by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
May 9, 2001
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.