What are we praying for?

PAUL GRAHAM

I’ve been getting texts on WhatsApp urging me not to worry and pray that everything will be okay, as God is ‘in control’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. Behind such sentiments there seems to be an assumption that God, being all-powerful, is able to zap the virus and make it go away. But God manifestly isn’t making the virus go away and people are dying. So what are we realistically praying for? Is God, in fact, in control in the way we think he may be, or is something else going on?

Last night, I could hear noise in the street outside. When I looked, people had come to their front doors and were clapping. At first I thought it was just a spontaneous gesture, a moment of communal release of pent-up frustration at being cooped up all day. In fact, they were applauding the health workers – nurses, doctors and others – who daily are putting their lives at risk to help the sick and dying. I’d missed the announcement earlier in the day, or I would have joined in.

God was there, in the applause, in the gratitude shown towards those who make an act of self-sacrifice each day for the good of the community. That joy-filled clapping is one of the ways in which our prayers are being answered. It is a powerful statement, even by people who may not believe it personally, that the virus, part of our fallen world, does not have the last say; and that human goodness and love will triumph, and is at this moment triumphing, in spite of the continuing menace of Covid-19.

In northern Italy, the parishioners of Father Giuseppe Berardelli clubbed together to pay for him to have a ventilator as he lay sick in hospital with the virus. When he heard that a younger patient needed one, he gave him his – and died. As his coffin was being taken away for burial, people under lockdown came to their balconies and applauded. God was being glorified in the self-sacrificial gesture of Father Giuseppe. That, too, is an answer to our prayers. That, too, is a statement that God is present, even in suffering and death. God’s power was demonstrated in human weakness.

God is present in Lizzie from down the road who left a note at our front door asking if we needed anything; in the woman who said ‘hello’ from her doorstep – two metres apart – as I passed by on my permitted daily walk the other day; in all the kind texts and phone calls I’ve received from people wishing me well under self-isolation; in the police who continue to make sure we’re safe; in the lorry drivers who deliver our food to the supermarkets. The list goes on.

Our prayers are being answered in all this, as we become more aware that underlying our brokenness and selfishness as human beings, there is something else of greater power at work in the world: the power of love, which is stronger than whatever the virus can throw at us. For those with faith, it is the power of God at work in us, in the world.

God is not a puppet-master, ‘up there’, pulling strings and doing things to intervene and stop bad stuff happening. If God were such a God, why did he allow the Black Death to take place that devastated medieval Europe? Why did God not intervene during the Second World War to stop the Holocaust? Indeed, why allow such a war to take place at all? And yet we go on believing that God will find us a parking place. He’s not that kind of God.

Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman from Holland, volunteered to work in a transit camp for deportees to Auschwitz, fully aware of what her own fate would eventually be. In spite of her initial unbelief and the suffering all around her, she found God in the camp and with it a deep interior peace. The seeming helplessness of God under those circumstances became the stimulus for deep prayer. She writes in her diary: ‘Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last’.

We believe in a God who came among us, Emmanuel, God-is-with-us. God in Christ is in the midst of the pandemic. He is trying to bring to an end to it in the hands of the nurses and doctors tending the sick. He is there in the researchers seeking to find a vaccine, and with the engineers designing and making ventilators to assist the chronically ill. He is with the families, some with little income as a result of the lockdown, struggling to keep the kids fed and entertained. He is with the half-million volunteers who signed up to assist with the National Health Service.

God is there, in those people. God is answering our prayers in them and in us as we open our hearts to him. God is even with those who don’t believe in him. It doesn’t matter. God can handle unbelief, and even rejection, as we well know, but he is still with us. Some of us may even go on to die, but God is still there having conquered death in Jesus. The virus does not have the last word: God does, and His is the glory.

That, I suggest, is the meaning of prayer during this pandemic. Just don’t expect God to zap the virus to make it go away. But Christ in us will make it go away, eventually; and we pray that the world will be a better place after it. Instead of the virus triumphing, it will have been conquered by the selfless love of Christ at work in human beings. In the words of Etty, let us defend God’s dwelling place inside us to the last.

Paul Graham OSA was formerly parish priest at St Joseph’s, Broomhouse, Edinburgh

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Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.