From Our Director
Praying in the time of Plague: Part 1
When I was a child, I remember hearing a story about a soldier who was shot in the chest in the middle of a heated battle. Although knocked down, he found to his astonishment that not only was he alive but unharmed; the bullet had hit him in his breast pocket where it was stopped by his Bible that he always carried with him. Although I found the story inspiring, I wondered the time if the Farmer’s Almanac or a copy of the Koran might have been just as useful.
The moral of this particular story was not overtly superstitious, merely recommending the importance of scripture in time of trouble, with only a slight inference to its inherent protective powers. I can’t imagine then, or now, anyone getting this incident confused to the point of recommending that a soldier or SWAT team member might be able to paper themselves with a Bible and be bullet-proof in a shoot-out. Would you need the whole Bible, or would just the New Testament suffice?
I want to be careful here. I am not making fun; this story may well be true. It also may well be a miracle in the most technical sense of the word. The take-aways are what I am most concerned about, which are the use of physical objects — or similarly — the use of scripture as invocation to manipulate the physical world. I’d like to think about this a minute and compare it to the legitimate use of physical objects as spiritual memory aides and the use of scripture in our prayer lives as illustrated in the Bible.
We humans are pattern-seekers. We can’t help it. We are constantly trying to connect the dots to make meaning out of our past and improve our future. We are meaning finding creatures. In the current crisis, we are all trying to figure out which authority to listen to and calculate when this thing will be over. We are worried about our health and the health of those we love. We are worried about our finances and the future. We want to know what works and then be able to do it. It’s natural.
But as Christians, we need to make sure we don’t succumb to either despair nor to illegitimate sources of comfort, even ones that may well offer some placebo effect.
Early Christians sometimes carried with them a bit of pagan culture when they carried or wore amulets, a tiny vessel that could contain a part of scripture. They used these amulets as good luck charm against sickness or danger. It wasn’t necessary to believe what was written or even to read it, but merely to have it with you. While some church leaders saw this practice as futile but harmless, something practiced by “old women,” Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth-century bishop and one of the Church fathers, felt more strongly: using an amulet instead of praying for healing showed one to be irrational, unintelligent, and a practicing pagan.
A pagan understanding of carrying of a physical object or a bit of scripture turned into what we would now call a transactional obligation. If one recited the right verse, or carried the correct artifact, God would be obligated to respond according to the dictates of the practitioner.
But what distinction can be made between using a bit of scripture as a memory device or as a template to help form ones’ prayers? Augustine of Hippo distinguished Christian practices from magic primarily according to the intent and goals of the person. Magic rituals supported selfish and individual pursuits and were clearly prohibited both by scripture and church councils, while Christian practices were intended to serve the community of believers. Christian practices, including those involving physical objects or sayings, always lead back to God, not faith in the object or saying, however Christianized.
Some modern readers may find themselves so risk averse to superstition, so desiring to avoid “dupery” as the great William James named it, that they are hesitant to pray at all. I suspect that the first Christians did not hold this false dilemma. They saw too much. They prayed and saw Peter released miraculously from jail. They encouraged each other with sayings and songs, but also saw Peter crucified (by legend, upside down.) They remembered that Jesus himself told them to “pray, and not give up,” and at the same time, did not expect nor demand a transactional obligation with the Master of the Universe.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is difficult for us, and perhaps even harder for moderns with a mechanistic understanding of how things work. We want to see a clear cause and effect chain. But we know that life — and faith — don’t always work that way.
We’ll think more about this in the days to come. For now, I would encourage you, in this holy week, to pray simple prayers, wash your hands, and ask how you can be helpful.
May God bless you and keep you —