Sunday, September 14, 2014


In James Joyce's novel Ulysses, Stephan Dedalus wrestles with the guilt that comes from his refusal to pray at the bedside of his dying mother, some time before the novel begins.   His friends mock him.  If he really has no faith, than what would it have cost him to throw this gift to a dying woman?  Even though he says he doesn't believe, doesn't his refusal to bow down suggest in some weird way that he does?  

What about prayer? I don't myself pray, nor do I meditate, but I have no problem that others do. As someone who lacks the God gene, as I put it, and who thinks there's nothing out there, perhaps I'm just too embedded in the concrete (or shallow) to engage in the self-emptying of that sort of spiritual practice.  But, I'm not the least offended when a friend offers to pray for me--quite the opposite.  I view an offer of a prayer as a gift.  How churlish it would be to refuse something given generously by those who love me.  

Over at the Village Voice, a letter writer asked columnist Andrew W K what he should do when he (the letter writer) is asked to pray for his ill brother.  I suspect he was surprised by the answer from someone who would not describe himself as religious, exhorting him to get on his knees and give it up:
Prayer is a type of thought. It's a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there's a special X-factor ingredient that makes "prayer" different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. "Getting down on your knees" is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it's about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it's about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means. 
Being humble is very hard for many people because it makes them feel unimportant and helpless. To embrace our own smallness is not to say we're dumb or that we don't matter, but to realize how amazing it is that we exist at all in the midst of so much more. To be fully alive, we must realize how much else there is besides ourselves. We must accept how much we don't know — and how much we still have to learn — about ourselves and the whole world. Kneeling down and fully comprehending the incomprehensible is the physical act of displaying our respect for everything that isn't "us." 
....The paradoxical nature of this concept is difficult, but it is the key to unlocking the door of spirituality in general, and it remains the single biggest reason many people don't like the idea of prayer or of spiritual pursuits in general — they feel it's taking away their own power and it requires a dismantling of the reliable day-to-day life of the material world. In fact, it's only by taking away the illusion of our own power and replacing it with a greater power — the power that comes from realizing that we don't have to know everything — that we truly realize our full potential. ...
To know that you don't know is the definition of a spiritual awakening. And keeping that realization at the front of our mind and in the core of our being informs the rest of our existence. It takes a deeper type of strength to admit to ourselves that we don't have it all figured out than to run around keeping all our plates spinning. It seems strange to think that turning yourself over to your own bewilderment would actually bring clarity, but it does. Solving this riddle is the beginning of any true spiritual journey. 
Read the whole thing.  And then come back here and comment, what is prayer? 


it's margaret said...

There are different types of prayer --intercession, petition, gratitude, loosening of the bonds (confession, letting go), wonder and awe, anemnesis... among others.

So, I find that I am in different states of mind and body with different intents... but, I rarely, if ever, find myself on my spiritual, psychic or physical knees. Not often, but on occasion, I have found myself far from being humble --I suppose because sometimes prayer includes mustering audacity and wrestling with angels...

And, yes prayer is often getting 'out of self' and putting one's self in sync with 'other' --with the macro cosmos. --but recently I have found the Lakota tradition of identifying one's self at the beginning of prayer to be quite resonant. How can we pray, except as our self?

So... what is prayer?
Well, that depends... !
Mostly, it's never something that happens only in my head/heart. It is a lived, bodily, fleshy experience.

Kevin K said...

I have always thought that prayer is our attempt to communicate with God. Whatever form the prayer takes or position we assume, the effort is to send a message.

dr.primrose said...

Many of the comments to the article are very hostile to the concept of prayer. But most of these comments seem to view prayer as cosmic gum-ball machine -- you put your quarter in, you turn the lever, and out pops the gum-ball you you wanted. When the prayer doesn't work that way -- the expected gum-ball doesn't pop out, they say, prayer doesn't work, God doesn't exist, and the whole religion thing is a fantasy.

But deep religious thinkers of every religious tradition have known for thousands of years that prayer is not a cosmic gum-ball machine. It's obviously a much more sophisticated concept than that. Certainly, the columnist recognizes that one of the purposes of good prayer, like one of the purposes of good religion, is to make us realize that we are not the center of the universe and the universe doesn't revolve around us.

Certainly, Jesus recognized that "gimme" is a part of prayer ("ask and ye shall receive" and all that) but I think real prayer is less banging on heaven's door and more of sitting in silence waiting for God to bang on our on our own egos -- that we appreciate the goodness and love of God, we appreciate the wonder and majesty of God's creation (including science -- how all this is put together, from what little we know of it, is just amazing), and how to comfort and assist others.

I thought the person asking the question was truly a self-center clod. His brother is very sick and his family is incredibly upset. So for him this is not the time not helping his brother and his family during a difficult situation but is instead the perfect time to shove down their throats his precious view that God, prayer, and religion are
meaningless hocus-pocus. What a jerk.

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

Why ask questions that have already been answered or argue about problems which have already been solved? E.g.:

Q. What is prayer?
A. Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.

Book of Common Prayer p. 856

And that is an utterly adequate answer!

JCF said...

Um, as difficult as it is to imagine, Fr J-J, there are some for whom the BCP is not definitive. ;-/

For me, the most wonderful thing about prayer, is that when you're thinking about it, you're doing it (and when you're not thinking about it, you're often doing it, too).