PC: Thinking about Prayer

After the Introductory Chapter on Benedictine Spirituality and how Cassiodorus fits into it, I need to talk more specifically about prayer and about the psalms. Here’s the section on prayer. I’m building off something I originally posted over at Grow Christians so parts of this may look familiar if you read that piece.

The goal of this book is not to teach you everything you always wanted to know about the psalms—that’s a different book or different class of books. Rather than being a commentary, this is a book about a particular kind of prayer and to do that well, we need to spend some time thinking and talking about prayer.

If you are in and around religious circles for very long, you’ll inevitably hear the question: “Does prayer work?”

I have a hard time with this question. That’s not because of the answer but because the question itself is too broad. This is exactly the same as asking: “Can fish be eaten?” While the question can be answered with a straightforward yes or no answer, that answer is not likely to be helpful to the person asking! Can fish be eaten? Well, yes, generally—if it’s the right kind of fish, and has been taken from a relatively clean environment, and stored and prepared the right way. However, not all fish should be eaten. Not all preparation methods are of equal value in providing a healthy, nutritious meal. Some fish—like the little brightly colored tropical ones—spoil so quickly that they’re not worth trying to prepare. Some possess toxins of their own and others can collect toxins from the environments around them. What starts out as a very basic question cannot be safely answered with a very basic answer.

The same is true of the prayer question.

The best place to start in answering the question and thinking about prayer is to recognize that this question begins with several—usually fairly specific—assumptions. Furthermore, by starting with those assumptions, the question bypasses the central point of the activity.

Let’s unpack the assumptions in the question first, and then take a step back and figure out the right question…

When most modern people hear the word “prayer” or are asked a question like, “does prayer work,” they are considering one aspect of one kind of prayer. But there are lots of different kinds of prayer out there. One way of breaking down the principal kinds of prayer is with this list:

  • Adoration: the lifting up of the soul to God’s presence, resting in the experience of being present with God (this is usually non-verbal)
  • Praise: rejoicing in God because of the nature of God’s being; praise evoked by who God is, not because of any benefits that we might receive from God
  • Thanksgiving: rejoicing in God because of the things that God has done for us and for all creation; rejoicing in the relationship that God has chosen to initiate with creation and for the specific benefits known to us
  • Penitence: confession where we acknowledge our sin and admit specific ways in which our lives, actions, and intentions are at odds with God’s own hopes, dreams, and plans for the redemption of all creation
  • Oblation: an offering and dedication of the whole self to God
  • Intercession: offering before God the needs of others
  • Petition: offering before God our own needs

As you look down this list, you may realize that what a lot of people mean when they use the word “prayer” is a subsection of the last two kinds, intercession or petition. After considering the various kinds of prayer, we start to realize that when people ask, “does prayer work?” what they’re really asking is, “If I ask God for something—either on my behalf or on behalf of someone else—will I get it?”

In fact, if we want to be honest about it, more often than not this tendency to equate prayer with petition, moves discussions about prayer towards how to make it more effective. That is, is there something I can do to make it more likely that I’ll get the response I want? Inevitably, going down this road devolves into an attempt to bargain with God: “O God, if you’ll just do X thing for me, I promise that I’ll do Y…” This Y may involve promises to go to church more frequently or to be a better person or something of that sort; the logic here is that if we sweeten the pot with a promise, perhaps God will be more willing to give in. Here’s the problem: this becomes less an act of prayer as it becomes more an act of negotiation. The root problem is that negotiation involves leverage—where one party has something that the other wants and uses that to get what they need. Negotiating implies that we have some kind of leverage over God—but we don’t! In the grand scheme of things, whether we’re in church more makes no difference to the greatness of God. Any attempt at leverage lacks a certain honesty because it misrepresents the true nature of our relationship with God: there is nothing that God needs from us. There is no leverage that we have over God.

If our conception of prayer is focused around whether or not we receive divine benefits, then we have greatly restricted our understanding of what prayer is for and about. Let’s back up and see if we can ask the right question.

Let’s start with this: “What is prayer?” The best answer is that prayer is the communication that builds and nourishes our relationship with God. Just as there are different ways that we interact with our friends and family, there are a variety of ways of both talking and listening and experiencing the divine in prayer as well.

A few clarifying points here: first, prayer doesn’t begin a relationship with God. Christians believe that there is no need for us to start a relationship: we already have one. God is our creator, our great first-framer, who knows us intimately from before we were even born. God has already initiated the relationship with us and has even gone several steps further. In the incarnation of Christ, in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, God has already acted in our world on our behalf. In the twin interconnected movements of creation and redemption God has already established a connection with us—and even given us something to talk about!

Second, relationships grow though familiarity. You have to get to know the other person. Sometimes we get to know someone simply by recognizing that we are in their presence. An awareness of presence and a comfort in that presence is an important part of a good relationship, especially a loving relationship. However, as any shy middle-schooler can tell you, simply being in the presence of your beloved doesn’t make a relationship happen! And certainly not one with any sort of mutuality. Just because you sit behind your beloved in English class won’t make her fall in love with you… I believe that simply sitting in the presence of God as the beloved is a key part of prayer. However, just because silent presence is part of it it doesn’t mean that words aren’t important.

Third, words are important, but the volume and direction matter. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you can’t get a word in edge-wise? If the other person carries on a stream of words with nary a break, you may start to suspect that you’re less in a conversation and more in a monologue with an audience. What’s the problem with that? Well—a conversation is a relationship. And if the communication is only coming from one side, than the the relationship is not going to be well-developed and well-balanced. It’s got to be a two-way street. We have to listen as much as we talk. People who study prayer sometimes note that the forms and habits of prayer that developed in Latin-speaking Europe are very much focused on words and images. Speaking as an inheritor of that tradition, we like to do a lot of talking to God. Our challenge is to correct the balance with a bit more listening. The relationship has to be well-formed and well-rounded, and that can’t occur without just as much listening as talking. If the flow of the conversation is largely one-way—with us doing all the talking—then we’re going to have some real issues in building the relationship whether we recognize it or not.

Fourth, how does two-way communication happen? We certainly know how to talk, but what do we expect to hear back? How do we listen to and for God? Should I expect to hear the divine voice in my head? Does it mean that prayer is not working if I don’t? You may hear a voice in your head that you recognize as not your own—that has happened to me before—but it is not the usual way that I listen to God. When Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, one of the things we mean is that the Bible is a center of God’s self-revelation. The stories of Scripture, the description of how God has acted in history the word of God proclaimed by the prophets, the observation of God’s ways and habits by the wise, all of these are means by which God communicates the divine self to us limited humans. We listen to God in the Scriptures and learn how God has acted and interacted with others in the past through their stories and writings. Certainly as Christians we believe that God’s greatest act of self-revelation is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and that in learning how he lived and loved, we come to the clearest understanding of who God was, is, and will continue to be. Sacramental Christians also believe that another center of God’s revelation is in the sacraments; God gave Baptism and Eucharist and other practices to the church to be means of grace by which we encounter and experience the loving, transforming power and presence of God. Listening happens through the sacraments as well.

So—prayer is about a communication and about building a relationship. A relationship is about two parties interacting with one another. A deep relationship is founded on principles of trust and honesty—and this is what’s hard about prayer. We have to come to know and trust God. However, the really hard part is trusting and being honest with ourselves about ourselves. Praise and thanksgiving can be a lot of fun! We like being joyful and thanking God for the wonders around us and the gifts we have received. Penitence and oblation—not so much. Recognizing our own faults and poor choices and where we have acted contrary to God’s hopes and dreams doesn’t feel good. But we cannot hope to have an honest relationship with our Creator—the One who knit us together in the secret places of the womb—if we cannot be honest with ourselves, if we try to present a false image of ourselves to God in the midst of prayer. We can’t fake our side of the conversation with the One who knows us completely. We may try to fake our way through other relationships, presenting only the best version of ourselves to the public eye, but this can’t work in our most intimate relationships. We may even succeed in fooling ourselves, but those closest to us—spouses or partners or children—will see the truth. And God knows us even more thoroughly than that.

If prayer is about building a true and truthful relationship with our Creator and Redeemer, our central practice must be the pursuit of honesty, honesty about who we see ourselves to be, but also honesty about who God is and is not. If we insist on only seeing God as the great vending machine in the sky where we put in prayers and receive our gifts, we will be disappointed—not by God as God is but by the idols that we have made in place of God, the lies that we have told ourselves about who God is without nurturing a full and truthful relationship with the One who loves us and who, in the person of Jesus, gave himself for us.

Indeed, looking at prayer from our side as a habit or a practice, it is best understood as a process of increasing honesty. We come to better understand the relationship that we have with God in large measure by becoming aware of and stripping away falsehoods, misjudgments, and lies about who we are—but also about who God is. That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not intended to be so: some of these falsehoods are ones that we have inherited from our religious traditions or our spiritual teachers—clergy, parents, or elders—others are ones that we ourselves have created in the process of trying to make sense of our place in the world. We are ignorant of some of these falsehoods; others we are subtly aware of; still others we are so aware of that we create strategies to actively ignore them or to distract ourselves from the truths they contradict. In prayer we gain a far better sense of who we are, who God is, and the true character of the relationship between us: the loving, constructive, redemptive relationship that God yearns to have with every part of creation.

What, then, does this have to do with the psalms? Just this—while the whole Scriptures can be a center of God’s self-revelation to us, Jewish and Christian teachers and saints have recognized for centuries that the psalms are especially fruitful tools for nurturing the relationship. They are models of prayer and examples for us of our words to God. They tell us of God and of the experiences of God that people have had in the past. They also function as mirrors; we can learn truthfulness in prayer by interacting with them, by noticing what things make us uncomfortable, and pondering why. And that is where we will turn next: to consider the psalms—how we see them through the piety of the ages but also through the lens of modern biblical scholarship—all with an eye to how they can improve and purify our practices of prayer.

2 thoughts on “PC: Thinking about Prayer

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    There are two problems I see here,Derek:

    1. God seems to be consistently described as “over there”—separated from me—another entity with which I am to relate—rather than that “he may dwell in us and we in him.”

    2. With the model of “conversation.” there seems to be an inbuilt expectation of some kind of perceptible response from prayer. But a person beginning serious prayer needs affirmation that there will probably be NO perceptible response to prayer. I think a major part of the value of prayer is giving oneself to God with no expectation of reply/reward..

    3. Of course, I like the way you talk bout Psalms and prayer—but, again, a caution: as I recite the Office every day, there are many days when the Psalter is merely a set of empty words—a bridge one can walk over without noticing that it is a bridge. I mean, sometimes the Psalms seem to have no meaning or application at all but are a only faithful framework to keep one’s attention—and that is not “bad.” One of the reasons Christians have used the Psalms so regularly in their liturgy is that they provide a structure on which one can hang an awareness of God. And we don’t have to do theological contortions to make sense of the frequent expressions of deep hatred, the smashing of baby’s heads, the cursing of one’s enemies’ children, etc. The Psalms stand rather like mantras—repetitive patterns that have use way beyond their literal meanings.

  2. Derek Olsen Post author

    Hi Fr. John-Julian,
    Yes, I am currently using language that distinguishes the pray-er from God. I recognize that there are some limitations with the conversation model. However, I chose to go this route because it is the route that Cassiodorus will take with the Psalms: he reads them as a collection of voices: chiefly David, Christ, and the Church. I totally agree on the structure concept–I’m doing some very interesting reading right now around philosophical underpinnings of ritual and that connects with some stuff there–but I’m also going to both suggest and recommend that various modes of encountering the Psalms are best used to get the most out of them: there’s the repetition in the Office, there’s the use of verses as mantras/breath prayers, and there’s also deliberate lectio-grounded study as part of the memorization process and that all of these function holistically in combination. In particular, the daily repetition is informed and enriched by the experiences of the other two. That’s where I’m heading long-term, we’re just not there yet…

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