Praying for the election, with St Thomas Aquinas

Sign at polling stationThree days till polling day, and for many politically-engaged Christians (or is it just me?) the dilemma presents itself: how should we pray concerning the election? Should we pray for “our side” to win, or should we attempt to be more highminded – praying, as it were, for a “good clean fight”, regardless of outcome – lest we turn our prayers into an attempt to canvass the Almighty (“So can we put you down as an ‘undecided’? And will you be needing a lift to the polling station on Thursday?”)

Thomas Aquinas – via Denys Turner – can help us out here. At one point in his book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, Turner discussed what Thomas has to say concerning voluntas, or the “will”. This is a problematic term for modern readers, Turner suggests:

Bluntly, Thomas’s voluntas is not best translated by the English “will” at all. It is more accurately, if more cumbersomely, translated as one translates Aristotle, as rational or “reasoned desire”, that is, desire rationally deliberated as distinct from instinctive or nonrational forms of desire such as is caused in a hungry person by the smell of food. (pp.174ff.)

Another way of putting it is that my “will” consists in what I “really” want – that is, in what will make me happy. This is not without its own problems, given the human capacity for self-deception, but for Thomas it lies at the heart of what “the moral life” is about: developing prudentia, “skill in seeing the moral point of human situations, what true desires are to be met within them.”

How can we do this? How can we start to strip away our self-deception, pierce the veil of our ignorance, and develop this “prudence” in desiring what will make us truly happy, give us what we “really” want?

For Thomas, the answer is: prayer. And Thomas advises that, when we pray, we should pray for what we want: not for what we think we ought to want. As Turner puts it, prayer is in part about self-discovery, and:

…our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is “in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will,” so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all their opacity in their form as experienced.

In other words, it is only by praying for what we think we want that we will discover both the real desire that underlies our “wants”, and thus how our desires need to change in order to conform to God’s will for us. The model is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “in response to our animal desire” (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire – for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is – we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.

Thus we should be praying for what we want, even if we don’t know that it is God’s will – and, what’s more, even if we know it is not God’s will:

Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire even what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites the authority of Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something else.'” Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what are our true desires, our real will.

So, if you are politically partisan, then the proper thing to do in praying about the outcome of the election, for Thomas, is to pray on politically partisan grounds: to pray for a Labour victory, or a Conservative victory, or a Green/Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru/SNP rainbow coalition, or whatever your desired outcome may be. Only by sincerely praying for what you actually want can you sincerely end your prayers with: “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (And even then, I’ll find it a struggle if the answer to that prayer is five more years of Mr Cameron in No.10.)

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1 thought on “Praying for the election, with St Thomas Aquinas”

  1. ‘ “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (And even then, I’ll find it a struggle if the answer to that prayer is five more years of Mr Cameron in No.10.)’

    There is no reason why we should interpret this as the (secret and hidden) will of God anymore than we would with suffering in general. Absent additional revelation, if our conscience makes us believe that people have been driven by fear (and bad analogies like that of the national debt as a credit card) then we should continue to pray along those lines.

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