Recently, after Mass, someone articulated some spiritual difficulties, in particular, why doesn’t God do anything when we pray for those migrants in Calais?
It’s that old chestnut, or rather two chestnuts thrown into the blender to make one sludge of bewilderment: why does God not always answer our prayers; and why do bad things happen to the innocent? The answer to both, of course, is sin – human sin, to make it perfectly clear.
However, that is not by itself a satisfying answer to most. Books have been written addressing this real problem in Christians’ spiritual lives, and they often do it very well, and better than I could.
Yet we could still approach the problem from one angle at least.
A few days ago Fr Ray Blake paid me the compliment of advancing a few spiritual reflections on my report of the recent EBC Forum. In particular he noted that the monastic orders often serve as indicators of the health of a particular Church, black canaries down the ecclesial mineshaft. If the air is toxic, foetid or foul the canary will fall sick and even die. Rightly he said that it is not merely an issue of liturgy or doctrine (however important these indeed are). Fr Blake put the issue in spiritual terms: do these monasteries produce saints, or as he aptly put it, “vessels of clay shining with supernatural light”?
Monasteries with holy monks attract vocations. That these monks will celebrate the liturgy worthily and well is not only a cause but an effect of this holiness. It is a symbiotic relationship: a liturgy centred on God will feed holiness, which itself will bear fruit in a liturgy centred on God, not man. Read Church history and you will see more than enough examples of this plain truth.
Alas, if the local Church has lost its vigour, the monasteries will suffer too. If the Church no longer points to eternity as the homeland we need ultimately to worry about and work towards, but rather sees this world’s problems as the focus of its attention, then why would young men (and women) find attractive a life that makes no sense in this-worldly terms?
Of course, authentic Christianity has always placed immense significance on what we now term “social justice”. Yet we should be clear about the fundamental reason why: because what we do here in this fleeting world has direct and potentially irreversible consequences for our lives in the next, and eternal, world. Apart from the fact that basic human decency should bid us have concern for our neighbour wherever and whoever he or she might be, our Christian faith demands that we do. What we do, or fail to do, to our neighbour is done to Christ.
Do we really believe that? Has our earthly life as Christians lost its supernatural flavour? Is our Christianity confined to Sunday attendance at Church and no more? Do we feel smug that at least we go to church, and effectively leave our Christianity at that? Do we consider that our Christianity is a purely private matter and that its intrusion into public life is vulgar, or even intolerant? Do we worry far too much about what people might think of us rather than about what God might think of us?
If the answers to the questions above are mostly “yes” then our Church will not produce vocations, nor bear any fruit that will last except through a freakish and exceptional rogue shoot.
So if we truly want vocations to our monasteries and our seminaries, then we need to start acting like we do. Pray. And keep praying. Fast and do penance, remembering the example of Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh. Live a life that is Christian 24 hours a day, and not just in church on a Sunday.
Likewise if we want our prayers to be answered, then we need to start acting like we do. Do penance. Walk an extra mile. Give to the poor, the orphan and the stranger. Lobby our MPs to have the guts to take a stand in Parliament. Make a stand ourselves, however “vulgar” such displays might seem. And keep praying.
For really, why should God give heed to our prayers if we so feebly and half-heartedly live as Christians? Most talk of God’s love as unconditional is bilge and wastewater. God’s love and grace are indeed umerited, but unconditional?! Really? What then is the covenant in which we stand with God? What is our part in that covenant? What then of Christ’s commandment to love (a doing not a feeling) our neighbour? Why did he bother with the parable of the Good Samaritan? Is it enough that our liturgies too often become human-centred and not “in memory of Me”?
So it seems at least to this writer, and to Fr Blake, that for both the vocations crisis and the problem of evil flourishing in this world despite our prayers, the solution is holiness, personal holiness for every Christian. If our charity never goes beyond prayer, then why should God listen to us? Prayer is wonderful, but if there is never any evidence in our lives that we intend to live as we pray then our prayers are little better than rectal emissions of methane. We owe it to our persecuted brethren in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, not only to pray for them, but to be holy enough that our prayers might bear fruit.
Today is a day of fasting for life, held on the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, who lived as he prayed, and laid down his life for another in Auschwitz according to the teaching and example of Christ. Some demons, taught Christ can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. So, for once, I am getting of my ample monastic backside and doing at least a little something beyond words in order to fight the evils of abortion and euthanasia. Bread and water only, with maybe a cup of tea to keep my spirits up.
Why don’t you have a go too? You’ve nothing to lose and both the world and eternity to gain. Besides – I need the company.