We can pretend it doesn't matter, but public prayer makes a powerful difference.
"Welcome," he said, "to the InterCity 125 service from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads. This is your train driver speaking."
No one paid much attention. Every train journey from Paddington begins with the courteous reminder of which train you were on, and how long the journey would take; but then the driver caught everyone's attention. He continued "As we begin our journey together I would like to ask all of you to bow your heads with me and join in a word of prayer." There followed a very nice extemporaneous prayer by a man who was clearly a sincere and joyful born again Christian.
My fellow travelers were bemused, befuddled, aghast and amused. It got conversation going amongst the normally reticent Englishmen and the atmosphere in the carriage lifted for a few moments from the usual weary commuter boredom to the sort of mood you might find when a bird has entered the room where a party is taking place — everyone is delighted but no one is quite sure what to do about it.
Public prayer, which used to be so much taken for granted, has now become an oddity in our shared life. However, it was not too long ago that everyone's school day began with prayer. Prayers were offered at the beginning of public meetings, sports events and civic celebrations. Grace was returned at the beginning of banquets and pastors were invited to offer the invocation at public school graduations.
"What was the good of it?" one might ask.
Surely they were mere formalities — formal words by a priest or pastor which did not mean much to anyone. Isn't it better that such traditions have died out? It wasn't right to foist religion on everyone was it? Then there is the multi cultural question. We really mustn't have Christian prayers lest we offend the Muslims the Jews or whoever else. When there are formal prayers we must make sure that we pray to all the gods so none of their devotees will be hurt.
The believer will say that prayer does something. He believes God answers prayer. He thinks God will give him and his people many blessings because of prayer. But let us play the advocate for el diablo for a moment and put on one side the idea that prayer actually affects any supernatural transaction. Let us say (for the sake of argument) that prayer does not actually accomplish anything in the spiritual realm. Then what is the good of it? Is it worth anything at all?
Firstly, the public prayer confirms an underlying shared belief system that binds society together.
"But we are not all Christians!" the skeptic will cry.
Perhaps not, but all who are believers believe in God and believe in prayer and any public prayer will at least bind theists together in a shared worldview — the one that includes the Almighty in some form or other.
It is true that the atheists will be excluded, but will they care that much? They should not for they have excluded themselves from the vast majority of the human race who are theists of some sort. Besides, if they think prayer is just meaningless chatter why do they make such a fuss? Surely they ought to smile and humor us believers as one does an idiot child.
Secondly, public prayer has a soothing and calming effect. On the train that day in London, people's hearts were lifted for a moment. You could see it on their rubicund English faces. Prayer shifts our attention — even if we are unwilling — to another realm. We are forced (unless we are totally calloused brutes) to stop for a just a tic and observe a moment's silence — a moment when our world may expand and our hearts might be widened and our perception opened up and the door to the other world might be cracked even if only a tiny bit and for only a teensy moment in time. Surely any activity which shifts our focus away from ourselves even for a few seconds is a worthy thing?
Thirdly, public prayer has a beneficial effect on public morality. For that moment even the unbeliever might stop to consider that his life has a larger dimension and that he may be a player on a more cosmic stage than he thought, and if this is so it might just prompt a better and nobler sentiment within him. The beneficial moral effect of public prayer was illustrated by a comment I received on my blog last week.
I had written on the moral and social decay in modern Britain and an Englishman wrote saying, "When I began in banking almost 40 years ago, the head of our Investment Banking division each morning gathered his staff together and began the day with a prayer! This division was responsible for investing the bank's money. The prayer was not that they would make a "killing" or rack up great profits for the bank. Rather it was that they would properly care for the bank's assets and discharge their duties responsibly."
A fourth practical benefit of public prayer is that it grants to all those who participate a new kind of dignity. The bankers who prayed with their division chief were thought worthy to pray with. The chief took them seriously. Furthermore, their jobs also suddenly had a new dimension of seriousness and dignity. They mattered and their jobs mattered, not only to their business boss, but also to the Big Boss.
Think how society would change, if every business started the day with prayer. What if the workers at Starbucks or Burger King or the local factory started their shift by praying with the boss? What if they prayed for each of their customers? What if they prayed for each other? Think of the benefits to the whole of society, for we cannot stay angry long with a colleague for whom we have prayed. We cannot cheat for long a boss with whom we have prayed. We cannot provide poor customer service for a person for whom we have prayed.'
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the only benefits to prayer are the practical benefits in the public square. Prayer is more mysterious, much more. When we pray heaven opens. God's goodness comes to earth. Prayer is (as George Herbert wrote) "God's breath in man returning to his birth; the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage… reversed thunder; a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear… softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, exalted Manna, gladness of the best, heaven in ordinary, man well dressed… church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood, the land of spices, something understood."
Nevertheless, there is a practical power to public prayer, and those of us who have the chance by virtue of our position, should dare to pray more openly and with those who are part of our world. Whenever I have had the chance and the courage and said, "Let us pray together" I have never had anyone refuse. Embarrassment there may be, shuffling of feet and awkward bowing of heads with squinted eyes and the odd giggle or two, but never objections and never refusal. Afterward I have only ever been thanked.
So in this week when prayer in America becomes a public event for once, let us see the practical power of public prayer and stand up a bit more often and open our hearts and open our mouths and risk a little embarrassment, and like that sweet man on the London train say, "Let us all pause for a moment and bow our heads and have a word of prayer."
Father Dwight Longenecker. "The Practical Power of Public Prayer." Crisis Magazine (February 16, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
Crisis Magazine is an educational apostolate that uses media and technology to bring the genius of Catholicism to business, politics, culture, and family life. Our approach is oriented toward the practical solutions our faith offers — in other words, actionable Catholicism.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the chaplain of St. Joseph's Catholic School, Greenville, South Carolina. He also serves on the staff of St. Mary's, Greenville. Father Longenecker studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Adventures in Orthodoxy, Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Visit his website here and his blog here where you can listen to his podcasts of his lectures and homilies and read regular updates.
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