Breath of the Spirit: Prayer, the Principal's Office, and the Pittsburgh Steelers
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June 20, 2021: The Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8-11
Psalm 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31
2 Corinthians 5:14-17
A Reflection by Jeff Vomund
One of my earliest moments of intense prayer occurred shortly after my first communion. The Pittsburgh Steelers were about to play the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X. My older brother was a fervent Cowboys fan, and thus, I became an equally ardent Steelers supporter. I had just received communion and was full of the piety of a second grader from a traditional Catholic family. As I was returning to my pew, I prayed as hard as I could that somehow God would make the Steelers win. This ardent, youthful prayer was emphasized by tightly closed eyes and folded hands pressing so hard against each other that my knuckles turned white.
Some evolutionary scholars have suggested that religion originated as a human response to those aspects of the natural world that our ancestors could not control. The idea of a divine being behind the movements of the sun and stars helped give pre-historic humans a meaningful narrative to explain how the world worked – as well as an ostensible mechanism by which these natural phenomena could be influenced. We see this search for meaning in today’s first reading. In this passage, God questions Job (who had just finished complaining about his unjust suffering), “Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?” Here, the author suggests that we, as humans, do not understand – and therefore, cannot judge – divine decision-making. Even if, at times, the results of this divine control look anything but loving. Today’s gospel makes a similar point: Jesus’ disciples are frightened by a violent storm that threatens to capsize their boat. Jesus sleeps through the tumult until awakened by their distress and then sternly orders the sea to be calm – and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.
As a matter of literary form, these stories of divine control are not fundamentally different from similar ancient myths in which the gods wreak havoc on humans in order to prove a point. Athena fights on the side of Achilles in the Trojan War because Paris chose Aphrodite as more beautiful than her; and the story of Job begins with Satan taunting God that Job’s fidelity is only due to good fortune. It is also worth remembering that both Jesus and Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, could conjure and control storms. Although the Greek tales sound more fantastical to our ears, they are nonetheless taken from that genre of storytelling that gives divine beings control over nature, and human beings access that control via their close relationships to their godly benefactors.
But what of those who are not privy to divine beneficence? What of those for whom the storm is not calmed or for whom the tragedy is not averted? What of those who suffered due to the Trojan War which Zeus set in motion to curtail the growing power of humanity, or for that matter the turmoil and trauma which ensued when God separated humans into different languages for that same reason? Often questions like these are directed at Divine justice. But before we seek justice, perhaps we should consider Divine power. What if God does not quell so many of the storms that face our world precisely because God has no power to do so? What if the God to whom we pray is not our personal handyperson? So many of the prayers I hear people say (and hear myself speak in times of anxiety) have to do with asking God to intervene in the natural course of things – to cure someone’s cancer, protect someone’s baby, or calm a dangerous wind. (How many times have we in the LGBTQ+ community had others – or even ourselves – pray that our bodies would behave more like everyone else’s?) But perhaps these longings for divine intervention are just remnants of an evolutionary quest to control our larger world? If God is not prone to (or able to) fix our messes, would we still prioritize our relationship? Is a God who is not all-powerful even worth having? Or does a lack of omnipotence mean that there is no God at all?
I am not suggesting there is no God, but only asking if the Divine Spirit whom we envision is primarily influenced by our evolution, or if we have given sufficient weight to revelation. The Christian scriptures suggest that the least inaccurate thing we can say about God is that God is love (1 John 4:8). Further, that this Love dwells unfailingly among us (John 1:14); and this Love acts by continually pouring itself out into creation for us (Philippians 2:6-11). This Love is not powerless by any means, but neither is it all powerful. On the contrary, this Love, like our love, is marked both by power and powerlessness, and it is precisely accepting both aspects that is the key to loving another well. I am not saying that Love (God’s or ours) cannot change the weather or cure cancer – Who am I to say what Love can and cannot do? – but many of our prayers seem better explained by evolution than revelation. Is my prayer – which is in itself an offering of love – more about controlling nature or deepening communion? Because love seems markedly better at one of those than the other. Make no mistake, I am not against praying for anything – asking Divine Love, as a trusting child, for whatever one wants. It just seems that if we view prayer as a way to manipulate the world or to avoid suffering, we risk missing the point. We treat prayer more as cashing in on divine favor and less as opening to divine presence.
I am not sure how Love “works” when we attempt to channel it our prayers. However, sharing our love with another, suffering, part of creation – not so much as a mechanism of control as an offering of communion – seems a natural precursor to actually working to alleviate that suffering myself, or at least allowing that suffering to impact my choices and attitudes. To paraphrase the Letter of James: what good is it to send Love to those suffering from hunger if that prayer does not find some actionable expression in my daily life (2:14-26)? Through this lens, my prayers do not ask someone else (God) to get rid of hunger, but instead they connect my heart and action to the hunger of others – from which point I might naturally work harder to alleviate that hunger, or even advocate for the societal changes which might keep my neighbors from ever becoming hungry.
Another clear memory of prayer from my youth came a few years after my first communion. This time I was in 4th grade, and I asked the teacher why we prayed: if God knew everything and knew what we needed – and God was supposed to give us what we needed anyway - what was the point? This time my knuckles were white not because of my ardent prayer, but because I was sent to the principal’s office. Here, I suspect that I absolutely prayed that my parents would not be called. In times of great distress, we all revert to our evolutionary predilections I suppose. …
As the author of Job accuses, I was not, in fact, present when the forces of Love created our universe or settled the sea into its boundaries. Ultimately, prayer, like its divine source, is a mystery. Today’s readings, though, prompt me to wonder if my own prayer might not be a little less about controlling the waves of a stormy sea and a little more about riding upon an ocean of grace.
Jeff Vomund is a member of Dignity/Washington and currently lives in Arlington, VA. After 15+ years of full-time parish ministry and 7 years of teaching students with particular learning needs, Jeff now works at George Mason University as a Graduate Research Assistant and a Graduate Lecturer, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.