The power of prayer runs dry

Abstract: It seems God wanted the Pope to die…

If I were little Johnny du Plessis of Fourways, gently cradling the frail hand of my dying Grandmother, I’d be very disillusioned with God. Because God doesn’t seem to like old people all that much. If Johnny had been keeping an eye on current affairs over the past couple of weeks he would’ve come to the conclusion that there is a very popular man called The Pope who is right at the top of a very large and powerful organisation called The Catholic Church and that he is therefore very, very close to God.

Johnny would’ve learned that The Pope, like Johnny’s granny, was old and very ill and that hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people were praying for his recovery. Amongst those praying for the Pope would have been bishops, priests and nuns and other spiritual leaders and pious people who also must have been very close to God. And yet, Johnny would have noticed, The Pope still died and that it seems, like Johnny’s granny, he was also in a tremendous amount of discomfort and pain when he did die. Was God angry with this man? He had done so much good in his life; so that couldn’t be it. Perhaps it was just because he was old, and God didn’t like old people.

If one were to try and examine the events surrounding the Pope’s illness and death through the eyes of an intelligent and inquisitive child, one could forgive them for thinking that if all those people were praying for a man very important to God and that their prayers didn’t help, what hope would, say, little Johnny du Plessis of Fourways have of getting God to make his granny better?

Is the power of prayer running dry? Or is it just misunderstood? When I was young I was told that God listened when I prayed and that if I needed anything I simply had to ask Him. And ask I did. I asked for happiness and health for my family. My parents got divorced and my father died. I asked for some form of financial help for my mother who was now the sole breadwinner. None arrived, so she battled on valiantly, and I learned a lesson the hard way: if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.

There are many people who disagree and trust completely in the power of prayer. There are maybe three possible reasons as to why the Pope died despite the prayers of the faithful: They prayed for his return to health and God ignored them, or their prayers were in vain because God had his own plans for the Pope anyway. Or there’s the third possible reason: The faithful prayed for the Pope to die, and God listened. Somehow I very much doubt that was the case. So that leaves two possible reasons, both of which suggest the futility of prayer.

“So why should I pray?” is Johnny’s reasonable question. The answer is perhaps more to do with human psychology than it is to do with religion. We know that, physiologically, when the body is subjected to severe trauma it shuts down and attempts to fix itself. It knows that in order to do this it has to reduce any physical activity and focus its energy on attempting to repair the damage. This is one of the reasons why we pass out if subjected to too much pain. Psychologically we do the same thing. If we are confronted by an image or event that is traumatic, we sometimes faint. However, if we don’t faint we somehow have to deal with the trauma. In a way, we have to overcome our disbelief surrounding the tragedy that has beset us, through reasoning. We try and understand why something happened and what is expected of us. Our psychological frame of reference – our construct of the world around us – has to be adjusted. So, if a loved one passes away, we have to completely re-assess our physical and emotional circumstances.

There are people who can do this relatively easily; such as paramedics who are confronted with death on a regular basis. Most of us, however, are not naturally equipped to do this. So we outsource that function to a ‘higher being’ by asking them for help. If our wishes come true we bless this ‘being’. If they don’t come true we deal with the possible psychological fallout by deeming ourselves unworthy of their attention or simply incapable of comprehending their ‘big picture’. Whether or not such a ‘higher being’ exists, and, if so, what is their form, has been the subject of debate, confrontation and wide-scale oppression and massacre for thousands of years. The fact is, that the process of quietly focusing one’s mind in a particular direction can be psychologically therapeutic. It is, after all, the basis of meditation.

To answer Johnny’s question then: The Pope was loved by millions of people. But he was old and he was dying, and there was nothing anyone or any ‘being’ could do for him. When those millions of people prayed for the Pope, perhaps it was their way of dealing with the trauma of his failing health and seemingly inevitable passing. Perhaps ‘God’ is a simply a collective ‘space’ towards which people direct their thoughts in a way that helps them heal by dealing with challenging times. If so, then there is no elevated third force or omnipotent power that has our well-being at their disposal, and perhaps we’re not so pathetic after all. If this is the case then prayer is an important psychological tool for healing the scars in our mind. It is a way for our mind to bridge the link between disbelief and reason. And that’s a good thing.

So, Johnny, you must pray. Pray for your granny and remember the special moments you shared with her. It will give you the strength to deal with the pain when she’s gone.

Published in the Saturday Star on Saturday 16 April, 2005