by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Why ponder prayer? Not to gain insight into How To, or to expand familiarity with Varieties and Shapes of prayer practice. It isn’t about the results of prayer or the ethics of it. I’m interested in the link between the opinions we hold about prayer and our sense of where we fit in the wider world. In this sense, we’re talking about one’s existential position – our beliefs about what our individual lives are about.
Prayer presupposes a speaker and a listener. The listener is a form of the Divine, usually determined by the religious conventions of the faith one is attached to. By prayer, I mean the various forms of addressing ones thoughts, often in precise words, toward a divine entity whom one believes is listening. It may be solitary, with others, silent, or voiced.
Everybody has an Existential Position
By Where We Fit or our Existential Position I mean how we regard ourselves when we step out of the here and now for a moment and grasp a bigger picture: looking at a newborn, a star-filled sky, a sunset, on a crowded ferry boat to the Toronto Islands, or in a huge crowd sharing a happy moment (a winning goal just scored?).
My observation is that some people do a lot more Big Picture thinking than others, but that most people have something to say about how they regard the human condition – the place that each person holds in the world, in this life. This view of where we fit impacts directly, I argue, on the role of prayer in a life.
Prayer as Irrelevant
Prayer is so foreign, so unnecessary and irrelevant for some people that they didn’t open this blog – it was such an unnecessary and boring topic for them.
Others are aware of people who pray and are irritated by them (“Do they think that God really prefers one football team over another – when both are praying for victory??”). And some find that those who pray are an affront to their own sense of reason – prayer represents superstition, ignorance, lack of capacity to reason, backwardness.
Those who are emotional in their dislike of prayer maybe suffered condescension and hurt from ’Religious’ people. But there is often an admirable stance taken: they seek to remain grounded in the material rational world. They reject all ‘magical thinking’ and accept that this life, our personal span of years, is all that we have – no future heaven or hell. Some express the hope that they will remain alive in the actions and memory of those they leave behind.
Impressive humanitarian acts are undertaken by those who are committed to our shared humanity, our hurting world. They act not by divine command but from the heart. The ongoing strength, the persistent kindnesses, are drawn from their well of caring – they do not draw strength from a relationship with a divine being. They may keep going by virtue of the love and support of other people (and be subject to the verdict of religious folks that this is a way in which God works, quietly, in the world).
Prayer as Ritual
A worldview grounded in Obedience to Religious Doctrine can be a worthy source of good works. Inculcated through hundreds of years from the pulpit and Sunday School, populations are trained to follow the Church’s rules regarding proper observance. We learn the standard for personal salvation. Society adopts the shifting patterns – remembering the painted image of a child kneeling beside the bed, saying his prayers. One’s place in the world is determined by how well we follow the rules. One’s church of choice has determined what the proper rules are and we violate those at our peril.
I remember being driven through the streets of (then) Bombay by a generous well-to-do local who wanted to take me to a park outside the city. He rode pell-mell through several village roads filled with cows, chickens, people, seemingly oblivious to the possible disasters, all the while reading from a prayer book held in his right hand. He told me he had to say his morning prayers. To him, the saying mattered, the attention to what he said clearly didn’t.
I believe that churches are filled with many who are repeating the ritual words of prayer, and they are fulfilling their belief in what is required of them to be faithful. The world view here is that there is a right way and a wrong way to live through this span of years and reward awaits those who follow the right way, as closely as possible. That includes large doses of ritual prayer.
Rick Warren’s very popular religious guide, The Purpose Driven Life, sets out this path clearly – there is a correct way to be and to conduct a prayer life.
The Quest – Starting Almost From The Beginning
Some of us are wired in such a way that we’ve found ourselves out of sorts with prevailing religious doctrines. We seem alone in trying to connect our personal sense of the vastness of the universe, the apparent ground-level miracles manifested in nature, our own hearts yearning toward something beyond .
Some satisfy the Quest by focusing on the wonders of unfolding science. Others, with this questing orientation, seek out communities where they can keep asking questions. Religious doctrine handed down does not satisfy, but they enjoy the community of those who suspect there is something more than the material here and now. Sometimes these gatherings are termed, “Church communities for those who don’t like Church”. Ritual is used when it can bind those present, but opening oneself to let God’s love in is a greater emphasis.
Communal prayer here may include a list of requests (of petitions) to the divine, but words expressing longings for peace, reconciliation, inspiration in dealing with the pain of the wider world are included, and heartfelt.
Among the non-ritualized, personal prayer takes many different forms. A lovely moment may provoke a prayer of thanks, or of humility. A longing to talk to the great divine spirit can overtake at any time, and the prayer may be wordless. The belief in a loving God, if this has been developed, allows many many forms of conversation with God – he did, after all, create each of us to be who we are.
In seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between orientation to the Ritual and the Quest. The latter relies on a loving God to cherish our individuality; the former relies on an obedient human who is trying to fit herself to a proper model. Too simplistic, of course but maybe useful…
The Essence of Living? Communion with God
To understand how a huge portion of the world’s population live, I think it’s necessary to try to understand those for whom faith provides the entire perspective on what life is about.
We are here to obey and to worship God. All else is immaterial.
Thinking in this way eliminates concerns about politics for many. God will work out the issues of power. Some see themselves as intended to further God’s agenda as seen in the holy scriptures – they are hands and feet and minds of God in the world. Thus emerge the jihadists.
I think the latter are more in tune with today’s Christian fundamentalists than are many who share the Christian religion. Both hold the same world view of Right and Wrong, with one side needing to be vanquished. Both want to impose their view on the Other – because they are absolutely convinced that their beliefs are the ones opening the doors to eternity.
It is a burden and a joy to carry the weight of such intense certitude. Knowing one is Right – and wanting the world to be conformed to that which is Right because then peace and justice can reign – this feels like a glorious mysterious truth revealed to oneself. Abandoning oneself, one’s attachments, one’s scruples, to this truth – no contest. When so convinced, how can you not strive for universal obedience? Only then will God be pleased!
It’s interesting that the practice of those who choose to stand apart from these certainties is now termed “Christianity Lite”.
If so inclined, let us pray for not expecting too much of each other! Life ain’t easy.