Friday, August 12, 2016

Against the Idea of Retroactive Prayer

"Boethius and Philosophy," Mattia Preti

“We should never lose hope, even for those who seem to die outside of a state of grace,” said Fr. Provocateur. The setting was an adult catechism class, during the usual Q&A section at the end. “We must remember that God exists outside of time, that he sees all things at once. Because of this, he can hear our prayers much later in time and apply them to an event that happened much earlier, from our point of view.”

“But Father,” yours truly interjected, “it seems rather strange, if not presumptuous to pray for a different outcome of something that has already happened.”

“Well, you can’t know what was going through this person’s soul at the moment of death,” he replied. “It’s a mystery to us, and God can retroactively apply all the merit sought for this soul for its conversion, no matter when the prayers were said. You can also pray for a good outcome for something that has already happened, but which you haven’t heard the outcome. It is only presumptuous if you are trying to change what you know to have happened.”

“Sounds wibbly-wobbly, to me.”

~ ~ ~

I have had similar assurances of God’s supra-temporal, retroactive intercession before, but rarely from a Catholic priest. Back in my Protestant years, it was common to hear amateur theologians opine about the complex relationship of time, eternity, and prayer. Such speculations are especially frequent in debates about the nature and operation of predestination and divine foreknowledge. While I do not suggest that the relationship between God’s eternal nature and our time-bound natures is easy to understand, I think that these pious pseudo-certainties are being rather poorly considered.

One is reminded of the old story about a wise rabbi, who once overheard a man in his village praying to God about his very pregnant wife. “Oh God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the wicked man prayed, “please make my child to be a son!” The rabbi chastised the man thoroughly, because the child his wife was carrying was already either a boy or a girl. Even though he couldn’t see the child’s sex, God and the angels surely did. It was arrogant for the man to ask God to change what he had already wrought.

That God in his eternity beholds and acts simultaneously on what we experience as past, present, and future, is the common belief of Catholic theologians. That prayer is efficacious in spite (or because) of God’s foreknowledge, is quite universally held to be true. These are mysterious doctrines, but still fertile ground for contemplation. It is a simplistic conclusion, however, to say that we can retroactively alter past events of which we happen to be ignorant through our prayers.

The softness of logic that goes into these pious nothings shows the influence of popular science fiction and media, in my opinion. The glut of time-travel plots in our popular storytelling has brutalized our minds with flashy anti-logic. Once the public had gotten used to the idea of reality and history as malleable things, it was not much of a stretch to apply reality-altering illogic to prayer and providence.

This sentimental softness is related to a weakness of thought about Being. It is also evidence that we consider the spiritual realm more malleable than the physical, which is certainly not the case. When the Devil and his angels fell, they fell with greater permanence and willfulness than any man has ever fallen. It is actually the physical world that is most malleable, that is most plastic, and yet our minds rebel violently at the thought of, say, the Moon suddenly disappearing without a trace, or being replaced with a giant pyramid made of quartz.

But we are okay with thinking that we can retroactively change the state of a dead man’s soul? The final choice of a human soul at the moment of death is so irrevocable that the angels shudder. Heaven prepares a new eternal home, or Hell opens its maw, to receive the newly departed. These are real things that happen with absolute certainty, quite regardless of our sight or immediate knowledge, and once they happen they cannot be undone. There is something weirdly perverse to think we can change the outcome of such a momentous past event.

By prayer we enter in some mysterious way into the realm of the eternal God. We do not thereby step into a TARDIS, shoot through the time-stream, tweak a few historical events, then pop back into the present for a cup of tea. There is nothing wicked about praying for an outcome if we were ignorant that said outcome had already been reached, but there is no reason to think that these prayers were efficacious towards that end.

The world marches on with or without us, and so does the will of God. Something that was done cannot be made to have never been done, nor to have been done differently. Past is past, and we act only in the present. We thank God for what is, not for what we wish had been.

“I have found power in the mysteries of thought,
exaltation in the changing of the Muses;
I have been versed in the reasonings of men;
but Fate is stronger than anything I have known.”
–Euripides

23 comments:

  1. Praying against something that has already happened reminds one of the Mormon practice of "baptizing" dead and buried relatives.

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  2. Well sins are what we"ve done and since we pray gor these to be forgiven, we pray for the past most of the times. No paradox, just what happens. Maybe the priest was hinting as to we should pray more for the grace of coping with future challenges. But he did this in a hidden way that Holy Spirit indicates to them as shepherds, not to literally tell people what to do but to hint as to where should they aim.

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  3. Maybe this can be understood properly when the fact that the Theotokos was,
    by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin
    is taken into account.

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    1. That was what came to my mind as well...

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    2. I'm sure a conversation about the anticipatory merits of Christ preserving his mother from original sin would be fascinating, but that's not what the priest was talking about. It was pretty clear he was saying that prayers can basically time travel. If you search for the phrase "retroactive prayer" online, you can find quite a lot of discussion about this.

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    3. I think you are missing the point. Praying for mercy upon the behalf of one's soul is not wasteful if in fact the person feared damned is in fact in Purgatory.

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    4. There is a difference between offering prayers on behalf of the dead (who may or may not be damned), and offering prayers for graces to be bestowed at the hour of their death (when they have long since passed away). The former is an act of generosity and hope, the latter an act of irrationality.

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    5. It is not that the prayers could time-travel but that God who is above time sees everything as now.
      So, the same as he has seen the merits of his Son and applied them to Mary, so can he see our merits and apply it to somebody by granting some special graces. That's what i'm saying.

      I don't see it as an absolute impossibility but i don't practice it.

      When st. Thomas speaks about predestination he says this: " Concerning this question, there were different errors. Some, regarding the certainty of divine predestination, said that prayers were superfluous, as also anything else done to attain salvation; because whether these things were done or not, the predestined would attain, and the reprobate would not attain, eternal salvation. But against this opinion are all the warnings of Holy Scripture, exhorting us to prayer and other good works.". So, in view of infallible decrees of God is it not irrational to pray? We still do.

      But maybe there is some distinction between foreseen merits of Christ and our foreseen merits. I still haven't given it much thought though...

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    6. The way I understand "predestination" is that, because God is above time, he does not view it in the linear form we do. He sees what is "fated" to happen. Due to our prayers and actions He may choose to alter the outcome of fate. What has happened is locked for eternity, but the present and future are still quite fluid (but God still knows every possible outcome).

      Then again, this is just me guessing how things work. How God sees the world is far beyond any of our comprehension.

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    7. Btw, I have many Protestant relatives who have departed and who I pray for (and I am sure J does as well). It would be an egregious sin against charity to presume anything about the state of anyone's departed soul (good or bad).

      An SSPX priest once gave a sermon to this effect at a funeral: "I fully believe, as the one who gave him his last rites, that Mr. X saved his soul. I will not say he is 'looking down on us from heaven' as that would be a great disservice to him."

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    8. Providence is Divine governance of creation. It is not that God knows something will happen, but he makes it happen. If it weren't so, it wouldn't be providence. There wouldn't be miracles since miracles don't occur by themselves since they're above natural laws, but the occur by special and particular Divine intervention.

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  4. There are the lost and the lost.

    There are those who have died and been lost to Hell and there are those who are alive and lost in the new theology and both of those places are inescapable.

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  5. Now, what about the famous case of St. Gregory and Emperor Trajan?
    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/5071.htm#article5

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    1. The replies to objection 5 seem to make sense to me.

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    2. That section from the Summa reminds me of Xenia of St. Petersburg.

      https://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/24/100297-blessed-xenia-of-st-petersburg

      It seems to me that the afterlife could be much more complex than some might think...

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  6. The comment above about the Mormons reminds me that the NT Christians were also baptised for their dead relatives. I agree that it is nonsensical to talk about changing the past & invoke God's timelessness to make it sound plausible. But might it help to understand time Christologically - i.e. time before and after the Gospel are really different, time before being "preparatory" & time after being the sphere of fruition & Judgment? Thus for those who haven't heard the Gospel of Christ, they are in the balance (cf. Peter's "spirits in prison" and the notion of the harrowing of hell), and have not yet made their ultimate choice between Christ or damnation. For them the past can be changed in a sense - see also the end of CS Lewis's Till We Have Faces for an imaginative vision of this idea.

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  7. This article is so obviously logically flawed. If God could foresee the future merits of Jesus and apply them to Virgin Mary at the time of Her conception, then it logically makes sense that he can do the same with our prayers and merits by having applied them to some past event. This has nothing to do with changing the past.

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    1. The two examples are hardly alike. Christ pre-existed all temporal and applying the restoration of humankind to His mother before He accomplished it for all men is not the same as praying for a different outcome to damnation. One had yet to happen and was accomplished by God, whereas the other has already happened and we are asking for a retroactive change.

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    2. No, we are not asking for a retroactive change, we are asking God to give the dying person the grace to repent. I don't see why God couldn't have done it in anticipation of our prayer. This idea is clearly Biblical

      Isaiah 65:24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.

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  8. One is reminded of the old story about a wise rabbi, who once overheard a man in his village praying to God about his very pregnant wife. “Oh God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the wicked man prayed, “please make my child to be a son!”

    Nothing wise about this Rabbi. God didn't need to miraculously change the sex of the unborn child. God could foresee this prayer and therefore could have willed it so that the child is a boy at the time of his conception in response to the future prayer He knew was coming.

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  9. Isaiah 65:24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.

    The above verse proves that God can answers our prayers before we even pray. Fr. Provocateur is right.

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  10. The rabbi chastised the man thoroughly, because the child his wife was carrying was already either a boy or a girl. Even though he couldn’t see the child’s sex, God and the angels surely did. It was arrogant for the man to ask God to change what he had already wrought.

    So now, according to this twist thinking, it is arrogant to pray?
    The only thing that's arrogant here is the hateful agenda this article is pushing.

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    1. Of course prayer is a legitimate practice, but some prayers are sinfully presumptuous.

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