When I was young, prayers seemed to scatter from my lips like pigeons startled from the pavement. Now I drag them out of my interior like a man dragging his Labrador to the vet. It’s not that I believe any less in their efficacy; answered prayers and Masses have massed into an answer that only a fool would keep on questioning. Rather, a weight has settled on my soul, a weight pressing with equal pressure on my peers, a weight summed up by the saying, “I don’t have time for prayer.”
It’s a common complaint and a stock idea for priests who stayed up watching The Office instead of writing their homily, usually prognosed by the prescription to “give God just five minutes a day.” But the whole problem is that five minutes with God seems like five minutes of sweating in an overcrowded, idling bus. And while I recognize the bus of daily prayer is the only way back home, I want to know why, after years of living the Catholic life, I have such a dread of climbing on board.
When we consider the feeling of repugnance towards lifting our souls up to God, it becomes clear that prayer has come to be considered as a kind of leisure activity. “I don’t have time to work on my musical epic,” we might say in the same spirit. Homilies that tell us that we modern people are “very busy,” and that “our lives are full of distraction” make us feel much better about ourselves. That’s it! We are hassled and hustled post-industrial workers without a moment to spare — but it’s not true, is it? We have more free time than most societies before us. Our work isn’t awfully intensive — we could pray while the screen loads or instead of Facebooking on the clock. The feeling of not having time to pray is the lame excuse we make to cover up the feeling of not needing to pray.
Theologically speaking, the feeling of not needing to pray is foolish. All things depend on God, who sustains them in being. The feeling of not needing to pray can only base itself on the error that there are portions of existence that God does not sustain in being — systems that sort themselves out on their own steam.
This is foolish, because folly is something more than ignorance or a mere lack of knowledge. Folly is a blindness which becomes fixated on one sphere of life at the expense of all others. Thomas Aquinas describes it as a “dullness of sense in judging, and chiefly as regards the highest cause [achieved] by plunging his sense into earthly things, whereby his sense is rendered incapable of perceiving Divine things.” The material world distracts and blinds men from the perception of higher goods by forming a sort of sealed container in which man is preserved.
The trouble with being a fool is that one so thoroughly enjoys his immediate world, with its immediate pleasures, pains and appearances, that it never occurs to him that the things of his world might be effects of another world, another reality which bears on him — and which may quite possibly be bearing down on him. “The fool says in his heart, there is no God,” not because the fool has been engaging in skeptical pursuits, but because the fool involves himself in worlds that seem to “get by” without God.
I don’t think our lives are too busy for prayer. I think our lives are too foolish for prayer. They are foolish because they are involved, almost primarily, with machines, and machines have a way of concealing their essential reliance on God, who alone sustains all things in being.
The capacity to live, in the final analysis, comes from food. Food comes from the constant provision of things outside of man’s control — soil, rainfall, sunshine, and seed. We can innovate to make the most of every drop of rain and every ray of sun; we can alter genomes and develop our own methods of producing fertile humus; we can store up the sun’s energy in myriad number of ways and re-use it in the form of gas-powered tractors and electric heat lamps; but in the end, all of these things rely on the same givens of existence. If the sun does not shine and the clouds do not rain, we will all die — exit humanity, stage right.
Prayer can appear as a luxury to a people detached from the fundamental givens of creation. Most of us do not rely directly on sun, soil, rain and seed for our daily bread. We rely on a paycheck from our boss and the continuous provision of groceries from Wal-Mart. Most of modern life involves being, not someone who relies directly on God, but someone who relies on other men and the successful workings of their technological systems. I do not know how my house is heated, or how my broccoli is grown, I simply input the correct change at the appropriate stations, and I have a warm house and a casserole. The transformation of man from one who acts in the world, and thus relies on the goodwill of the world’s Creator, into one who activates machines, and thus relies on the goodwill of the owners and creators of his machines — this is the movement of the technological age.
The atheist meme that asks, “science put a man on the moon, what has God done?” about sums up the problem. The Christian might argue that, well, God made the moon, and the man, and he ordered the mind of the latter and the matter of the former so that such a thing as “science” could exist, besides providing the fundamental givens of sun, soil, water, and seed that make the fuel that powered the rocket, besides being the ground of all being that makes a moon-landing, and all other scenarios, possible. The argument is not just false, it is foolish, because it takes a mechanical system and a man-made achievement as something that takes place in a Godless vacuum.
We can mock the fool, but only so far as we mock the foolishness of feeling like we do not need to pray. When is the last time we prayed that our text would be received? When is the last time we prayed for the bus to run? These seem unnecessary, but in actual fact, petitioning the Almighty for the success of our technological systems makes as much sense as David’s prayer that “our sheep may bring forth thousands.” The only difference is that, while the shepherd might have a direct experience of the givenness of the sheep he shears, we do not experience the fundamental givenness of the bus system or the smartphone. We do not see the iron ore, the water, the sun and soil which are the source of the bus-ride.
When is the last time we prayed for our food, not in blessing, but in the actual recognition that, whatever technological systems we build up between the soil and our plate, the whole man-made hustle depends on the givens of Creation that we neither create nor deserve? The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the most popular “mass” in the Byzantine Rite, prays fervently “for favorable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth.” When I first prayed it, I felt like I was indulging in a quaint peasant custom. Now I am kicking myself for feeling that way. What human scheme, since the dawn of history, hasn’t been entirely dependent on favorable weather and food for all involved?
We need God, and the only reason we believe we don’t need God is that we live in a global city in which we are desperately dependent, in almost every aspect of our lives, on the providing presence of wealthy men. Communication, navigation, commerce, entertainment, health, memory, livelihood — we get it all for money from a shrinking number of companies that own most of the world’s wealth. This is why prayer is so often a response to natural disaster. It is not simply that people will do anything when their lives are threatened — the existence of martyrs refutes the idea. Rather, disaster reveals that our world does not rest safely in the hands of the super-wealthy, the innovators, and the governments of the planet. Our buildings rest on ground we cannot stop from quaking; our forests rely on rain we cannot cause to fall; our internet access relies on the sun; our know-how relies on mental capacities we do not make for ourselves. The whole human shebang rests on an unaccountably given world.
Atheism is only a legitimate cultural option in countries that have developed large technological systems of provision that allow men to forget that all things depend on a universe that we did not create. It is a product of the city, and it always will be. As a diffused opinion, it tends to affect those who most depend on wealthy people for their daily bread, usually through the mediation of technological devices. In my more cynical moods, I question whether atheism is atheistic at all, or whether it is just a devout theism towards the rulers of this earth, who provide their people with life by gathering most of the world’s useful property and skill to themselves, and redistributing it through technological devices. It is no surprise that cultural atheism does not tend to affect those who directly rely on the givens of creation — the sun, fair weather, an abundant crop, and so on. Homeless people, who care about fair weather, tend to talk to God. For my part, I tend to trust their intuitions over those tapped out onto a Zuckerberg-owned Facebook page, by the power of American Electric Power’s nuclear plant, thanks to Apple’s device, all glory be to Jeff Bezos for keeping us connected.
Christians who find unsaid prayers weighing on their conscience should ask themselves, quite earnestly, whether or not they are fools. That is, whether we acknowledge the ultimate dependence of their post-industrial, machine-driven lives on the fundamental givens of creation. If we do not, or if the technological world that we can activate with cash appears so perfect, complete, and self-sustaining that we have to stretch and strain the imagination to see the Creator who holds it all in the palm of his hand — perhaps we do not need to change the way we pray. Perhaps we need to change the way we live.