There’s no problem with praying after a mass shooting—but what does that prayer look like?

Mourners participate during a candlelight vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Our nation has faced so many horrific acts of gun-related violence in recent years that we have all become become sadly savvy to the media cycle of these tragedies. First is the incident, then come comments from politicians and others of “thoughts and prayers.” People argue about changing our gun laws. And nothing happens.

As our society watches this pattern again and again, outrage has grown over the idea of people offering “thoughts and prayers.” And not without reason. To issue a call for prayer for those in Sutherland Springs, as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did yesterday, when he and his party refuse to support even the most basic gun control legislation is the height of cynicism.

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Prayer has become the patsy of politicians and others, a way of suggesting concern without actually having to do anything of substance.

And yet the real problem is not the offering of prayers in the face of tragedy but the interpretation of what prayer entails. To hear many talk, prayer is like a divine Craigslist. I post the things that I want or need, or that I think others need right now—please, God, help these families who are suffering right now—and then I hope for God to respond.

Prayer has become the patsy of politicians and others, a way of suggesting concern without actually having to do anything of substance.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed, it is an expression of support tempered by a legitimate sense of helplessness; I so want to do something for you, but I also know nothing I can say or do will be of any use to you. So I turn to the only one I know who might be able to help, and I ask him to intercede.

But prayer is not just about asking God for stuff, or about me speaking to God. It is more like neighbor kids talking to one another on two cans tied together with string; I talk in one end and hope that God can hear me. But I also listen for what he has to say. God doesn’t just take our dictation. He gets the chance to speak.

I admit, most of the time his end of the conversation can be pretty quiet. Maybe I’m not using the right kind of string, or the Lord has just a really soft voice; either way it can be easy to forgo the whole listening thing as not worth the time.

But even when it seems like fidgety wasted time, things often do get “said” in God’s silence. It’s the little insights that come about a project; the unexpected peace of mind that I have afterward when going through my day; or the gut feeling I suddenly get in the quiet about how I have treated someone or what I should do about something. If we listen, God finds a way to speak to us.

At its core, prayer is about a relationship between us and God. It’s like family dinner, or a glass of shiraz with your partner before bed—a way we enable that relationship to grow. Sure, some of the time we’re speaking, but if it is going to be much of a relationship we are also going to listen, be still and respond to the prompts that come.

When we offer “thoughts and prayers,” the commitment we are making is both to ask God to help and to take some time to listen for his suggestions as how we might contribute to that, or his point of view on what is going on.

If I say I will offer thoughts and prayers but my own thoughts don’t change or grow in any way, if the process of prayer over time leads to nothing new, no fresh choices or insight, the fact is that I am missing something. Prayer is not supposed to be a substitute for action, but a means by which we learn the right actions to take.

Aminah Yaquin Carroll
1 week 6 days ago

Perhaps you are not listening, JIm. Perhaps the prayers that are being offered and the insight into what God has to say about the horrific society that we have created in the past 5 decades of ruthlessness, self-righteousness and out of touch, over-privileged "winners" in our nation's ugly new plutocracy asserting a monopoly on virtually every social good from housing, food, and recreation to health care , education and the dignity of a living wage. Guns have nothing to do with the problem of extreme violence except as an efficient means to protect peace-loving people from the deranged, drugged up or criminally involved individuals who perpetrate it.
We have created a society without boundaries for bad behavior and without rewards for virtue, without sane, sound and comprehensive mental health care, with an horrific lack of access to drug treatment while at the same time an astronomical proliferation in addictive, toxic drug sales by both Big Pharma and organized crime, and an alternative economy for the poor that perpetuates poverty and dependence by teaching failure in schools and relying on celebrity , glamor , wealth and anarchistic hedonism for its definition of "success" instead of success in being a good human, sustaining long term positive relationships and community, and raising children who are able to work and sustain themselves. Indeed the double upper income earners of the self-anointed "elite" upper quadrant of earners seem to have shouldered the "white man's burden" of the past era as a "liberals' burden" of arrogance that has created a broken working class and a small minority's embrace of a soulless mastery-less technocracy that will do away with work and many other social goods without the rest of us having much of a say in the direction of our own nation.
Ending violence requires an investment in human interaction in community. It requires less politically correct talk and far more independent thought and creative cooperative action. It means that we need to stop teaching that "everybody lies" and start searching for common ground among the richness of the truths that individuals tell when they are brave and decent ...it means that we need to stop clamoring for laws and legislation to control others in a society in which conformity has become a pandemic and critical thinking almost non-extant, and acting out behavior by troubled souls goes on unmitigated by care or concern until they there is yet another tragic act of multiple murders that gives infamy to the perpetrator (who should never be named in the media , because anonymity is a far greater deterrent to such crimes than attempting to legislate which tools killers will use as if that makes any difference whatever to those murdered or to their survivors.) They will still kill , as long as they are named in the press. That is the bedrock of their narcissism and devaluation of others.
We have created an unjust society that is also unhealthy and deterring people from having self-protection and claiming that will improve society is one of the sickest things about us. That is why this Green voted Republican red this year. I am sick of the hypocrisy, arrogance and wrong-headedness of the people who assert that their way of prayer(or worse, that their own opinion as individuals devoid of reverence for God and/or disconnected from centuries of spiritual meditations, teachings and faith practice) is superior to those of the people who are social victims in a failed democracy where personal attacks instead of the engagement of ideas with respect for differences has defeated integrity, practical idealism and common sense.

Christopher Lochner
1 week 6 days ago

Extremely well put. Delete my rant.

Dolores Pap
1 week 6 days ago

But you had no problem voting for a man who subverts and makes a mockery of every moral tenet that made our society function as a civil entity, despite the fact that it wasn't always perfect? I don't understand that..

john still
1 week 5 days ago

Are you referring to President Obama? It's a serious question. Obama, while civil on the surface, yet passive aggressive and vengeful underneath, really did make a mockery of the moral tenets of our faith in a profound way. The current president is uncivil in his communication style, a trivial issue in the grand scheme of things. Yet his policies are more reflective of a civilized society in which morality and freedom of conscience are allowed to thrive.

Ellen B
1 week 4 days ago

Tell it to the women he's grabbed by the ....

Christopher Lochner
1 week 6 days ago

I should really pray for Father since Superbia or hubris is one of the seven deadly sins and must be quite the burden to carry.

Emily Fisk
1 week 5 days ago

Personally I didn't take it that way. It seemed to me that Father was reflecting on his own need to listen in prayer, the same as everyone. As someone who does way more talking than listening in prayer (I was told as much in confession recently!), I found Father's analogies very helpful.

Marilou Hitt
1 week 6 days ago

Really, Fr. McDermott? Your Jesuit prayers are more "effective" and sincere than Paul Ryan's or any of ours?
Interesting message.

Stanley Kopacz
1 week 5 days ago

Let's see. A priest says prayer is as much about listening to God as talking to God and the gun worshippers go ballistic (pun intended). Typical. The big problem is that a population stressed out by 37 years of neoliberal social and economic disruption is armed to the teeth. And our capitalist overlords don't care if the peasants shoot each other.

Vincent Gaglione
1 week 4 days ago

A gun-toting and gun-promoting minister in Texas made comments to the effect that it was God's providence which gave us the gun-owning citizen who wounded the assailant. He implied that the event was all God’s plan to reveal divine intervention. What the preacher didn’t address is the concomitant thought that God planned for the murder of 26 people to allow this citizen to reveal this particular incidence of God’s intervention!

“…Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” That phrase from the prayer that Christ Himself taught us provides me with the right attitude after major tragic events. God is less concerned with our “thoughts and prayers” than with our making His will be done here on earth. And, no matter how I slice the issue in my mind, I don’t believe that God's will includes an advocacy for the second amendment of the USA Constitution as it is currently interpreted by gun-toting ministers and many USA citizens.

Ellen B
1 week 4 days ago

I'm praying for a Congress that will pass sensible gun laws.

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