The Stoic Prayer of Emperor Marcus Aurelius
When faced with adversity, the Stoics prayed for the inner strength to remain unmoved and unbothered by the world outside. You have power over your own mind but not the ever-changing fortunes of life. According to Stoic philosophy, whatever happens can be attributed to the god, and it would be unwise to insist on something contrary to the Divine will.
There is a legend that Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, prayed for rain to save a legion trapped and dying of thirst. The heavens opened and the soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and were saved. This is known as “The Rain Miracle” of Marcus Aurelius.
Elsewhere in The Meditations though, he wrote something more subtle and philosophical about prayer. Just because something is within our own power, rather than the realm of the gods, does not mean that we cannot pray for strength of purpose to neither crave the rain nor fear the drought.
If they (the gods) have power, why do you not pray to them to grant you the ability neither to fear any of these things nor to desire them, nor to be distressed by them, rather than praying that some of them should fall to you and others not? For surely, if the gods have any power to help human beings, they can help them in this. But perhaps you will object, ‘They have placed this in my own power.’ Well then, would it not be better to make use of what lies within your power as suits a free man rather than to strain for what lies beyond it in a slavish and abject fashion? In any case, who told you that the gods do not assist us even in things that lie within our power? Begin at least to pray so, and you will see.
He goes on, in the same passage, to give an example:
That man prays, ‘May I come to sleep with that woman,’ but you, ‘May I not desire to sleep with her.’ Another prays, ‘May I be rid of this man,’ but you, ‘May I no longer wish to be rid of him.’ Or another, ‘May I not lose my little child,’ but you, ‘May I not be afraid of losing him.’ In a word, turn your prayers round in such a way, and see what comes of it.
When tormented by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune we become slaves to events beyond our control, not free individuals choosing how we will react. According to Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, the one thing which can never be taken away from you when all else is gone, is the power to choose your own state of mind.
We might pray, God send me a new motorcycle or, instead, God help me to be less materialistic; or yet again, Send me a new motorcycle if it is the best thing for me at this time (and not just a shiny object to distract).
A friend once told me that her divorce was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. A few months later she thought it was the best thing. What if she had prayed for the divorce to be cancelled? What if that prayer had been answered ? Would it not have been better to pray for acceptance of the divorce, allowing the Divine will to manifest?
Be careful what you pray for. It might happen.
There is a basic principle embedded in the Lord’s prayer: Thy will be done; and elsewhere we read, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God […] and all these things shall be added unto you.
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, O father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt.
We don’t always know what’s best and imperfect knowledge obscures the outcome. We don’t know how the story ends. Something might be judged good which is in fact bad or judged bad which is in fact good. Only one thing is assured – commit to the Divine will and life will be rendered meaningful, not random or accidental.
I believe the Stoic conception of prayer accords with an esoteric interpretation of a story appearing in the Book of Genesis
There was once a man called Joseph who dreamed prophetic dreams and for this, his father, Israel, favored him. His brothers grew jealous, attacked Joseph, threw him in a pit and then sold him to slavers who carried him off to Egypt. His brothers told their father that wild beasts had devoured him. The slavers sold Joseph to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, where he found a modicum of peace until a false accusation landed him in jail for two years. Surely this was all bad news, but not so fast. We must see how the story ends. Through it all, however, Joseph retained his equanimity. Both the captain of the guard and the keeper of the prison entrusted Joseph with all that they had.
Eventually, Joseph’s reputation as a dreamer of dreams reached Pharaoh, who was so impressed by these prophetic abilities that he made Joseph prime minister of Egypt, charged with preparations for the predicted seven years famine. When the famine arrived, Joseph’s father and brothers came to Egypt looking for food. They met Joseph face to face expecting revenge but were instead embraced with acceptance and reassurance:
Do not be grieved nor angry with yourselves that you sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.
Events which seem random and accidental may in fact be purposeful or may be rendered purposeful by a Higher Power.
You thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save many people alive.
We don’t always know how the story ends. Something which seems bad ends up being good and pursuant to a higher purpose. We can pray for deliverance from betrayal, false accusations and imprisonment but how much better to pray for equanimity, trust, and acceptance until the higher purpose is known.
(c) Adrian Charles Smith 2022