Do I Pray?
Cat asked me that over dinner last night, and I found I couldn’t easily give an answer.
What, exactly, is prayer? I find very different definitions if I think about it as a Quaker, as a Pagan, or (just recently) as a student of Tarot, and all three are different from what I thought of as prayer back when I was Christian.
As a Christian, prayer meant talking to God. There were prayers of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, and intercessory prayers asking God to help others or ourselves. I did all three of these. Sometimes it was spontaneous, standing by myself in the woods or in a garden, and sometimes it was recitation from the Book of Common Prayer or the monastic Ordo, but the God who heard me was always abstract and distant. My prayers, like everything else about my spiritual life, were notional. I thought about God, I had feelings about God–really intense feelings–but I never felt God.
I remember once in a prayer and discussion group run by the Episcopal Church at Yale, we did a hands-on healing for someone there who was having an emotional crisis. We gathered around her as she huddled in a chair and we all reached in toward the center and touched her and Father Pat spoke a prayer aloud. I remember saying silently, “If ever, then now,” but I didn’t expect it to do much and I didn’t feel anything happening.
What it felt like–what praying always felt like to me as a Christian–was like somebody says to you, “Here, pull this lever for a minute,” and you do, and then they say “Thanks,” and maybe the lever did something, but you have no idea what.
When I became Pagan, I spoke to the Gods and the Gods started speaking back. The Gods took on a vivid, particular reality for me. They challenged me and questioned me and I grew. And they loved me, and I loved them.
Still do, though we don’t speak as much lately.
And then as a Quaker, the experience was also very palpable, but very different. I sat in silent worship and felt (at times) the gathered body covered by the Light. The sensation was a bit like standing in a field of wheat or tall grass and hearing the wind move over it. Occasionally the breath of that wind–the Holy Spirit?–would rise up and speak through me. Is that prayer?
Quakers have no Book of Common Prayer. We have enough of an aversion to anything that might be an empty form that we never, ever recite words of praise or thanks. We don’t even do intercessory prayer; Quakers “hold in the Light” people who are in need of Divine help. We say their names aloud, but the holding is silent and inward.
Is that prayer?
Magick, maybe. It feels more like what I used to do in a Wiccan circle than in the pews of an Episcopal church. (On the other hand, a Pagan teacher once told me that what I was doing was more theurgy than magick anyway.)
I find I don’t like the words prayer as a noun or pray as a verb. I like prayerfully. I like the adverb. Quakers listen prayerfully. As a Quaker, I live my whole life prayerfully, which means really everything I do is a prayer.
So do I pray, as Cat asked me, something distinct from just living my life?
No, I don’t.
Except lately I do. This year I began studying Tarot with the Builders of the Adytum. Itís a correspondence course–you get monographs in the mail and you color in your own black-and-white Tarot deck–but it has led me to establish a regular daily practice of something. Every morning, for the first half-hour or so before the school day begins, I do my BOTA stuff.
Sometimes it’s reading the monographs. Sometimes it’s going on line to look up some new word or name they’ve used. Often it’s literally coloring in the pictures. And occasionally it’s sitting in the half-lotus position, my back supported by the cabinet doors in my lab. Almost always I have music playing. Much of the time, my practice involves writing in my journal, and every so often something I’ve written comes out with a depth and resonance, as well as a Godward orientation, that makes me think of it as having been a prayer.
So, yes. I write prayerfully, which I guess means I pray.
But that experience is very different from what prayer was for me as a Christian, even though both are about using words to talk to the Divine.
A couple of images come to mind that illustrate some of what I mean.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco gives a negative image, a “be not like unto these” example. The characters in the novel come across an esoteric mystery and begin trying to unravel it, and through it, the secrets of the Kabala. As you might expect, everything is full of blind alleys and pied texts and puzzles that teasingly hint at solutions. By the end of the novel, the characters’ lives are unraveling. One has been framed for terrorism, another has contracted stomach cancer, and what he realizes is that the reason everything is going wrong is that while they were probing into God’s secrets, they weren’t doing it prayerfully.
Prayer is a stance more than an action, and any action, even one that is supposed to bring you closer to Divine reality, can be done with or without that proper stance.
And the change, from my prayers as a twenty-something Christian to my prayers today, is like the change in how deeply I see into books and movies today that I read when I was much younger. In Walden, Thoreau says, “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me,” and in high school I took the symbol almost like a code or cipher. Anytime he used morning imagery, I thought to myself, I know exactly what he means by that. Reading it today, the symbolism reveals so much more depth to me. It has an ambiguity which lets it hint at layers of meaning beyond the literal. Rather than telling us a flat truth, it plants in us an unease, a spiritual restlessness which makes us dig and probe for Truths which can only be experienced, not spoken.
So do I pray? Is this restlessness what the saints and mystics mean when they speak of prayer?