What’s actually happening when we pray? In this episode, Bishop Barron answers the deepest questions about prayer—not necessarily how to pray but what is prayer? A listener asks about the Rosary prayer and how it operates.

NOTE: As we move into Lent, sign up for Bishop Barron’s free daily Lent reflections at LentReflections.com

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10 comments on “WOF 169: The Metaphysics of Prayer

  1. Jobin Jacob Kavalam Mar 5, 2019

    I would be really glad to have Bishop or Brandon or anyone else from WordOnFire answer:
    https://forums.catholic.com/t/whether-to-pray-for-a-miracle-or-not/539636

    P.S. I realized that I could ask here only after I posted the question on the linked forum. I would be happy to receive an answer at either place.

  2. Doug Lawler Mar 6, 2019

    Bishop Barron,

    As it happens, you and I are the same age, so it is with profound humility that I gratefully acknowledge that I am spiritually so much less mature than you and so very much helped by your teaching and preaching. I expect that you sense that there must be a “but” coming and here it is: but I struggle greatly with the limits that you seem to place on petitionary prayer vis a vis the immutability of God.

    With the one hand you express fine sentiments about petitionary prayer prayer and, indeed, half of the very Lord’s Prayer is a litany of petitions and you, yourself, frequently ask that we pray for you and in return you pray for us (Thank you, by the way, for those prayers). Yet with the other hand, you deny it even the possibility of changing the mind of God. Does not that reduce petitionary prayer into a sort of shell game? We can ask all we want, but within the domain of possible outcomes, neither we nor even God, Himself, can change the shell that the pea is already under.

    When I commence my own petitionary prayer before beginning a shift in the ER, I ask that God not hear it as the whining and whingeing of a miserable, broken sinner but, rather, I ask that He hear praise for His power, gratitude for His mercy, and faith in His goodness and kindness and love. Without these elements, it would not make sense for anyone to ever ask for anything. On this much, I think probably that we comfortably agree, but there I fear we diverge.

    I wonder: is it possible in our imperfection compounded by the limits of our human minds that we have misconstrued what it must be to be perfect? I’m sure you are familiar with the canard that if God is all-powerful, then is He capable of creating a rock that he himself cannot lift? I assign that construct to a flawed understanding of what it is to be divinely omnipotent. Don’t we, perhaps, do something similar when we require that for God to be perfect, He must be rigidly and inflexibly immutable? It would seem that to be God, anything but a Deist’s sort of a god, He must have real-time agency and volition. It seems to me, that the core requisite for agency and volition is the power to make up one’s mind. Can one be said to have made up one’s mind freely if, from the start, one lacks the ability to change one’s mind? How rigorously we assert the doctrine of human free will and yet how quick we are to shackle divine free will in service of our conception of what divine perfection must look like to us.

    Cannot God chose “A,” and then out of an abundance of pity or mercy inspired by the sincerity of a heartfelt prayer chose “B,” and both choices be prefect simply because they are His? Or perhaps we can hope that while petitionary prayer does not change Him directly, in its need and sincerity, it might just change the ground upon which He acts?

    Sorry to take up so much time and space in a comment box.

    Thank you for all that you do, and thank you so much for what you have done for my faith and understanding.

    • Jobin Jacob Kavalam Mar 6, 2019

      Dear Doug / Bishop,

      I have a question in the same ball park as Doug’s; and that is regarding how much of a influence does prayers have on the physical events of the future ? (I understand that prayer often has the influence of positively orienting the person making the praying; but I am searching for an more direct influence of physical nature)

      To illustrate with an example: Imagine a person of faith suffering from a life threatening illness. The person also knows in faith that even this condition is good in the bigger will of God.

      However, he is faced with a dilemma (or so I would think) whether to petition God for healing or to just accept an imminent death as God’s will ?

      It is a dilemma because, by being persistent in his prayer to be healed he might actually uncover a channel of grace (e.g. a Saint who can intercede for his healing, a person who has received the gift of healing, etc.) that he would have otherwise missed,

      I would love to hear a response from you.

    • Annemarie Pearson Mar 15, 2019

      Hi Doug and Jobin,
      Bishop Barron has an answer that’s pretty close to your question on episode 163 the international Q&A: a young woman from Canada asks about petitionary prayer and the immutability of God and Bishop Barron gives a detailed response. It starts at around 9 minutes. I hope it helps clarify parts of your questions. And maybe the extra comment will prompt the WoF team to see the discussion here. Cheers!

      • Doug Lawler Mar 15, 2019

        Helpful…for me. Thanks.

        Not complete, but Bishop Barron says at the outset that at complete discussion is not possible at least in that moment–but definitely helpful.

        Perhaps the assignment he gave his students is one he might himself take on one day…book-length, I’d hope.

        Once grace and faith move us to acceptance of the Lordship of God…how we as individuals relate to Him, properly, earnestly, best, and most fully seems completely bedrock to the rest

        Prayer…simple, not to be confused with easy, would seem the beating heart of that relationship..

        Thank you.

  3. Joe Canzoneri Mar 6, 2019

    Bravo, Bishop Barron and Brandon!

    I am a member of the WOF institute, and I’ve been a devoted follower of Bishop Barron for quite some time. This is one of the best WOF show podcasts of all, and just what was needed as we begin our annual Lenten journey.

    May God Bless you both. Please keep me in your prayers, and be assured of mine for you.

    Peace,
    Joe
    St. Helen Parish
    Howard Beach, NY

  4. I’m a long-time fan of Bishop Barron, and a weekly listener of your podcasts and homilies (purchased 2 DVD sets at retail, even!), so I am not picking a fight! But this podcast was unsatisfying. Twice recently you’ve repeated another theologian’s statement that “God can not change” to emphasize that prayer, primarily, as about God’s grace making US conform better to his will (and, thus, our prayer is “answered” in our conforming). I suppose that works if my prayer is about ME, but it is not a satisfying answer when our prayer is about others. When we pray for others, we may not be asking God to change, but we certainly are asking God to act. My prayer for peace in Sudan, for the souls in purgatory, or for a friend’s safe journey, it seems to me, can only be answered by God’s actions–not my conforming to His will. Likewise, when a priest says mass or performs a sacrament, is he inviting–expecting, even!–the Holy Spirit to DO things (“make holy these gifts,” “be sealed with the Holy Spirit”, etc.) Finally, why can’t my prayer invite–expect, even–the holy spirit to do things on MY behalf, also? In other words, I think, your podcasts did not fully explain the real question: what is the relationship between my acts of prayer and God’s acts in response to prayer? To be honest, I was hoping you explain the metaphysical agency each of us has to call upon the Spirit or grace of God–and that operates even when we only “think it” into existence–as in silent prayer. THAT question (how God hears me when I’m not moving my lips) is a more immediate one, I think–and more interesting to me! Thank you,
    John Clune

    • Doug Lawler Mar 13, 2019

      Bishop Barron,

      I cannot conceive how hectic and demanding your schedule is, and I confess that 5 is an infinitesimal number of comments, but 80% of us seem to overlap in some way in struggling with a concept that seems profoundly important within our direct relationship with God.

      Could you spare a few moments, even if only a link, a catechism referral or a book recommendation to help set us straight?

      Thanks.

  5. Theresa Mar 15, 2019

    Dear Bishop Barron,
    Your podcasts have broadened my knowledge of the Catholic faith. Yet I have been struggling with the message from your podcast on The Metaphysics of Prayer. I am utterly confused as several others have posted so eloquently. It has left me so saddened that our petitionary prayers for the end of abortion, our priests, loved ones….are not heard. Why do we include them in the Mass? Please help me to understand.
    ~Theresa

    • Henry P. Mar 20, 2019

      From Practical Theology by Peter Kreeft
      25. HOW WE CAN AID PREDESTINATION If those I love are predestined by God to be saved, they will be saved, so why should I pray for them? And if they are not, there is nothing I can do to change God’s will. So why pray for others’ salvation?

      (As regards not God’s predestinating act itself but men’s salvation as the effect of predestination,) predestination is said to be helped by the prayers of the saints, and by other good works, because providence, of which predestination is a part, does not do away with secondary causes but so provides effects that the order of secondary causes falls also under providence. So as natural effects are provided by God in such a way that natural causes are directed to bring about those natural effects, without which those effects would not happen, so the salvation of a person is predestined by God in such a way that whatever helps that person towards salvation falls under the order of predestination, whether it be one’s own prayers or those of another, or other good works and suchlike, without which one would not attain to salvation. Whence, the predestined must strive after good works and prayer because through these means predestination is most certainly fulfilled (1,23,8).

      As Pascal said, “God established prayer in order to give to creatures the dignity of causality.” Every prayer and every good work makes a difference, possibly an eternal difference, without which those effects would not happen.

      It is a fallacy to think that since God has predestined all things, and since “whatever will be, will be”, that therefore our prayers cannot make a real difference to the future. We cannot change God’s predestination but we can change the future because that is one of the things God has predestined: our free choices that cause the future to be one thing rather than another.

      God knows whether X will be saved or not, so why should I pray for X? Because perhaps God has predestined that the salvation of X depends partly on your prayers, and if you do not supply them, X will not be saved. Every vote counts.

      We do not see these details because God deliberately hides them from us. For if we saw all the effects of our prayers and good works, if we saw the difference we make—like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life—we would be overwhelmed and paralyzed with responsibility.

      Nothing changes God’s will. But “prayer changes things” because God changes things through our prayers. For God has willed that causal order of things; God has willed that His will be fulfilled only through the instrumentality of our prayers. He often refuses to give us the things we need until we pray for them because He sees that we need prayer even more than we need the things we pray for. Prayer is like work: God could have given us everything without our work (food, for instance), but He knew that we need to work even more than we need the things we work for. We co-operate, i.e., we work-with, God—not as equals, not side by side, like two soldiers on a battlefield, but like a general and his infantryman, or like an author and his character. He will not do it without us and we cannot do it without Him.

      By the way, St. Thomas, unlike classical Calvinists, does not believe in two equal and parallel predestinations, to Hell as well as to Heaven, to damnation as well as salvation. “Predestination” means predestination to Heaven, for “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to salvation” (2 Pet 3:9). God knows that not all will come to salvation, and allows this, by allowing our free choice, and in that sense and that sense only He wills (allows) damnation. He writes the whole story, its eternal tragedies as well as its divine comedies, but He acts in the story only in one way, for the comedy, for the salvation. “For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn 3:17).

      Kreeft, Peter. Practical Theology Ignatius Press.

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