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Outsourcing Prayer

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 24, 2009

We had a humorous discussion at a Trinity Consulting management meeting yesterday. I had asked everyone to remember, as they worked, to pray for the clients whose projects occupied their time. This led someone to remember that Trinity also makes donations each month to various groups of cloistered nuns and, in so doing, asks them to remember various intentions—including our clients—in their prayers. The result was a brief business discussion of the benefits of outsourcing prayer.

Forms of Outsourcing

I hasten to add that this was one of those conversations among friends which was deliberately raised to outrageous heights for the sake of humor. But the best jokes reflect a certain reality. Many a rich man has arranged in his will for Masses to be said for the repose of his soul. People offer Mass stipends for their special intentions, they make contributions to join perpetual remembrance societies of various kinds, and (as I’ve said) they send donations to religious communities with the understanding that they will be remembered in the community’s prayers. Generally without paying anything, they ask friends and associates to pray for them as well. Sometimes they start chain letters for prayer. Here at Trinity Communications, we’ve organized perpetual Rosaries online.

In an earlier age, some people made prayer wheels, apparently with the idea that spinning the wheel sent a prayer to heaven. (Strictly speaking this was not outsourcing unless you hired somebody else to spin your wheel.) I’ve heard that in some periods it was the custom to install a hermit on the property of a prosperous estate. Many a manorial lord has wished to erect a chapel and have a priest attached to it—partly, of course, to provide a convenient place for himself and his people to pray, yet surely outsourcing is at work here as well. There have been times when some lay people have regarded prayer as the job of priests and contemplatives, so that outsourcing might seem almost mandatory. And there is certainly a strong sense in Catholicism that some kinds of prayer are worth more than others, particularly the Mass, or that the prayers of some classes of persons are worth more than our own—hence gifts and prayer requests at the shrines of various saints.

Business Logic

Some of these examples are based on superstition, which incorporates a twisted kind of business logic. Putting a prayer on a wheel and spinning it may be the latest hot idea, but it isn’t prayer at all. Moreover, it avails nothing to accessorize the family prayer wheel by adding a motor to increase its efficiency. The same is true of various guarantees, such as those touted in leaflets for novenas that have been “never known to fail.” Repeating the prayer nine times while standing on your head in a bucket of water and counting to ten backwards may be an interesting exercise, but insofar as it is done to redeem a guarantee, it isn’t much as prayer goes, no matter how many people you get to do it. Ditto for those chain prayers that come with so many promises to change your life.

But hold that idea of changing your life for a moment, for it is the key to what follows. Superstition aside, there is nothing wrong with enlisting others, including Our Lady, the saints and especially Christ himself in the Sacrifice of the Mass, to take up whatever cause we have in mind. This isn’t really outsourcing unless we don’t also pray ourselves. It’s just collaboration, and collaboration works very well because additional firepower is always a good thing. But outsourcing is a very bad thing. When it comes to prayer, true outsourcing is very bad precisely because it prevents the process of prayer from directly altering our lives.

Brand Improvement

Changing our own lives by drawing into closer union with God is always the primary purpose of prayer, whether it is what we have in mind or not. In saying this, I do not wish to denigrate prayer for particular intentions, nor the practice of enlisting as many people to pray for important intentions as possible. But the worth of such prayers does not consist in their capacity to inform God of things He doesn’t yet know, to increase His sympathy for some need, or to bend His will to our own. God already knows what we need and what everyone else needs, and He already loves each of us infinitely, continuously willing our good. It is only through the condescension of the Father’s plan that we are encouraged to bring our needs to God’s attention, and also through that condescension that He responds in specific ways to specific prayers.

The purpose behind this Divine condescension, of course, is that it provides a motive for us to turn toward God and to place ourselves in His hands. It is this turning—this interior conversion—to which God responds with showers of specific graces, sometimes the grace to arrange things as we desire (when this is truly best in His Providence for all concerned), and always the grace to draw us closer to Himself, transforming us in Love. This is why I said that the primary purpose—that is, God’s primary purpose—in all prayer is our own transformation. We may be focusing on some particular need, whether our own or another’s, but God is focusing on uniting each of us to Himself.

The capacity for this to happen when we outsource prayer—when we leave it to others for any reason whatsoever—is practically nil. There is of course some turning toward God in any thought about prayer, any arrangement that prayers should be said. But this is extremely limited compared with the capacity for transformation when we are actually at prayer ourselves.

Keeping it In-House

I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier column: “The point of prayer is union with God. This union requires the gradual purging away of anything in us that is not worthy of God—and that is quite a lot. In the end, perfect prayer is perfect conformity with God’s will” (see The Five First Principles of Prayer). For this reason we should certainly encourage others to pray, even asking them to pray for us, our needs and the needs of those we love. But we must view this as collaboration, not outsourcing. Strictly as a business decision, keeping prayer in-house is always the best way to achieve prayer's purpose, which—again in business terms—is to improve the chances of managing a vigorous and productive enterprise, forever.

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