The Orphic Hymn to Apollon, which features regularly in my devotional practice, contains the beautiful line, “Hear me with kindly heart as I pray for people.” Offering this hymn to Apollon, then, presumes that I am in fact praying for people. But how to navigate the ethical complexities of prayer for others?
I come at this question as a person of my place and time (of course!). In this case, that means that I’m particularly sensitive to issues of freedom, consent, and the like. While it’s an open question just how much that focus is a specifically modern one, these issues certainly figure prominently in my thinking about these things.
Related to this, there is the widespread practice among the dominant monotheisms of praying specifically for things that are contrary to the recipients’ will: for them to convert to the monotheism in question, or for them to do various other things that they show no particular inclination (and even a deliberate and conscious aversion) to doing. Having been raised in such a tradition myself, I was taught to pray like this, and over the course of a little more than two decades, I developed the habit of doing so.
As a polytheist, I’ve made a deliberate point of avoiding those sorts of prayers, seeing them as aggressive, violent acts that violate the basic freedom of others. But I think that my background and history may also have led me to over-correct, as it were, such that I’ve not been praying for others as much as I could (or should).
If violent, aggressive prayers for conversion and the like are at one end of a spectrum, the other end will have very general, open-ended petitions like “look kindly on so-and-so,” “send your blessing to so-and-so in whatever way you know to be best,” even simply “I entrust my cares for so-and-so (or for thus-and-such situation) to you,” while not asking for anything specific at all. Such prayers as these have a lot to recommend them, and I’ve long felt fairly comfortable making prayers of this sort.
To me, one of things that is really beautiful and powerful about this latter type of prayer is precisely the kind of perspective, even a proper humility, that it encourages. This is not at all the sort of self-abasing “look how utterly worthless I am” false and destructive “humility” that plays such a pernicious role in some other traditions. Rather, it’s simply the healthy reminder of my limitations: As a human being, my perspective is inevitably limited and incomplete, while the Gods are able to take a wider view, in which their providential care is to be found.
Now, as a Platonist, I take it that an important goal of my life and practice is to become like the Gods, insofar as possible for a human being. In this context, that will mean participating in the Gods’ providence as fully as possible: not merely as a passive recipient, but in more active ways.
At the most basic level, in the limited and imperfect care and concern that I manifest when I pray for others, and for the world in general, I can begin to participate in the much richer, more perfect providence of the Gods. The fruits of this, in turn, can lead me still further into likeness with the Gods. First, this will include cultivating an understanding akin to that of the Gods (insofar as possible for a human being), an understanding which takes in as fully as possible the full wider context, all of the various needs and circumstances which are involved, etc. Second, it means opening myself to being an instrument, a vehicle, a channel for the Gods’ providence to flow down through me and out into the wider world.
As for filling out the middle of our spectrum of prayers, what specific petitions petitions for others are appropriate, and when?
Clearly, in cases where someone has explicitly requested (or agreed to) my prayers, there is no issue of consent. Another relatively clear-cut set of cases might be when I am part of an affected group: as, for example, when I pray for blessings on the land where I dwell, on the communities that I am part of, or when I pray for my doctors or political leaders to be able to carry out their duties of care effectively and well.
From a different perspective, the old distinction between myself and what belongs to me (and between another person and what belongs to her, etc.) may throw some interesting light on things. As Plato formulates this in the Gorgias and as it appears elsewhere across the history of philosophy, properly speaking, I am a soul, while my body is a possession, and my material goods are possessions of my possessions (i.e., things which belong not to me myself, but which belong to the body I in turn possess). The same threefold distinction holds for all other humans as well. While I don’t think it’s wrong to pray for things that concern our possessions, I do think it’s helpful to focus more on the ends (the good of our souls), and less on the specific instruments by which those ends might come about. In other words, to emphasize the well-being of persons, while welcoming (but being a little less attached to) the specific possessions by which that well-being comes about.
All of which is simply to say that these middle cases are, well, in the middle, and so they’re not always as clear as they could be, at least to me. So I’ll continue my prayers, while remembering to situate them within the larger frame of the Gods’ providence.
Returning to the Orphic Hymn to Apollon, with which I opened the post, Athanassakis remarks in his notes that the petition I quoted—“Hear me with kindly heart as I pray for people”—occurs in what seems to him an unusual place: not at the end of the hymn, but very early on (line 10 out of 27). But consider the verses which follow (in Athanassakis’ translation):
You gaze upon all the etherial vastness,
And upon the rich earth you look through the twilight.
In the quiet darkness of a night lit with stars,
You see the earth’s roots below, and you hold the bounds
Of the whole world. Yours too are the beginning and the end to come.
You make everything bloom, and with your versatile lyre
You harmonize the poles...
Where lines 1–9 addressed Apollon in fairly simple terms, listing his various epithets, titles, and relationships, these lines express the God’s providence: that is, his knowing in advance all things, and his care for all things. In other words, I think they express an important part of the answer to the petition made in line 10. Lord Apollon’s divine gaze upon the entire world, his bringing all things into harmony, his making everything bloom in due season, all these and more are the abundant gifts he offers us “with kindly heart,” described with a wonderful balance of all-encompassing universality and vibrant specificity.