Monstrous Prayers

‘O God, take the bishops to yourself!’ Thus prayed Katherine Philips, a pious English poetess. An ardent Puritan, she was much against the Church of England and the Episcopal system. Her prayer wished the Anglican bishops to be dead. History does not record the Lord’s response.

Can you pray ‘bad prayers’? Such as praying for someone’s death? Or for something awful to happen? When lightning struck the magnificent cathedral of York Minster in 1984, was it in answer to a prayer? It happened three days after the bishoping of David Jenkins. A foolish man who openly disbelieved in the Virgin Birth – and indeed in the second coming of Christ. Many faithful people were incensed. Yet, I recall a trendy Dominican priest (yes, from the religious Order who used to run the Inquisition...) discounting the idea: ‘God does not answer monstrous prayers’, he asserted. But...What is an evil prayer?

‘O Lord, make my neighbour drop dead because he plays his TV too loud.’ Noise is indeed unpleasant but it is too trifling a reason to importune God. Imagine though your neighbour is a drug peddler, ruining the lives of many young people. An objectively harmful person. Get my drift? Still, the law is the right earthly agency for stopping crime. God is not a universal cop. His jurisdiction is more awesome and more indirect than that. Besides, it seems rather selfish to pray such a self-centred prayer.

But what when the lives and well-being of millions of people and of nations is at stake? A prayer for the death of a tyrant or a war-criminal is not the same as praying for noise to stop bothering you. Would it have been monstrous to have prayed for Tony Blair’s death on the eve of the invasion of Iraq? When Pope St Pius V declared Elizabeth I deposed he called her ‘a sinful woman’ whose policies were imperilling the spiritual good of multitudinous souls. I doubt the Pope would have disapproved of prayers for the Queen’s quick demise. But spiritual good is higher than physical good. Is it licit to petition the Creator for the sake of a spiritual good, but not for material good, i.e. that of the people of Iraq? I am not sure about this one...

The Old Testament offers examples of prayers invoking divine wrath on sinners. With deadly efficacy. Prophet Elijah’s curse resulted in the destruction of children who had mocked his bald pate, as God sent a she-bear to do the job. Was the offence disproportionate to the punishment? It may look that way today but remember that mocking a prophet is a most serious offence. Prophet Muhammad chose to ask Allah not to chastise the rabble which had injured him at Taif, al-Tabari records, but what if he had not done so?

When the Amsterdam synagogue officially expelled the young philosopher Spinoza from the bosom of Judaism for his rationalistic views, they cursed him with all the curses in the Book, invoking indeed the example of Elisha. ‘Cursed be he by day, cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he in going out, cursed be he in coming in...’ really bloodcurdling stuff. Actually, unlike the curse of Prophet Elisha, it did not work. Because God’s will for the philosopher was otherwise. Spinoza died but of consumption, much later in life.

Some Christians fall back on the unreflective ‘Yes, but that was OT stuff. The new dispensation is different.’ Quite apart that the New Testament is meaningless without the Old because Christ issues from Israel’s sacred history, St Matthew’s Gospel has Christ uttering seven woes on scribes, Pharisees and even on Jerusalem, as the city that kills prophets and stones God’s envoys. Call it a ‘grand critique’. It still sounds as pretty damning to me.

There are two issues. One is the rightness of petitions for someone to die, another for is the efficacy. Prayer is not magic. The simple may have an automatic, slot-machine notion of prayer - patently it is not so. Magic is based on the manipulation of divine or supernatural beings. Once the ritual is correctly performed, the effects follow mechanically. Prayer is unlike that. It is contingently on the will of God and God’s hand cannot be twisted or forced. That is why insh’allah should always conclude any human prayer. Your prayer’s efficacy always assumes ‘Thy Will be Done’, as the Lord’s Prayer wonderfully puts it.

When is a prayer right? Certainly not when a mere human morality says so. God is not subject to human limitations and prejudices. The Church lays down guidelines as to what is the right and wrong in prayer. Egoistic and sensual prayers should be out, e.g. ‘Make Olivia fall in love with me’. There are also impossible & stupid prayers like ‘Make a triangle not have three angles’. (Ahem...not that many are likely to pray that.) But praying for someone to die is prima facie wrong. God is the Lord of Life and Death, it is up to him, not to you. On the other hand, when the welfare of the whole is concerned, such prayer cannot be ruled out a priori, methinks.

Be reassured. Unlike poetess Katherine Philips I would not pray for Anglican bishops’ death. Their stupidity and faithlessness are punishment enough. Anyway, who cares about them? If there is a hell for them it is surely that for the useless.

Lastly, I recall something St Teresa of Avila wrote: ‘Sometimes, when God wishes to chastise men, he will answer their prayers.’ A deep one. The complexity of the great, universal chain of causes and effects only the Creator knows, and its unforeseen consequences. Who knows what an answered prayer might result in? Beware!

Last modified on Friday, 10 May 2013 07:40

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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