As a parish priest, I am in the business of “thoughts and prayers.”
We hear that phrase gets tossed around a lot. Especially after a mass casualty incident, whether it’s a hurricane that decimates Puerto Rico or one perpetrated by a man with as many guns as he can buy and modify and who kills nearly five dozen people in just a few minutes.
And we’ve heard many people rage in frustration that all our leaders seem to be able to offer are “thoughts and prayers.” I have heard many people rightly dismiss that phrase as nothing more than an empty, distracting platitude.
The popular mind has a point. It’s not just annoying. The misuse of “thoughts and prayers” does real harm to both thought and prayer.
For one thing, when confronted with traumatic news, especially when it is repeated over and over again from every possible angle, and when it intrudes on us from every which way, the last thing we want to do is think about it! Which is why when, in moments like this, we say “you are in my thoughts” we are not telling the truth.
The truth is that we want to keep the trauma as far away from us as possible in any way we can. So in order not to feel overwhelmed by all the news, we put the shooter, all his victims, and how they died or were injured as far from our thoughts as possible. We can do this when we are far away from the event, or when it has not touched us or someone we care about. On some level, we all know trauma when we see it, and so if we can we reach over and change the channel, if not the “off” switch.
Don’t feel guilty about that. From our safe distance, we can turn it off. The actual victims and their loved ones would dearly love to.
As for prayers, the truth is that most of us say it, but few of us do it. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t, it just that it does neither us, nor the victims, nor their loved ones, nor, for that matter, prayer, any earthly (or heavenly) good to reduce prayer to “good wishes.”
Certainly, we want to wish the victims and their loved one well. And we certainly want God to embrace, comfort, and strengthen the injured and bereaved. We want to dead to be cared for with dignity, and—if we are people of faith—we want them to be embraced by God.
If our “thoughts and prayers” do not inform what brings meaning, hope, and purpose to our living it is not doing us any spiritual good.
And if our “thoughts and prayers” are not urging us to act not only more mercifully, but more firmly towards the end of violence, the curtailment of easy public access to weapons of mass-murder, then our “thoughts and prayers” will do us no earthly good.
Our “thoughts and prayers” require discipline and work if they to do any earthly or spiritual good. They must be formed in the context of a community that takes faith seriously, and which—even on a secular level—takes seriously the hard work of ethics, accountability, and relationship.
Without that kind of community, then our “thoughts and prayers” can become the occasion for evil. Even the Las Vegas gunman has his own thoughts and prayers… but they were apparently tuned for evil.
Fr. Anthony Clavier noted that
“People are trying to diagnose what was wrong with the Las Vegas killer. His brother says he had no religious or political opinions. His life centered on beating the odds at the casino and amassing money, property and weapons. There seems to have been no altruistic impulse motivating his life. In Christian terms he was open to evil, and had no built in responses to counter its malevolence. This horrific event should remind us all that the discipline of daily prayer for the world, the church, the poor, the suffering, our friends and families, and lastly ourselves, in that order, is vital if we are to be protected from evil in all its seductive and self-serving reality.”
If we do not want to feel helpless in the face of that kind of evil; if we do not want to return that kind of evil when it falls upon us; then we need to turn our thoughts and prayers in more than a distancing mechanism. It must rise above kindly meant platitudes.
In undertaking the discipline of prayer, we will find ourselves motivated to action.
Our prayer must cause us to stand up to evil, to no longer accept platitudes, and confront the impulse to return evil for evil. We must name and confront those who would exploit our fears for profit and turn our hapless “thoughts and prayers” into a market for more and bigger firearms. Instead of giving in to our fears, our thoughts and prayers should open us to the power of God to confront and name evil, care for the victims of evil, and call upon our society to turn from platitudes to action.
Our “thoughts and prayers” must lead us to act for peace and justice. Our “thoughts and prayers” must move us to demand an end to violence and the propagation of the tools of violence for profit.
Our thoughts and prayers must end the hypocrisy of making firearms easy to buy and a prize worth keeping, while making quality community mental health hard to obtain and shameful to use. If our “thoughts and prayers” do not lead us out of fear and into action, compassion, and community, then they are nothing more than empty words.
As one in the business of thoughts and prayers, I look for these to become the catalysts for community, action, and change. If our thoughts and prayers lead to changed hearts and compassionate, functioning communities, then they will become compassion that heals and faith that looks forward.