Tuesday, September 25, 2007

No more silence, and why

I love the quotation from St. Catherine of Siena that Karen Hall has recently placed so prominently on her delightful blog:
"We've had enough of exhortations to be silent! Cry out with a hundred thousand tongues. I see that the world is rotten because of silence."

It seems that whenever there's a discussion about some wrong that needs righting, inside or outside the Church, you can count on someone chiming in with the advice that the best thing we can do about it is to pray. Their unspoken subtext is often, though not always, that we should do nothing else. That we should, indeed, maintain the kind of silence that St. Catherine found so deadening.

Such an attitude sounds pious, but it ignores something important. God has given us the gift of causing things to happen in two great ways, and we need to use both, all the time. C. S. Lewis succinctly described them in his little essay Work and Prayer (collected in God in the Dock).

First, there's the arena of natural action, by which we can make things happen in the material world according to laws that we've gradually come to understand better and better as knowledge has increased. This is the everyday world in which we can, for example, get the dishes clean if we assemble a container, soap, and water and use them in the right way. If we meet all the conditions, the dishes get clean every time.

And then there's the arena of supernatural action, which we enter through prayer. There, the rules we're familiar with in natural action -- do action X, always get result Y -- don't apply, because God judges with His infinite wisdom our requests (which may be good or not so good) in light of the best possible path for events to take to accomplish His will (which is the only will that matters). As Lewis wrote:

Prayers are not always -- in the crude, factual sense of the word -- 'granted'. This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it 'works' at all, it works unbounded by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition, prayer would destroy us. ... Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for us and we should have the horrible state of things envisioned by Juvenal: 'Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants.'

People sometimes become discouraged when they rely solely on prayer for some outcome that seems good to them, like the removal of a priest, bishop or cardinal who has behaved exceedingly badly. They pray and pray, claim to be relying solely on God, and wait patiently -- and then finally erupt in frustration when God doesn't make it happen.

I'm sure that as Lewis writes, sometimes God doesn't 'grant' our prayers because they are simply not virtuous -- that what we're asking for is just plain bad. But at other times, I think He chooses not to grant them because He wants to teach us to use the other form of action, the other gift of causation, instead. He wants to be asked for his supernatural help, always; but He also wants us to become wise and effective in doing His work with the tools of natural world, which include our skills in speaking and writing, our persistence in the face of indifference and disappointment, our endurance in the face of persecution.

Cry out with a hundred thousand tongues, indeed.