Pray by doing

I’m taking a course this fall which marks my first return to the classroom in several years.  During the shopping period, the week when professors give an overview of their courses before you have to register, this professor spent the 40 minutes explaining to us why, if we were crazy enough to sign up for the course, we would hate our lives over the next three months.  Someone seriously had to raise their hand at the end and ask if there were any benefits to taking such a grueling course.

As an employee of the university I get a great discount on tuition, but there is some paperwork involved.  After completing some of this paperwork with the professor’s assistant, I asked her if she had any advice for me.  This very kind woman sat there with a pensive look for a moment, and then with a laugh asked, “Are you a praying man?”  She was only half kidding.  It was also the only counsel she had for me.

While she didn’t do much to help calm my nerves, I did reflect on the way out that, had I answered her question honestly, I probably would have had to say that no, I am not a praying man.  I worship, and I articulate the Creed, the Our Father, and all the other prayers with the rest of the congregation at Mass, but I can’t really say that (despite being an Irishman) I spend much time in conversation with the Almighty.  I much prefer to pray by doing.

There’s too much to do in this world to sit still, but it’s not as if I never spend a quiet moment in prayer.  When I cook for myself I make a point to say grace, and now that I’m a homeowner with a backyard and a grill I am doing more of that.  Not much, but more.  I find that it makes me much more appreciative of the meal, the backyard, and the grill than when I eat ice cream from the tub and drink beer in my recliner and call it breakfast.

While I am not about to become a flagellant, I discover more meaning from employing redemptive suffering than contemplative prayer.  When I give platelets, for example, I always offer it up for a college friend who is battling cancer and receiving transfusions.  I know that my blood won’t end up in his veins, so accepting the pain of needles in both my arms and uniting it with the suffering of Christ in the Crucifixion is about all I can do for him from several hundred miles away.  Likewise when I run, I often offer up various miles for people and intentions that are important to me.

As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  What good is it indeed?  St. Augustine said that he who sings prays twice, and I think the same could probably be said of he who does.

The course I am taking is in applied data analysis, and it is the applied part that intrigues me.  Come December, I’d like to be able to take a bunch of data and actually be able to use it, as opposed to simply knowing how to work out the mathematical formulas.  I think it is much the same with prayer.  I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.  Then again, if this class is half as tough as the professor made it out to be, I’ll likely end up on my knees at some point during the semester.  St. Jude, pray for me.

An earlier version of this article identified the author of the linked biblical quote as St. Paul instead of St. James.