Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Toward a Theology of Time Travel and Forgiveness

A while back, I wrote about praying for the dead as if they were still alive. I recently heard a priest mention this practice as one that Saint Padre Pio undertook for a beloved uncle of his; he prayed, for many years after the man's death, that his uncle would receive every grace he needed at the hour of his death.

Because God exists in eternity as well as in time, and because therefore, insofar as we are made in His image and have immortal souls, we do too, I wonder if it's wise to pray not only for the dead in this fashion, but also for the living. Can we pray for those who are still alive and have suffered difficulties, that they might receive the help they need in their difficulties, even if the difficulties are long since passed and over? Can we go so far as to pray for different outcomes from the ones that apparently were reached as a result of these difficulties? Or is this the stuff of the original Star Trek series and a Batman comic I once read, in which the possibility of going back in time to kill Hitler before he can unleash his destruction upon the world is treated seriously? (In the end, for various reaons, it never works.)

It may be at worst delusional, and at best a waste of time, to pray that the things that happened, happened differently. But perhaps it's effective in ways that we can't see or understand. A prayer is not the same thing as a wish, and to wish that things had gone otherwise is not the same as praying that those who suffered were blessed in the midst of, or were given unseen graces to withstand, the suffering. I suppose that my prayer for those who suffered is not that it was different (though my wish is that it was), but that it was salutary. I pray for the assurance that their suffering was part of God's will, and that it will bring them holiness, even if that holiness is an unknown, unfelt motion in their souls.

Sometimes I'm tormented by the suffering I caused others through my selfishness, hunger, and need. Some of those others, I'm sure, would be happy to forget me completely. I know that God has forgiven me for my sins, but I do not know that the people whom I've hurt have, and it is a sad thing to recognize that I will probably go to my grave not knowing, and without ever being able to attempt to put right what I have made wrong. The psalmist says "Against you only have I sinned," but really it's not against God only; all of our sins have social consequences.

God's forgiveness is a mystery. David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer, had a notorious prison conversion, so we are encouraged to assume that God has forgiven him for his heinous crimes; after all, nothing is impossible with God. But does that mean that Berkowitz will make it to heaven, while his victims, who may not have repented of their own sins before their unjust deaths, may not? This is a continuum that I cannot understand, and I wonder if some conversions are better left between the convert and God.

On a far less dramatic scale, though, I wonder about those I've hurt. I pray that they have everything good in their lives, and especially that they know and love God. I am conscious that I have many good things that I don't deserve, and that this might appear unjust to them. In fact, I deserve nothing that I have, but I pray that I will be a sign to others, especially those I've wronged, not of injustice, but of God's unfathomable mercy.


Deacon Dana said...

I've prayed this way for years and never questioned it. After all, to my knowledge, Jesus didn't place limitations on our intercessory prayer and given God's existence outside time and space, we should let God be God. For example, I've never hesitated to pray for those who have committed suicide, trusting that my prayer may, in the mystery of eternity, have some positive impact.

Pentimento said...

Deacon Dana, do you mean you've prayed this way for the living as well as the dead? Or just for the dead?

My grandfather committed suicide and I also pray for his soul. God is merciful.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

As I tend to envision God as involved in the world through grace, love, and shared suffering, I see nothing from with praying that people, living or dead, received graces at tragic moments of their lives. I probably wouldn’t pray that a given tragedy had never occurred, but then I don’t tend to see God as a cosmic engineer tinkering with the world.

Maclin said...

We have a lot in common in this matter of regret, Pentimento, and I certainly feel the same things, and have entertained these same conjectures. I very definitely believe in Padro Pio's idea of prayer independent of time. I think it makes perfect sense in regard to something spiritual that was and is hidden from us.

Praying for a different outcome of a material event in the past presents obvious (to put it mildly) problems, as you say, though one immediately asks why the first case should be different. Just because we don't know what happened doesn't mean it isn't already over. But I guess the fact that we don't know does make all the difference: if Padre Pio knew, in the way we know our own this-world past, that his uncle was either saved or not, he wouldn't need to pray.

I find that even wishing that the past were different presents me with an impossible situation: what do you wish if bad thing X was a step on the road to good thing Y? I can drive myself a bit crazy thinking that way. I end up just accepting that I am sorry that I did X at the moment the choice was presented to me, and accepting the pain of regret, and praying for those affected by all the harm that followed (myself included).

One thing I believe absolutely is that the relationships among time, space, matter, and spirit are far more complex than we can even theoretically comprehend.

Pentimento said...

In a way, praying that things had happened differently violates the injunction not to tempt God. But you're right, Maclin, that there is so much that we can't see and will never know. I was hoping you'd comment, because I know we share this sensibility. I think that praying for God to give graces to those who suffered -- at the time when they were suffering, as well as now -- is a kind of medicine for my grief, perhaps the only one on this side of eternity. It's not the Hollywood ending that I waste time wishing for occasionally, but our prayers must be efficacious -- they must not fall into the abyss -- for God told Isaiah (55:11) that His Word would go forth and would not return void.

Maclin said...

"...a medicine for my grief..."

Yes, exactly, and as you also say the only one available. It eases the almost intolerable sense that there's nothing at all you can do.

Pentimento said...

You're right, Mac, there's nothing we can do, but "nothing will be impossible with God."