At the end of my last essay, I promised to write about why the existence of monasticism and the contemplative tradition can be of benefit to all of us who live and work in the hurly-burly of the big city. This whole area of spirituality is impossible to understand if one does not believe in the power of prayer.
Pius XI, in his Encyclical about the preeminence of the eremitical vocation in the Church (specifically in the order of hermits called the Carthusians), sited a Biblical story from the Book of Exodus. In the story, there is a great battle going on between the Israelites and the Amorites. While the two armies are clashing, Moses is surveying the battle with some of his advisors from a nearby mountain. He raises his arms into the sky in prayer. As he does that, the Israelites gain advantage in the battle below. But when he gets tired and drops his arms, the Israelites start losing. So his advisors have him sit on a nearby rock and each of them hold an arm each into the air so that Moses can pray unceasingly. Of course, with prayer the Israelites won a great victory, but the Pope extends this meaning about the continual prayer on the Mountain to the hermits and monks who pray each day for the Church: if they were to cease praying even for a short while, the human race, and in particular the Church, would be lost. This, says Pius XI, is the importance of the vocation to the life of hermit and monk. Without their prayers, we would lose the battles of life.
Could prayer be that powerful and that necessary?
In a word: Yes! But this is a matter for faith and not science, though the difference that prayer makes can be observed and therefore measured—up to a point.
Some say that the difference that prayer makes is in the person of the one who prays. This is both a truism and a cop-out. Of course the person who prays feels the peace and the purpose that prayer gives, and it changes him or her for the better. But does it change the thing prayed for? Skeptics say: no, it has no effect whatsoever. This is why I say it is a cop-out. Why pray if it does nothing more than make you feel better?
Prayer can change the world. Miracles occur and can be scientifically proven, especially when they occur today. There are doctors at Lourdes, for instance, who, though they are not believers, say that what they have observed cannot be medically explained. That is as far as they can go since they do not believe in God.
The question then comes: why is it necessary, if God is good and wants the best for us, to pray at all? In other words: why does not God just do the right thing, why does he make the right thing dependent on our prayers?
For an answer to this question we turn to the book of Genesis: we are made in the image and likeness of God. So if God is a Creator, we must create. If God is a healer, we must heal. So when someone is sick with cancer, the Doctor clearly has been given the knowledge by God and the intelligence to do the healing work of God. But God has also given the family the gift of prayer to participate in the healing process, even when that healing process ends in the person passing to his or her eternal reward. Prayer is not always answered in the way and the timing that we may want. Man proposes but God disposes! However, does God’s response depend on our prayers alone? I can’t answer that one since it assumes that I know the mind of God! His ways remain mysterious. But I believe that God is good and wants the best for us, and at the same time He puts a lot of the future in our hands. Therefore, our prayers and actions truly affect the future. Yet God remains free and sovereign in His responses. I don’t know how you put it together, but I do believe that both statements are true and that they form a theological dialectic that comes closer to the truth of the mystery involved. By dialectic, I mean an interaction between two different and perhaps opposing realities that produces a response that is new, a sort of synthesis of the two original ideas.
Once we realize that prayer has real consequences, not only in the life of the prayer but also in what is being prayed about, we begin to see why the Church holds the Monastic and Eremitical vocations in such high regard: for they actually help each of us since the whole purpose of their existence is to glorify God and to pray for the needs of the Church, both in her totality and in the individual nature of all our needs.