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Be leery of anyone who wields prayer as a spiritual weapon


Someone prayed for me again today. Sent a card, in fact, wishing me and my husband a happy anniversary and urging us to put the Lord first in our lives.

It’s not a sentiment I disagree with. So why do I feel like a child forced into patent-leather shoes and lectured about my table manners? The same feeling rises every time somebody asks if I’ve prayed about something, suggests we pray together, mentions the Lord’s role in my life. Why would I resent such kind references to an act of discernment I privately cherish?

Because -- the answer comes unbidden -- people use prayer as a weapon. They invoke God’s will as a euphemism for their own. If they’re praying for you on their own initiative, you can bet they’ve got an agenda.

When my friend Michael’s parents pray he’ll stop being homosexual, they’re already convinced that God’s will mirrors their own. (Otherwise they probably wouldn’t chance it.) When my friend Theresa found Jesus and, newly terrified of brimstone, started praying for her parents to be born again, she had a pretty specific itinerary in mind for their conversion.

When my uncle -- the youngest son and archetypal prodigal of the family -- left the church, my grandmother hurriedly reminded the rest of us that there was no such thing as a fallen-away Catholic. “He’s just taking a little vacation,” she said smugly, starting a novena for his safe return.

Years later, a young man, call him Tim, told me he’d been sexually abused as a teenager by a priest in our archdiocese. Furious to learn that this priest was doing pastoral work again, Tim demanded an audience with the archbishop. When it was finally granted, Tim says the archbishop began the tense confrontation with a pointed prayer, quoted scriptural passages about adultery and forgiveness and urged Tim to pray about this ... in lieu of action.

Invoking God is better self-defense than jujitsu; done adroitly, it can deflect all sorts of arguments, accusations or verbal attacks. Praying for someone can also be a form of conditional love: I would prefer it if you were living in the way I consider holy, so I will pray that you become the sort of person I can love most fully.

Even the classic gesture of prayer, hands pressed together and as vertical as a Gothic spire, feels prim and self-righteous to me. We don’t bow, as Easterners do in making a similar gesture of reverence toward one another. We don’t say “Namaste!” as the Nepalese do, meaning, “I bow to the God within you.” We don’t press our thumbs close to our heart or interlace our fingers.

Instead, we hold our palms away from our body, upright and rigid, insufferable as the tight-lipped churchgoers in a Norman Rockwell illustration.

If I were stretched out on a couch right now, the analyst would surely pounce on my choice of “insufferable.” Part of what bothers me about the praying-hands gesture (as it’s evolved in the West) is it seems so controlling, so expressive of an implicit conviction that if you ask the right way, you won’t have to suffer.

I prefer the open outstretched separate palms of the “Pietà,” defenseless and receptive. Like Jesus himself at Gethsemane, Mary was saying -- with her child’s broken body in her arms -- “Thy will, not mine.”

That is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate prayer.

As for the faithful friends and acquaintances who pray so assiduously for my stained soul, I know it sounds churlish to say, “Please don’t.” But it’s a somewhat queasy feeling, knowing that someone is praying for me to think differently or act differently or embrace a different God. Sort of like the Mormons baptizing reluctant ancestors. If people are so convinced that prayer has magical powers of efficacy, how dare they use it to impose a change of their own devising?

God isn’t nearly so coercive. She simply waits quietly until I see what’s been in front of my nose all along. A few hints, maybe, but no audible incantations. Faith isn’t faith without freedom. And as any therapist worth his salt already knows, change is only real when it starts from inside.

Prayers that try to hurry or steer the process are a spiritual sort of shove. They’re rude. And the disrespect is sharpened by the fact that, when people feel sure God is on their side, they can’t fathom the possibility that their predetermined petitionary prayers could be anything but a blessing.

I guess all I can do is pray for them.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999