|"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.”