Saturday, December 12, 2009

Babbling Like the Pagans

Oh, dear, something else at school to get me riled up. Generally speaking, I'm enjoying the way we're getting into the Advent spirit, although sometimes the 1950's-sentimental side of the school gets blended with the Catholic side in odd ways. (Sitting on the knee of St. Nicholas dressed as a bishop and telling him what you want for Christmas -- huh?)

But this one really bothered me. Right at the beginning of Advent, the principal appeared in our classroom with photocopies of a prayer. You've probably heard it:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, we beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.

It's not too terrible, though I do take issue with the rather emphatic insistence that Christ was born at midnight, and that it was cold. We have no idea what time of day He was born, and even the date is just a tradition. Considering all the changes the calendar has gone through since then, I would not be at all surprised if the date has shifted around a good deal. I don't think it matters what exact moment the Nativity happened, and I think it's important not to put undue emphasis on things like that when you're talking to kids. Little kids put a lot of significance on being told nothing other than the exact truth, and they will take every word you say literally unless you tell them otherwise.

But my real beef is not with the prayer at all. I was told to lead this prayer with the kids at the beginning of each period, and I do. What bugged me was what the principal said next:

"You say this prayer 15 times a day from today to Christmas, and on Christmas you'll get whatever you prayed for."

Say WHAT? That sounds an awful lot more like a chain letter than sound doctrine to me. What are these kids going to think when, after slavishly saying this prayer the appropriate number of times, they don't get a new bike or a new baby brother? Are they going to conclude, like adult Catholics do, that their prayer was not within the will of God, and try to submit themselves to His will? Or are they going to assume that this whole prayer thing that we've been teaching them about all this time doesn't really "work"?

Non-Catholics tend to like the Bible passage, "When you pray, do not babble like the pagans do." They link "babbling" to the Rosary, and any other repetitive prayer. However, the real issue is the second half of the verse, "who think they will be heard because of their many prayers." We pray the same prayers over and over again because they help us focus, because they use words from the Bible or from saints, or because we have trouble thinking of words of our own. We do NOT pray the same prayers over and over again because we think they have some kind of magical quality in them that will "make" God do what we ask him to.

That is the difference between the prayer of pagans and that of Christians. Pagans prayed to their gods in order to get certain things. The ceremonies had to be performed just so, or there would be hell to pay. (Take the Agamemnon, for instance, or read Livy.) If the right prayers were said and the request wasn't granted, it meant that the god wasn't strong enough, and you would have to go and find a new god who could deliver. I don't think there were many ancient Romans who loved Jupiter -- but they believed Jupiter was a powerful god who could deliver.

Christians pray to unite ourselves closer to God. We ask for things, but in the knowledge that "the Father knows what you need before you ask." We also know that God knows better than us what we need, and when our prayers aren't granted, it's because they weren't to our benefit or part of God's will. So we never demand what we want from God, or consider the granting of our prayers to be "God's end of the bargain" that He must hold up for us to keep holding up our end.

I'm just afraid that this pagan attitude is exactly what prayers like the one of the above encourage. The St. Jude prayer is the same -- you know, the one where you're supposed to make insane numbers of copies of the prayer and leave it around, and satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. For there to be a 100% guarantee on prayer granting, God would have to stop being God, and put us in charge of our destinies instead of Himself. When I think of all the things I have prayed desperately for, longing and longing to have my prayer granted, which I didn't get, I'm thankful. Looking back, in 90% of those cases I can see exactly why God let things go the way they did. He was causing all things to work together for my good -- thank goodness He didn't feel obliged to give me what I thought I needed!

I can't contradict the principal, but I'm trying to make sure the kids get the idea of what prayer is and isn't in our religion classes. They've got plenty of places, in within Catholic circles, that will be handing out wrong ideas right and left, and I try to innoculate them as well as I can with what I have -- which is a picture Bible and the Baltimore catechism. After all, many of a person's ideas on religion are formed at this age, even before they are old enough to make many decisions based on those ideas.


some guy on the street said...

Well, good on ye, mate!

As it happens, an interview I once heard with Philip Pullman suggests he became an atheist precisely out of this sort of confusion; so yes, it's a *dangerous heresy* and must be fought.

God bless!

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Sheila! This is an interesting post to read because it is the first one I've found in which this prayer, which is currently pretty popular among the other 'blogs I read, seemed to strike a totally different chord with the 'blogger!

The prayer and the instruction to say it fifteen times a day from St. Andrew's Day to Christmas Eve is known as "St. Andrew's Novena". The number fifteen is meant to mirror the traditional fifteen decades (150 Hail Marys) of the rosary, which in turn were supposed to mirror the 150 Psalms.

I think the "you'll get what you prayed for" bit that your principal said had to do with this being a novena, since we usually pray novenas with special intentions in mind. I think that's what your principal was going for, even though I agree that promising children that they'll get what they want "on Christmas" goes beyond the whole spirit of the prayer! We do pray it to ask for something, but our main intention is to get ready. I think these words will have a magical effect on some of the children, during the piercing cold of Midnight Mass (whether or not it is celebrated precisely at midnight)!

Anonymous said...

The time I most agreed with Fr. Jerry was the time I caught him throwing a bunch of those St. Jude things away. Having seen him throw away many a legitimate thing, I fished them out of the garbage only to discover that he was right that time! --Mom

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