The Responsibility of Prayer

I don't think that God gets involved too much in what happens on Earth.

Don't get me wrong; the God I believe in loves us and is invested in us and wants the best for us, whatever that means. But, despite my Judaism, my understanding of God is essentially deist, and I prefer to see God as a sort of Divine Watchmaker who set everything up for the Big Bang and has maybe made a few tweaks in the millennia since then but otherwise pretty much just lets things unfold, trusting in us to do His work on Earth. It's the only explanation I have for all the evil and hate in the world. If God were actively intervening, things would be better for more people, don't you think?

Anyway, the point is, when my friend Ben was ill last summer and when Jon's dad was dying this past spring, I didn't pray for bodily healing because I don't think that's the kind of thing God does, biblical miracles notwithstanding. I did pray for both of them - for them to find peace, mostly, and comfort, and love. And I prayed to whoever I thought was around when I felt moved to pray. The Amidah, a central prayer in the Jewish tradition during which worshippers engage in a private conversation with God while surrounded by their fellow congregants, became an intimate space in which I could lose myself in words dedicated to Him. When my mom and I went to the Franciscan Monastery in NE DC back in April, I wrote a prayer to the Virgin in the notebook on the altar in her tomb, invoking Jon's Catholic grandmother who, I'm sure, is talking Mary's ear off in heaven. I've been to evensong at Washington National Cathedral more in the last year than I had in the twelve years combined after graduating from the choir there, and I've found new meaning in the collect for aid:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;
and by thy great mercy defend us
from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
That prayer is for the community and, to be honest, mostly I prayed for the rest of us. I prayed for myself and I prayed for Jon and I prayed for his mother and his sister and his aunt and for his whole family and for Ben's family and friends, too. I prayed that we'd find peace. I prayed that we'd find comfort. I prayed that we'd find love. I prayed that we'd find them in each other, that we'd find God in each other as we grieved.

In Judaism, the Kaddish is recited at every service, and those in mourning stand and lead the congregation in responsorial prayer.  If you're mourning a parent, you're obliged to recite the mourner's kaddish for eleven months following the death and then annually on the anniversary of the death. Jon comes to services at Sixth & I with me occasionally but he doesn't participate, so I recite the Kaddish for both of us. It ends like this:

May He who makes peace in His heights,
may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel.
Now say: amen.
Last night, I went to the cathedral to hear the DuruflĂ© Requiem sung by the Choir of Men and Girls for the All Souls service. I was reading through the text in the leaflet and it reminded me of what my rabbi had said about the structure of the amidah, which contains three types of prayers. There's praising God, asking Him for things, and reminding Him of what he's promised us - you can see all of them in this one section:
Heal us, O Lord, and we will be healed; help us and we will be saved; for You are our praise. Grant complete cure and healing to all our wounds; for You, Almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, Lord, who heals the sick of His people Israel.
I think the idea of the last part, the reminding, is fascinating. Who are we to remind God of anything? Doesn't he know it all already? Shouldn't we trust that he's on top of it? But, in liturgy, it seems to overlap often with both the praising and the asking; "You, Almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer," for example, covers all three bases in just one sentence. And when you say the same words over and over again, the parts where you're beseeching God can be hard to discern from the parts where you're recalling the covenant He made with us. For instance, in the Agnus Dei, the choir sings,

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest.

Are we asking or reminding there? I think it's both at the same time. And I think that's what I've found most comforting about prayer over the last year. I think that, when praying, we both ask and remind not only God but also (and possibly more importantly) ourselves about our needs and what we can do to fulfill them and, hopefully, ultimately, we find peace and comfort and love in the answers that are born within us as we pray. For me, prayer removes the fallacy of active divine intervention and turns the responsibility back on me to ground myself in a more subtle relationship with God, one in which he trusts me - us - to find Him in my - His - community.

Comments are open on this post.


  1. I like to think of prayer as the key to a lock. Honestly, I don't know if God is listening or even sentient. But I know that when I pray, I feel better and stronger. So why? I think that inherent within all of us is the wisdom we need, the capability to bring ourselves peace, and the strength we need when we are weak. God embedded that into each one of us. When we pray, we unlock doors that we didn't even realize were there, giving us access to resources of wisdom, truth, and strength we didn't know we had.

    Of course, all that being said, we know that there are double-blind studies which prove that people who are prayed for have a higher illness recovery rate. So maybe God is actively listening!

    1. I love that metaphor! The key to a lock - YES. And, to take it a step further and continue along your line of thought, I think the door is within us. Maybe God put the lock there and gave us the key so we can open the door ourselves into finding what we need (which He gave us in the first place) ourselves?

      Okay, I might be taking this a bit too far...

  2. I do believe God is active in our lives on earth, but I also understand what you mean when you say that he seems to let things just happen. For example, I do believe that God has the ability to miraculously heal anyone from any disease, illness, etc. Still, for whatever reason, he chooses to (for the most part) let the natural laws of the universe take their course. Someone whose leg has been amputated shouldn't pray for their leg to regrow. Instead, they should pray for peace and comfort to move forward with their diagnosis. I'm still wrestling with exactly how those two can happen at the same time (both being active and letting things take their course). I believe that's where faith comes in. I don't understand it, and honestly that's okay. If my human mind were able to understand an infinite God, that would make God much smaller than the God I believe in. I love what you said about reminding. God doesn't need to be reminded, but when we remind him, we remind ourselves of what he's done and his faithfulness, and that should fill us with peace and hope.

    1. Oh, yeah, I think God chooses to not get involved rather than isn't able to get involved. But I was having this conversation with someone else last night - I think faith has to fill in the gap between "God won't give me my leg back" and "God will heal me." If we understood how that happens, it wouldn't be divine!

  3. Beautiful. Your thoughts on religion and spirituality have always been an inspiration to me.


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