Earlier this week one of my atheist friends on Facebook posted a cartoon with a bunch of panicked religious leaders gathered around a (presumably atheist) scientist as COVID-19, pictured as a looming virus-monster approached. The point being more or less, where is your God now? Allegedly, we don’t need prayer we need science.
But that is nonsense! I am not going to recount the great achievements in the sciences and to western civilization as a whole the Catholic Church has made, as others have told that story (here, here, and here). But rather, why pray, at all or especially in a time like this?
One reason, especially important during a pandemic with mandatory quarantines, is that prayer can give us the peace necessary to sit still. As Barron, notes following Pascal, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We are all going to have to live for awhile with some sacrifices. In a time of social distancing, without my usual routines, amusements and social interactions where am I going to get recharged? Barron’s video (See below) offers many spiritual exercises that will be sources of strength during this time.
But does it make sense to ask God to help keep us and others safe? Atheists are often critical of prayer because they believe it leads to inaction. The Church itself has warned:
In all our devotions and religious practices we must carefully guard against expecting God to perform miracles when natural causes may bring about what we hope for. God will sometimes miraculously help us, but, as a rule, only when all natural means have failed.Baltimore Catechism Question 1154
But why then not just act? Because the actions necessary may require us to carry crosses we do not want to carry, and in prayer we can discern what those crosses are and find the strength to carry them.
Another objection against prayer can be leveled on religious grounds:
Objection 1. It would seem that it is unbecoming to pray. Prayer seems to be necessary in order that we may make our needs known to the person to whom we pray. But according to Matthew 6:32, “Your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” Therefore it is not becoming to pray to God.Summa Theologica Q83 Art 2
To which Aquinas responds:
Reply to Objection 1. We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.Summa Theologica Q83 Art 2
In order to throw light on this question we must consider that Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. . . . And so is it with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words “that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,” as Gregory says (Dial. i, 8)Summa Theologica Q83 Art 2
God wants to give us good things, but he wants to give them as a gift and for us receive them as a gift, so he inspires us to pray for what he will give. By reminding ourselves that our talents, our goods, or any other blessings are a gift, we are reminded to depend on God, that we do not have to control everything , God is in control.
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?NABRE 6:27-30
In a time of uncertainty we need to be reminded of this.
There is another, grimmer, objection to prayer. Namely if God is real, why is there suffering? There is a whole book of the bible, Job, troubled with this question which has always frustrated people of faith. There is much to be said but, for now, all I will say is that in a crucified world, only a crucified God can really heal us. Jesus lost people he loved to disease and death. He wept. He suffered and died himself. Many people believe the fact that Joseph was not present during the Passion implies he had already died, perhaps when Jesus was still a child. May the God who suffered with us, be with us at this most difficult time.
Catholic Relief: Coronavirus Facts and How to Help