Prayer and Violence

Yesterday I posted this quote from the British Benedictine Cardinal Basil Hume on my Twitter feed: “It is very difficult to be a praying person and then go and be beastly to your neighbour.”

The response from my friends was interesting. Basically, people said, “It’s a nice idea; too bad it’s not true.” Examples ranging from Oliver Cromwell to Arjuna to Samurai Warriors were offered as evidence that, alas, prayer and abusive or violent behavior are not only not opposed to each other, but often do exist explosively within the same person.

Certainly, any military chaplain will understand the challenge inherent in the spiritual call to love and compassion, balanced against the very real-world reality of engaging in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. One does not ponder the ethical subtleties of “love your enemy” when that enemy has a gun pointed at you and your job is to stop him from shooting.

So is Cardinal Hume just a sweet, naive idealist? I don’t think so. I think the key to unlocking the spirituality & violence paradox lies in theories about human consciousness. Mystical consciousness is the consciousness of “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love your enemy.” But no one stays at any one level of consciousness permanently. Call me a heretic for thinking so, but I believe even the Buddha came down after a while, and the Gospels are pretty candid that Jesus who was radiant with light on Mt. Tabor was of a different mindset than the man who was sweating blood in Gethsemani the night before his execution. So even though true mystical consciousness probably renders a person incapable of doing real violence, that incapacity is tied with the level of consciousness: come down off the mountain, and the mystic is just as capable of violence, or military service, as anyone else. Indeed, to be an effective soldier, one must be capable of a level of consciousness that is comfortable with tribal boundaries: otherwise, how could one be clear about who is friend and who is foe? And once a sense of tribal boundaries are accepted, it is a small step to accepting that the “others” can ethically be killed.

Now, I’m an aging peacenik and I wish that we human beings would grow up already and get over our need to hurt one another. But war has been going on for pretty much all of human history and I’m afraid it’s not going to stop now, even though for the first time in history we mortals have the capacity to commit global suicide. Hopefully, as a species we can continue to take baby steps toward that level of consciousness where being beastly to one another is unthinkable. And I am convinced that a life immersed in prayer can only help us along that way. But we must not be surprised even when a deeply spiritual person commits acts of violence, whether as a rogue criminal or as a disciplined, conscientious soldier. We can be saddened by such things, but we should not be surprised. After all, even Cardinal Hume said it was “very difficult” — but not impossible — to treat one another badly after praying.

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Pentecost and Ecstasy
The 2016 Presidential Candidate Prayer Challenge: Are You In?
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Michelle

    Now, when I read this on Twitter yesterday I said to myself “Hear, hear!” Perhaps what is understood by praying needs to be defined or clarified. Or, perhaps, what it is we are praying for or about, or to whom we are praying makes a lot of difference. As a pastor, I find the Holy Spirit praying for me while I sing the hymns that I myself picked: the words and tunes come back to me as just the prayer I need when I run into someone who brings out the beastly in me.

    Not patting myself on the back here! Just one example of where opposites cannot co-exist: I cannot simultaneously sing about my love for God and neighbor and be beastly to (in Jesus’ language, hate) a congregant.

    So I would actually like to push you on this insight a bit. I understand you are quoting someone else. And you are right: there is a humble stance we must take, realizing that the call to holiness in the form of lavish love is something we manifest brokenly, even while surrounded and suffused by grace. But doggone it, this is important. Calvinist that I am, I place great hope in the Holy Spirit’s work within us in contemplative prayer – and in everything, really – such that eventually we will bear the fruit of the Spirit. And this is a worthy goal, not something we shrug our shoulders over, resigning ourselves to less than love because well, “we’re only human.”

    So by pushing it I mean let’s not cede the insight to cynicism. After all, we’re talking about what the Holy Spirit can do – praying for us with thoughts too deep for words – not what we can do.


  • elizabeth

    um. Doesn’t it matter who is being prayed to? I imagine many bellicose prayers have been directed to Ares. Yes?
    Maybe the warriors are praying to different God than you are. I suspect that one’s called “nationalism”.

  • Gary Snead

    2 scriptures come to mind, but at the moment i cannot provide chapter and verse. One is Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who asks how he can get to heaven and is told, “sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me,” and he went away sad for his possessions were great. the instruction to him is I think, Jesus expressin of a prayer he has for us all, all the time, yet it yielded violence of a type within the rich man. Those who do not accept the high mystical consciousness prayer are left with the natural consequence of a non mystical life, which has times of sinful and therefore violent life.
    The second verse speaks of loving your enemy by doing good to him, abundantly, which thereby heaps burning coals upon his head, which sounds like violence to me, but again, not directly violently caused by the one doing good but it is the natural consequence of the chosen life of being an enemy of God. I think we stay humble and avoid the gloat of revenge in that God does not always let us see when or how those coals burn, and we sometimes ignore our burns.