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Why Skeptics Should Pray

Due to time restraints caused by my moving out-of-state, Skeptical Faith for the next few weeks will be, as they say in show biz, “encore presentations.” This one was published in 2015.

As a missionary years ago among the Aymara people of Bolivia, I was struck by the popularity of a statue in the church I served. It was by far the most popular in the church, which in the Spanish colonial style, was filled with often bloody images of Jesus, and of Mary and the saints.

The statue depicted “Santiago Matamoros,” or St. James the Moor Killer, who according to legend, miraculously appeared in a ninth century battle in which the Spanish defeated the Moors, Muslims who ruled all or parts of Spain for nearly 800 years.

Parishioners burning candles in front of the statue, I learned, prayed to this saint to intercede with God to punish their enemies – people who they believed had stolen crops from their fields or had offended them in other ways.

Punitive God?

Learning this, I knew I had my work cut out for me. This idea of a punitive God was, for me, among the burdens and distortions of faith laid on the native people of the Americas by the Spanish colonists. Contrast this type of prayer with what Pope Francis told a group of homeless people in his recent trip to the U.S.

“Payer unites us; it makes us brothers and sisters… In prayer, we all learn to say, ‘Father, Dad’ … and when we say Father or Dad we learn to see one another as brother and sister.”

For some, it may seem odd to write about prayer in a blog meant for skeptics. But the skeptics I write for are also searching for God and that, in my view, makes the subject relevant.

Reads Our Minds?

I understand that many have a problem with the idea of prayer. How can we believe there is a being who reads our minds or hears our spoken words? What language does God speak? And if God knows what we need, why pray for it? What about two people who pray for opposites – such as one person praying for rain, another for clear weather? Whose prayer does God answer?

I can’t satisfactorily answer these questions, although I have some theories. What I know is that Jesus taught his disciples – and by extension, us – to pray, and prayer helps me. When I’m uptight, stressed or beset by irrational fears, sitting down in a quiet place, closing my eyes and talking it over with God almost always brings peace, and sometimes resolution. 

Prayer, in fact, may be the most convincing evidence of a relationship with God. It binds us to God, and as the pope said, to each other. Despite doubt and skepticism, prayer underpins whatever amount of faith we have, helping us be serious in our search for God.

Understood and Forgave

As for the Aymara people who prayed for retribution against their enemies, I believe God understood and forgave their distortion of prayer just as he/she does ours.

Though we may pray best when “we go to our room, shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret,” as Jesus instructs in Mathew’s gospel, I believe it helps to regularly pray with other believers and to adopt as our own prayers of others that seem to speak to our hearts, like this one by Thomas Merton.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

“But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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