Many readers are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” whether from the novels or from Peter Jackson’s movies. “The Hobbit” is a kind of “prequel” to the story of the One Ring and begins the epic Christian allegory Tolkien imagined. But Tolkien also created a deep backstory to these books, “The Silmarillion.” This work, labored over for decades, is analogous to an Old Testament and begins with a “prehistory” similar to Genesis 1-11, narratives that set the stage for the dramas that follow.
Drawing inspiration from the early Greek philosophers, Tolkien uses a marvelous image of creation as a musical composition: the Creator God orchestrates a harmony of beauty and diversity, a rich composition of pitch and tone and rhythm voiced by the spirits he has also made. In jealous pride, Melkor, the brightest of those spirits, introduces a discord, a theme in a new key that clashes in sound and tempo. God takes this discord into a new and more complex theme that harmonizes it into the whole. A harsher discord is followed by a yet richer harmony, and this pattern repeats until God brings it all to a final crescendo and then silence. As Tolkien presents it, then, all of history is the playing out in time of this theme.
Perhaps this sounds like the mythology of the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse and many other cultures; it certainly evokes Hebrew accounts of Yahweh and Lucifer/Satan. Tolkien would take the compliment happily. Despite differences of detail, all of these stories are human attempts to wrestle with the search for causes: Why are things the way they are?
While mythology sounds like fantasy, it is really a branch of the same tree where also grow the sciences. Humans want to understand. Quantum physics, Keynesian economics, postmodern sociology, behaviorist psychology — these, too, are narratives that seek to explain causes, why things are as they are. Without getting to those complex heights, we still want to know why the car won’t start, what’s wrong with the internet connection, who left the lights on.
For believers, the chain of causes, with lots of twists and turns, ultimately leads back to God. This is the conviction that gives prayer its logic. We pray because God makes things happen, because God can intervene in our lives and world to cause the good, to heal, to find, to protect, to save.
“We may see the back of the tapestry of history, with its knots and confused colors and crossed threads. But some day we trust we will see the pattern in all its beauty as God, the Master Weaver, sees it.”
Yet sincere prayer soon encounters painful questions. If a good and all-powerful God is the cause of all things, then why is there evil, suffering, injustice, harm? Why pray if all is predetermined? Even more agonizingly, why does God not answer prayers that seek, not personal advantage, but the welfare of others — prayers for peace, for safety, for relief for the stricken?
These questions have taxed the greatest minds and led to many explanations. I find the most satisfying response in the saints. Augustine and Aquinas agreed that God does not cause evil, but permits it for the sake of a greater good, and this in two senses:
First, because we are made in the image of God, and our freedom results from that great dignity. Because of our imperfect and weakened human nature due to sin, we can and often do choose wrongly, choices that do not lead to true human fulfillment but rather frustrating our authentic good. Thus, God could only eliminate our wrong choices by crippling our humanity, which his love does not allow.
Second, because God is able to integrate even our rebellion into a greater, redemptive good. The Exsultet at the Easter Vigil captures this idea: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that gained for us so great a Redeemer!”
We do not often see how this redemption is being worked out in our sorrows and tragedies, but that is where faith shows its genuine value. As Father Joseph Ratzinger wrote some 50 years ago, the true form of faith is not so much “I believe that …” as “I believe You, God.” It is a relationship less of knowledge as of trust, illustrated by Mary’s words: “How can this be? … Let it be done according to your word.” Her son teaches us the perfect prayer of trust: “Thy will be done,” and perfects it by his own prayer from the cross: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” We do not pray to change God’s will; we pray to change ours.
Aquinas says God causes all but has determined that certain things will occur only through our intercession and our choices for the good. In another image, we may see the back of the tapestry of history, with its knots and confused colors and crossed threads. But some day we trust we will see the pattern in all its beauty as God, the Master Weaver, sees it.
This is why our prayers matter: God has made us co-workers in performing the symphony of faith, hope and love that is history, that we may say, like the stewards in the parable: “Master, you have given me goodness and mercy and love; see, I have made more.”
Father Tom Knoblach is the pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.