Thoughts and prayer have been getting a bad rap recently. Have you noticed?
No? Go ahead and do a google image search. I’ll wait.
See what I mean?
It seems like “You are in my thoughts and prayers” has become synonymous with “I will do nothing in the face of suffering and injustice” for many. Especially in the wake of a major disaster or violence, what used to be an expression of solidarity has become incredibly politically charged.
For Christians and other people of faith, to think and to pray is our natural first response to evil and suffering. It’s how we process and make sense of the senseless. It’s also a way we believe that we really can help the people involved in some strange mysterious way. We don’t get to see the effects of those prayers (nor would we recognize them as the result of our prayers even if we did see them), but we believe in faith that prayer works, even if we aren’t exactly sure how or to what effect. But for others, thoughts and prayers is seen as a cop out: little more than a convenient way to assuage one’s guilt and sadness while engendering one’s own apathy. It seems like according to many in modern day America, there’s a battle going on and it’s “Thoughts & Prayers” in one corner and “Action” in the opposite end of the ring.
But what’s a Catholic to think of all this?
When I was 22, I spent a year as a CapCorp Volunteer in Garrison, New York at Catholic youth ministry center called Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries. The Capuchin Franciscan Friars who ran the center often taught the youth at our center that a solid Christian faith is built on a tripod of study, prayer, and action. We study God to know the truth and form a strong rational, thinking mind. We pray to encounter God as a person, not just an object, and to mold our non-rational hearts to love what God loves. Study helps us to know how and when to act, and prayer gives us the courage and compassion to do so. But all three are necessary. Without 3 legs, a tripod cannot stand. If one leg is shorter or weaker than the other, it throws off the whole. I remember vividly as one of the friars stood in front a room of teens with a camera tripod. As he made this point about the absolute necessity of all 3 legs, he clicked open the lock on one of them, and the tripod crashed, dramatically to the floor.
I loved that articulation of what the Christian life should be. It encapsulated in a powerful symbol something I had known instinctually but had never put into words. I began to incorporate this understanding into my own faith journey and shared it with the teens in the youth group I ran each week. A year later I began studying theology formally and learned that this was a version of what many baby boomers learned through grade school nuns drilling them on question #3 in the Baltimore Catechism:
Sr. Mary Yard Stick: “Why did God make you?”
Terrified children: “To know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.”
Know, Love, and Serve
Know God, Love God, Serve God. This is the purpose of human existence according to the Catholic Church and I don’t know about you, but to me, it sounds a lot like Thoughts & Prayers & Action. If we can get our mind and our hearts right, then we can get our actions right. Put another way, there is a famous quote variously attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Augustine among others that hits on a similar idea: “Pray like it all depends on God, work like it all depends on you.” If we lose any part of that equation, we miss what God created us for. If we do not think and pray, we will not know how to act. Moreover, God did not make us to be the savior but to be workers in his vineyard. If we are not connected to him through prayer, what hope do we have that our actions will not be misguided or in vain. On the other hand, if we do not act, our thoughts and prayers merit little. God did not create us like the non-rational animals of the world who go about their business without concern for the justice or injustice of the world. He made us to be his missionaries and made it very clear that it wasn’t optional. When Jesus speaks of those at risk of hell, it is of those who do nothing when action is required (see Matthew 25).
No, we were made to be stewards of God’s world, made in his image and likeness, “a little less than a god” according to the psalms, apostles that he sends out on his mission, fueled by his Holy Spirit.
We were made to know, and to love, and to serve God.
We were made to think, and to pray, and to act.