Dear Father Donagh,

I am a graduate student in philosophy, and it was through philosophy that I re-found and strengthened my faith. I am currently in a course on St. Thomas Aquinas, and one of the things that we have been struggling with is the concept of prayers of petition. If God is immutable, and therefore cannot change His mind, and if God wills everything in one act of willing from all eternity, how, then, can prayers of petition be possible? Clearly we could pray for things to be different, but the answer has already been given (and will stay the same?), although we do not know it yet. I firmly believe that our prayers matter, but it does seem that prayers of petition can't actually make a difference.

I have just now found myself in a situation where this struggle has become more real to me than ever before, and having the answer is now more urgent and pressing. I will continue to pray, with faith, but I feel such a strong need to know how prayers of petition actually work.

Thank you and God bless, Heather M.

Dear Heather,

It’s clear that you have dived in at the deep end.  Good for you: that's for brave people.  There was a question on this subject in 2005, but your question is more radical.  I'll do the best I can; I'll try and dive in with you. 

There’s a short sentence that helps to keep me afloat in this deep water.  I'm quoting it from memory and I'm not even sure that the words are St Thomas’s, but they certainly represent his teaching.  It’s not easy to translate this sentence without making it cumbersome, so here it is in Latin: “Non propter hoc Deus vult hoc, sed Deus vult hoc esse propter hoc.”  How would we say that in English?  It is not because of A that God wills B, but God wills that B should be the consequence of A.  Our prayer (A) does not cause God to protect our family (B), but God wills that the protection of our family would be the consequence of our prayer. 

Is this too clever, like slipping out of a knot?  No, it’s finely balanced, and it preserves something of immense importance: it gives us a voice in what happens.  Not only a voice but a hand; we have a hand in things.  We are not puppets in God’s hands; we have real power to cause things to happen.  (In St Thomas’s language: we are secondary causes, but secondary causality is real, not instrumental, causality.)  We are used to phrases like, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” but strictly speaking we are not instruments; a pen is the “instrumental cause” of the writing on a page, while the writer is the real cause.  But we are not like that in God’s hands.  We are free agents and real causes of our actions.  That is expressed in the second half of the phrase. 

How can we say that God is the cause of all things – not only of their being but of their activity – and at the same time claim that we are real causes of what we do?  The traditional answer is that God’s causality is not of the same order as ours.  It is transcendental (because God and everything about God is transcendental). 

This needs spelling out.  God is not immersed in time as we are.  And so God’s action has no past or future.  Everything God does, as Meister Eckhart put it, is done in God’s “eternal Now.”  In other words, it’s not as if God got in ‘earlier’ than we did and settled everything in a particular way, so that our actions can only be futile.  “God is creating the whole world now this instant,” said Eckhart.  And God is acting in every action of ours.  God’s action no more excludes our action than God’s being excludes our being.  So God’s causality does not exclude our real causality.  Just as our being is not an insubstantial shadow, our activity (such as praying) is not like the movement of a puppet.  It is really ‘causal’, as those mediaevals put it.  But it is not competing with God’s causality; it is not exercising its causality ‘on’ God or against God.  We should say it is exercising it within God. 

‘Within God’.  What does this mean?  St Thomas wrote that we are part of God’s providence for the world.  Or, in the jargon, human reason is our participation in the eternal law.  We are taken into God’s counsel, so to speak, like the eldest in a family.  (I've noticed that the eldest often becomes like a third parent.)  Theological language can sometimes seem as cold as the instructions that come with a machine.  But we know that ultimately it has to be about love – because God is love.  Everything that God does has to be an act of love, no matter how hidden this may be from us. This is expressed much more humanly and warmly by some of the mystics, particularly by Julian of Norwich.  She wrote, “In his love God clothes us, enfolds and embraces us; that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us.”  This is more accessible language than all the talk about orders of causality, but they are just different ways of saying the same thing. 

I hope these few paragraphs may be of some help to you, Heather.  I hope they help you to keep diving.  Many theological replies have the opposite effect, and more’s the pity. 

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