Emily Dickinson wrote,
Of Course I prayed
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird had stampd her foot
And cried “Give Me” (#376)
I grew up in a praying family. My parents both got on their knees at bedtime and earnestly prayed. We prayed before each meal: a short, silent prayer before routine meals; a long and complex prayer said aloud before holiday meals or special occasions. I was raised Pentecostal, a tradition in which people are prayer warriors and talk about having a prayer life. In the summertime, we went to prayer meetings.
Each worship service included at least one long, improvised prayer over piano music, much in the vein of what we call performance poetry nowadays. And I think that is where my trust in prayer began to break down: just who were those performances for? Was it for God, who supposedly knew all those things already, or for us, the congregation, to be impressed? Because in Matthew Chapter 6, verse 5, Jesus says in red letters:
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
And in verse 6 Jesus says:
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Perhaps it’s only because I’m an introvert, but those verses rang true to me. Wasn’t public prayer a contradiction?
I can’t remember when I stopped praying. I suppose it was when I began to read Spinoza, who asked: if God is all-knowing, isn’ it presumptuous for finite creatures such as we to ask for anything? After all, God had either intended it, so why ask? Or did not intend it, so what would be the point?
But I don’t mean to exaggerate: I have never stopped praying. No one raised as I was could ever stop praying. Even now, when I no longer believe that petitionary prayer is valuable, when reason tells me that petitionary prayer may even be impious, still, in times of fear or pain, still I pray just as I learned to more than half a century ago.
Furthermore, I understand the good in what my parents taught me to do: when I stopped to pray, I called to mind those things I most treasured and loved; I gave thanks for loved ones, home, food, and health. There’s the truth of it: prayer is for the pray-er. After all, the type of prayer I grew weary of as a kid is petitionary prayer: asking for something. And there are lots of other types of prayer.
As a clergy person, I’m often asked to give prayers at breakfasts, lunches, and various public events. I never say, “No. I don’t pray.” Nor do I direct them to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6. Rather, I honor the occasion by focusing my own aspirations and those of the others there: I use a lot of “may we”statements. I try to remember to speak truth to power; I try to remind us all that we must always be mindful of “the least of these.”
Henry David Thoreau wrote a poem he called “My Prayer.” It begins this way:
Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf (money)
Than that I may not disappoint myself;
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.
Ralph Waldo Emerson also wrote on prayer. Emerson said,
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.
May we always remember out highest aspirations . . .
Maybe that is what I think of prayer finally. It doesn’t matter if there is a God or not. We need to listen to ourselves and get over ourselves so that we can begin the work that compassion calls us to. Whatever works . . .