Ink Soup: PRAYER 101
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- I am a week or two shy of the age of 72 -- patriarchal=
by today's standards, if not by those of the Bible. But the discretion th= at is normally a bonus of so many years has eluded me.
I am therefore going to risk putting down here some reflections on pra= yer, a topic that has attracted pious and thoughtful minds for centuries. = I have read none of them, or if I did, it was so long ago that I have forgo= tten it.
But the suspicion that what I am about to say has been said better and= a thousand times more astutely will not deter me: these are my unaided tho= ughts. I am not proud of them. I am in fact deeply ashamed of coming to t= hem so late in my life.
What impels me to this risk is the sense of wonder, even blank astoni= shment, that I have experienced during and after praying. I cannot bear to= pass over in silence anything in my life that is at once so extravagantly = odd and so deeply satisfying.
My earliest memory of praying, or at least of simulating the outward app= earance of prayer sufficiently well to satisfy the demands of my parents, d= ates to the earliest time of my childhood.
At my mother's request, I would kneel beside my bed at night, fold my ha= nds, and repeat what she had taught me: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray= the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord = my soul to take.
I had not the slightest inkling of what any of this meant. Looking back= at these words, they seem to me a very odd text to require from a child of= three. Who the Lord was, what the soul was, how he might keep it or take = it, and what on earth might lurk behind the phrase "die before I wake," all= this, like much in adult life, was so blankly mysterious that it would not= have occurred to me to ask about it.
I have no idea at what point in my later childhood I began to understand= vaguely the meaning, but of one thing I am certain. The fundamental idea = of the nature of prayer that began around the age of three went unexamined = throughout most of my life.
That idea is this. When one prays, one assumes a certain attitude(kneel= ing, folded hands, or simply bowed head with eyes shut) and initiates praye= r by certain prescribed words, such as, "Our Father..." Thus one opens a c= hannel of communication that was, up to that point, not open.
It was rather like making a phone call. A bell rang in Heaven, and Go= d, on learning that a call was coming in, dropped everything, put the instr= ument to His ear, and began to listen. If I put it in burlesque terms, I a= m merely trying to suggest how ridiculous it seems to me now.
What happened next was what linguists call a speech act. A prayer consi= sted of my saying something to God: that I wanted this or that, that I was = sorry for this or that, that I hoped so and so would get well. These messag= es were generated by me out of my brain, encoded in a medium that God under= stood (the English language) and then verbalized and sent, either aloud or = silently -- to be received and understood by God.
There was, that is to say, a transfer of information. It was mine to g= ive, and I shared it with God. None of this made the slightest sense,of co= urse, unless one assumed that it was news to God that I wanted X, was sorry= about Y, and hoped that He would keep Z safe from harm.
If the news to be imparted was bad, if one had committed some frankly = gaudy sin, one tried naturally to frame the statement of it in terms favora= ble to one's case, and calculated not to shock or add to the offense. What= was the point in blurting out things injurious to one's interest?
That prayer is a speech act, a transfer of information, is in my viewthe= way the great majority of all people who pray see it.
I no longer see it that way. I feel like an idiot for having been such = a slow learner. For the Bible is full of passages that might have enlighte= ned me if I'd had the sense to think about them.
Jesus said (Matt. 6:8) that the Heavenly Father knows what we need be= fore we ask Him. Psalm 139 is explicit: "O Lord, thou has searched me and = known me. /Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandes= t my thought afar off."
Now at the age of 71 I think I have come to a view of prayer, a view tha= t might have been useful to me when I was 17. God is always here, there, an= d everywhere -- He is a spirit, as Jesus explained to the woman of Samaria = (John 4:24).
He is not in some distant location reachable only by opening a channel= of communication. The channel cannot in fact be either opened or closed, = for it does not exist. Nor is it needed. It is not His attention that is i= n want of focus, it is my own.
To pray is simply to become mindful of the perpetual presence of God and= mindful of what it means to be searched and known at every hour of the day= and night, to have my thought understood afar off. To be in the presence = of One who knows not only what I am thinking before I know it, but also the= origin of what I am thinking in an unconscious mind that, though mine, is = for the most part inaccessible to me.
If I confess behavior that I regret, God knows before I mention it A)wha= t I have done and B)whether I in fact regret it or not.
To pray is to drop all other concerns and pay attention for a time to = the Presence that is never absent. To pray is to communicate nothing. The = very idea of information as a commodity of exchange is in the case of praye= r without meaning.
To pray is simply to be for a time aware of one's utter spiritu= al nakedness in the loving embrace of one's Creator. To pray is to be for a= time (a time unique on this earth) in the realm of absolute truth, where l= ying is for once impossible. Even Huck Finn knew this: "Deep down in me I = knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it.
"You can't pray a lie -- I found that out."
In all of the above I am speaking of authentic prayer, that is,private p= rayer in the mind of one person--prayer made when you haveentered into your= closet and shut the door, as Jesus advises (Matt. 6:6)
As for public prayer, it is a form of public speaking, of oratory. The a= ddressee of public prayer is the audience, not the Almighty. Publicprayer = has a useful place in worship and even in opening a secularmeeting, but it = is rhetoric, however exalted, and not the genuine prayerthat I have been t= rying to describe here.
The individual who hears the orator can still achieve prayer in the pr= ivacy of his own mind, but it might be quite different from the prayer waft= ed over the PA system.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Pro= fessor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.