In the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris last night, social media was flooded today with calls to pray for Paris. Together with that came the accusation that prayer was useless and that we had better actually ‘do something’ to help the people who were wounded or who lost loved ones. Apparently praying is not actually ‘doing something’, and there are other things which are ‘doing something’. But why do so many people ask for prayer, if they do not believe it will do some good?
There is a misunderstanding of what prayer is in the minds of those who suggest it is useless. They believe that prayer is a one-way street, from us to God, urging God to do something that He would not do otherwise. Well, if He is not inclined to comfort people, heal them, or even prevent terrible things from happening without us reminding Him that He should, what is the use of Him, people rightly ask.
But this is not what prayer is. Prayer is a two-way street, leading from us to God and from God to us. It is a conversation, if not always one with words. The effects of prayer are therefore present at both ends of the conversation. It is as useful for God as it us for us, not to mention for those we pray for.
In praying for Paris, we recognise and root ourselves in our relationship with God and we find comfort for ourselves. We articulate our care and concern for people that we likely don’t even know, and, once articulated, this care and concern can take root and grow in us and radiate outwards to those around us. God is love. When we show love, which care and concern are, we show and share God. God comes down to live among us in our love for our neighbours. He doesn’t force Himself upon us, but will answer every time we reach out to Him. No man is an island, and it is our care for each other that helps us reach our fullest potential, even after this life. We don’t know who the people were who died last night, we don’t know who they left behind, and we certainly don’t pretend to know what they are going through. But we support them, show our love and share God through that love, making Him present in this world and so reflecting our own relationship with Him in the relationship between Him and others.
Another question is if God couldn’t and shouldn’t have prevented the terrible events of last night from happening. Of course, He could. But He didn’t. This is very difficult for many, both in and outside the Church, but the essence of it is this: God created man with a free will that He will always respect. Unlike the gods from mythology, but also from modern religions such as Islam, God will never force Himself on anyone, making him or her do things he or she does not choose to do. It does not matter if that person is an innocent victim or a murderous terrorist. God respects human freedom, and is there to help guide them if they so choose, or help them live with the consequence of their choices.
In Paris last night, the victims made no choices, of course. They are the victims of a mindless evil that has denounced God. God does not, however, denounce the innocent, and is there for them and those they leave behind, leading them to His eternal light and their fullest being as His creatures. Always. And we can help them find Him through our prayer.