In Defence of “Thoughts and Prayers”

After a tragedy, politicians take to Twitter and TV and offer their “thoughts and prayers” to victims and families. For some it seems to be an automatic response to terrible suffering. In the last two months there has been a big blowback against “thoughts and prayers.” Some assert that this phrase acts as an empty substitute for meaningful action. A sea of memes joke that there has been enough of “thoughts and prayers” and instead it is time to “actually do something.” They often state explicitly that “thoughts and prayers” are useless and an insincere attempt to ignore underlying issues.

This semantic controversy provides a challenge to Dominicans; the life of the preaching friar is fundamentally one of “thoughts and prayers.” Is the Dominican life useless and insincere? No, because there is a unique Dominican approach to “thoughts and prayers.” “Thoughts” take the form of the study of Truth, and “prayers” the form of giving our hearts to God.

When it comes to “thoughts,” the Constitutions of the Order place a great emphasis on study, which “enables the brothers to ponder in their hearts the manifold wisdom of God … [they] are called to stimulate people’s desire to know the truth” (LCO 77.II). Dominicans operate under the view that all humans have a basic desire to know truth, and the way to reach knowledge of the truth is through diligent and humble study. When faced with a tragedy, we can devote our thoughts to the issue in a sympathetic and systematic way. Giving our “thoughts” is not just passive navel-gazing, but instead means devoting one’s intellectual energies towards knowing the essence and causes of a tragedy. Knowledge and understanding can then lead to prudent and effective action.

As for “prayers,” the Constitutions instruct us, “Let the brothers follow the example of St. Dominic who at home and on the road, by day and by night, was devoted to the liturgy of the hours and private prayers, and celebrated the divine mysteries with great devotion” (LCO 56). St. Dominic was a man of constant prayer who lived through a tragic civil war in southern France. Dominic would spend long hours alone in the chapel tearfully calling out his prayers to God. He teaches us the effectiveness of active prayer. True prayer requires a sacrifice of our time, energy, emotion, and intellect. Prayer is a generous and loving response to tragedy, and in prayer God leads us toward prudent and effective action.

It seems at times that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been used flippantly and dismissively. However, the Dominican dedicates his whole life precisely to “thoughts and prayers.” There is a lesson here for all Christians who are confronted with a tragedy. On the one hand, we cannot hide behind hackneyed phrases in order to avoid the difficulty of charitable works. On the other hand, a focus on “thoughts and prayers” is not necessarily an abdication of action. Instead, with the right intention, it can mean giving over a piece of our life.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Corot, Monk Reading

From Dominicana Journal