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Prayers, Not Thoughts

“Words convey reality,” wrote Josef Pieper,  one of the great modern Catholic philosophers, reflecting on language’s power. Fittingly, recent changes in word usage are conveying the new secular reality of the 21st century.

Such changes have come about in three ways. First, there are public disputes over invoking the name of God in government-associated contexts, from the acceptability of “one nation under God” to prayer within ceremonies and school events.

Second, Protestant and Catholic institutions of learning have deliberately eliminated religious language from their mottos and insignia to indicate their shifting priorities. Harvard University’s motto was once “Truth for Christ and the Church”; it is now shortened to “Truth.” Down the highway in Massachusetts, the College of the Holy Cross recently discarded its crest which contained both a small cross and the “IHS” image (the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek) with “In this sign you shall conquer”; its new logo is devoid of religious reference. In my own diocese, a high school named for the Sacred Heart shelved its former motto “To Jesus through Mary,” for the clever, yet wholly secular, “Lead with Heart.”

The third way is the most distressing, as it stems not from government declarations or confused academics, but from the speech of ordinary Americans. They choose secular words because they fear their listeners will not respond well to religious references. This “presumption of unbelief,” as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor dubbed it, has been evident for years in the choice of “Happy Holidays” in place of “Merry Christmas.”

More subtle is the increasingly frequent exhortation, after a tragedy, to keep designated persons or situations not “in your prayers” but “in your thoughts and prayers.”


The expression is intended to be innocuous, yet it reveals a warped worldview. The non-believer, it is assumed, does not pray; why would he? But surely, he must be able to do something for those who suffer. Like what? Eureka! He can think about the suffering. Why, that definitely will help make everything better! He may even feel good about himself for his thought-filled generosity too. What a win!

The result of secularity is inevitably Narcissism: the exaltation of the self into the place that God should occupy. We creatures are made to worship. If we forsake God, the Liturgy of Man is intoned forthwith.

The Liturgy of Man is the prayer of our individualistic age. It is not celebrated in a beautiful place, nor in community. It takes place, rather, within the confines of an individual’s own mind. Having convinced himself that there is no God, the person anoints himself priest, prophet, and king of his own universe, destined to rule over all by the power of his thoughts – upon which no one many infringe. But he is too full of himself to realize that his thoughts are as powerless as the shouts of the prophets of Baal to their god. He can think about those who suffer all he wants. Nothing happens.

A prayer, by contrast, is a thought raised to God. To pray is a creaturely and humble act – we acknowledge our limits and our dependence on a Being who transcends the natural order and is superior to ourselves. To pray is an act of trust – we call upon God, our loving Father, to provide for us in our needs. To pray is an act of charity – we can do no better than to entrust the needy to God’s providential care.

The gap between “thinking of” someone and “praying for” someone is akin to that between the idols of Baal and the God of Sinai.

In public discourse it always seems that the secularists have the upper hand. But when we scrutinize their assumptions – as I argue in Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism [1] – they are faith claims. We learn quickly that their implications are radically self-centered. Do we prefer the world in which thinking about some poor soul is “nice,” or the one guided by a benevolent Creator who directs all things – including all suffering – toward salvation, even when it sometimes seems that our prayers go unanswered [2]?

Catholics should avoid using secularized phrases that compromise our faith. More poignantly, we should also be quick to tell other people, Catholic or not, religious or not, that we will pray for them in their needs. The promise opens them to the supernatural world that they may not always consider. And the act may well bring about the intentions they seek and the salvation that God desires.

Knowing that we have the more compelling argument, Catholics ought to stand in today’s secular public square with the confidence of Elijah before the prophets of Baal. Prayers invoking God’s power change the world; the thoughts of mortal men do not. So for the sake of our world and our confused brethren, let us pray with Elijah:

“Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)


*Image: Three Camaldolese Monks in Ecstatic Prayer by Alessandro Magnasco, bet. 1710-1740 [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

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Dante Alighieri’s “St. Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin” [3]

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.