President Joseph Biden mentions his Catholic faith frequently. We’ve heard him cite both the pope and Saint Francis. At his inauguration, he ran through a litany of promises about love and healing and decency, and other things no one could object to, prefaced by, “Before God and all of you, I give you my word.” But when it came time for his first proclamation for a National Day of Prayer, his administration chose to leave God out of it.
There’s mention of racial justice and climate change, but never the three-letter word that acknowledges that there is something more — that our country is founded on — and that is the reason we even exist. Quoting the late congressman John Lewis, the proclamation says, “Human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.” The National Day of Prayer then, is about us, not God. And that is the pandemic that, it appears, will remain with us beyond COVID-19.
Do we trust in something greater than Purell and vaccines? We sure seemed to send a message about what was most important to us when we closed churches last year. At precisely the time when people were longing for a truth greater than what Andrew Cuomo or Anthony Fauci said in media appearances, the doors of houses of worship were locked. The priests and other ministers who kept serving are the uncelebrated heroes — essential workers — of the coronavirus shutdowns. As are the ones who lived in isolation, so they could go into hospitals, the ones who checked in on parishioners, the ones who did everything they were allowed to do to safely keep giving people access to Confession and the Eucharist.
The president’s National Day of Prayer proclamation unfortunately gives credibility to those who deride prayer. “Thoughts and prayers” is the common press-release/social-media response to mass shootings and other evils. God’s not listening, or They’re not working — these have become a response, including on the cover of one of New York’s major newspapers. Those who pray to God with purity of heart know that we’re not going to see a response the way humans might like to order things. But we trust that in God’s plan, prayers are critical.
When Pope Benedict XVI, now emeritus, was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, the Vatican issued a letter on what prayer is:
Christian prayer . . . is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate, and profound dialogue between man and God. It expresses therefore the communion of redeemed creatures with the intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity. This communion, based on Baptism and the Eucharist, source and summit of the life of the Church, implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from “self” to the “You” of God.
That’s powerful stuff — though obviously Christian prayer, and in a Catholic context. But doesn’t all prayer need to include that kind of humility? And an acknowledgement that our lives are not our own? Isn’t that one of the lessons of the past year? We are mutually vulnerable. Turn to God for meaning and direction.
But there was something of the Biden proclamation that was all about us, and our comfort, and our agendas. This is not a Republican-versus-Democrat kind of thing; practical atheism is a plague. President George W. Bush had the right idea in his 2016 proclamation, citing George Washington: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and to humbly implore His protection and favor.” That’s a posture that will get us outside our heads and false comforts.
Here is what Mother Teresa said about prayer:
Prayer, to be fruitful, must come from the heart and must be able to touch the heart of God. See how Jesus taught His disciples to pray. Call God your Father; praise and glorify his name. Do His will as the saints do it in heaven; ask for daily bread, spiritual and temporal; ask for forgiveness of your own sins and that you may forgive others, and also for the grace not to give in to temptations and for the final grace to be delivered from the evil that is in us and around us.
She added: “Pray lovingly like children, with an earnest desire to love much and to make loved the one that is not loved.”
Humility is key to prayer. How else can it be prayer? He must increase, and I must decrease and all. A White House proclamation isn’t a theological treatise, but I do wonder whether this year’s betrays our warped view of religion. Prayer isn’t about us so much as it is about God. It’s not about our agendas. It’s an acknowledgement that there is so much more to our day and our lives than what is on our calendars.
Humility was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s posture. Take a look at some of his prayers and you will see the likes of this:
As we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be.
If we got the National Day of Prayer wrong, today is another day. And always remember the Sabbath. It could change our lives and the world. It’s not all about us. God reorients things when we give Him time.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.