is is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.) 

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