The Life of Virtue – Prayer

The Life of Virtue – Prayer

In 1872 the anthropologist Sir Francis Galton did a thorough statistical survey of the health of the Royal Family and compared it with the population at large – he found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two populations despite the daily prayers of the Anglican church for the health of the monarch. Therefore he concluded that prayer has no efficacy whatsoever.

Galton’s analysis suggests he had many misunderstandings concerning the nature of prayer. Prayer does not cause health in the same way as eating fresh fruit or doing regular exercise might. God is eternal and unchanging, so however hard we try, we cannot change His mind. Rather, it is the other way round – when we pray, it is our minds that are changed; our minds are raised towards God. This does not mean that prayer is a purely subjective experience. God as first cause, not only determines the way the world is, but also how the world has come to be the way it is. As Aquinas puts it ‘Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed.’ So when we pray for something and obtain it, this is part of Divine providence. From God we receive the disposition to ask for certain things that from all eternity God has decided to give us.

Of course sometimes we pray for something which we don’t end up receiving, but this doesn’t mean the prayer was a waste of time. When we pray for a certain thing, our desire for it increases and therefore we ought to pray for what we ought to desire. As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbour, so it is particularly important that we pray for the people we know so that our desire for their well-being may increase.

Prayer is also a way of honouring God. When we pray, we recognise that everything we value and love ultimately depends on God. Thus, prayer is an act of justice – rendering to God what is due to God. As God is perfect, we can’t give Him anything He needs, but what we can do is manifest His goodness. Prayer is an anticipation of the goodness we hope to share for all eternity in the Beatific Vision.

Robert Verrill OP

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.