I recently read about an article about an App in India which commissions Hindu prayers for payment. It opens…

How can i get a divine intervention for my career? That’s the question Ravi Ganne, a young investment banker in Bangalore, typed into Google seven years ago. His search results led him to the website of a new company called ePuja. For about $15, the start-up would have a puja, a Hindu devotional-prayer ritual, performed on his behalf at one of its many in-network temples.

A few clicks later, Ganne had arranged for a ritual at his favorite temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and located in Tamil Nadu. “It worked out for me,” he says. “I got a better job offer. So I started doing this on a regular basis.”

How Much Would You Pay for a Prayer? The Atlantic 2018

My first reaction this was bemusement and fascination. This seemed so far removed from my own experience of religion and yet the more I thought about it the more sobering it became. The reasoning was that this didn’t seem all that incompatible with some forms of Christianity. You could point to the prosperity gospel, but you could also point to older practices like the selling of indulgences. I was reminded of this when I visited the British Library’s exhibition on Anglo Saxon Kingdoms which contained an illuminated manuscript that was ransomed by a family from Viking Raiders and gifted to a Monastery. The gift was on the condition of regular masses and prayers being offered for the family. Maybe this wasn’t so different.

Whilst this seems a million miles away from Christianity the distance isn’t as far removed from some regions as we’d like

Yet I can’t shake the fact that I find something deeply distasteful about this practice. This app in many ways it boils down and lays bare something which is actually pretty established in the practices of many religions that is predicated on a view of rites being efficacious regardless of the condition of the person making, or paying, for the petition. I can’t help but think in particular of the high sacramentalism of traditions like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in this regard. The CEO of ePuja closes the article by saying…

“I think there’s a fairly significant difference between, say, a generic Protestant idea of prayer and a generic Hindu idea,” Narayanan adds. “In the theology in India, there’s much more value given to the ritual itself.” It doesn’t matter if someone is saying a prayer for you because you paid him $15 to do so. It matters that the prayer is being said, because the words themselves are believed to have the power to transform the universe.

How Much Would You Pay for a Prayer? The Atlantic 2018

I think he’s right on this but I wonder whether the difference is so pronounced in a sacramental or pentecostal tradition. Could we imagine an App where you pay for prayers to be said at the relics of your patron saint? Or on Mount Athos or Sinai? If you couldn’t make it to the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre but were given the opportunity to have someone pray for you there would you? Could we imagine an app where you pay for a ‘blessing’ to be released via some prosperity preacher? I couldn’t imagine doing any of this but I can imagine some who might. To access prayer or the sacraments via a medium more reflective of Tinder, Airbnb, Deliveroo, or Uber is crass but is there a fundamental objection to be had if you believe in the efficacy of the rite itself? It isn’t arguably a difference of kind so much as in degree. Maybe this is merely exposing my ‘generic Protestant idea of prayer’ but it seems fundamentally detached from the idea of a personal relationship of God. To me this seems to make a mockery of prayer and of God himself. With this view of religion the image of God I have is less the Son of Man described by the Prophet Daniel and more that of a bear trained to dance for change that I witnessed when travelling around Russia as a teenager.

I can’t help but read this article and be forced to reflect on my own understanding of prayer. In doing so I cannot help but be reminded of the Prayer of Humble Access that was and is traditionally said before taking communion in my own tradition. It reads…

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting not in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

1662 Book of Common Prayer

This prayer, as is reflected in its words, is meant to be formative in reflecting the appropriate disposition someone should possess when preparing to take communion. Indeed, it is arguable whether someone can even participate in Christ’s body without what the 39 articles calls ‘a lively faith’ when it states…

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

Article 29 of the 39 Articles

The reference to Augustine’s homilies on John 6 when he states…

This is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eats within, not without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.

Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 26

Wherein he describes this practice of eating ‘within’ or ‘in his heart’ which when we reflect on the nature of prayer and worship more generally suggests there is an active and quickened engagement of the individual necessitated for the prayer to be effectual.

Article 25 is also a reference to 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 which reads…

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NKJV

This emphasis on examining and humbling oneself, to me, is also reflected in Luke 18 specifically on the topic of prayer in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Luke 18:10-14, NKJV

What I hope I have done here is shown that one’s personal stature towards God is essential for how he is received by him. Without it no manner of prayer and ritual can save you and bring you into union with him if you are devoid of lively faith. If you possess lively faith and humble yourself before God he has done everything needed such that you may be drawn near to him. As John Cassian wrote “when God sees us inclined to will what is good, He meets, guides, and strengthens us”. This doesn’t mean we have a religion devoid of ritual but that we must be active participants humbled and self-consciously aware of our own relationship with God in doing so. The Prophet Isaiah wrote…

When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Isaiah 1:12-18, NKJV

When I started this I didn’t mean to sermonise but when confronted with the article I couldn’t help but be compelled to reflect on my own approach to prayer. Having done so this idea of paying for ritual for some metaphysical boon seems all the more wrong-headed, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if we sort more of this sort thing occur around the world as time goes on.

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