Tuesday, March 16, 2010

prayer

Prayer is strange, and I know as little about it as I do about anything else. However, I do have a grab-bag of impressions on prayer gleaned mostly, I'm sorry to say, from avoiding it. I tend to think a lot about the things I am avoiding.

Prayer is weird. It is abnormal, odd, off-kilter. It doesn't make sense. The tests have been done, the results are in. For some reason, if you pray a lot you'll live longer. You'll be healthier and happier and less stressed. You could attribute this to the fact that prayer lowers your heart rate and allows you to mentally disengage from the stresses of your everyday life (stresses that have been proven to be poisonous to your body on a molecular level), transposing those stresses onto some other non-existent entity.

But for me, that doesn't cut it. I think there has to be more. What? I'm not sure. Sometimes, though, prayer does seem to actually deflect reality from what seems to be the inevitable flow of causality. People who were dying get better. Relationships get healed. Et cetera. You don't have to believe me on this (and I certainly don't, a fair bit of the time) but I have seen too many examples of unexplainable shifts in the axis of the Universe (Although, of course, if you wanted to explain them, I'm sure you could. Humans are incredibly resourceful) to honestly ignore them.

Now, my perspectives on prayer have been pinched, shaped, poked and prodded by my education in the Christian tradition, and despite what this thoroughly non-Christian culture would have me believe, I don't think this is a particularly narrowing thing. Everybody approaches prayer from some position or another. Besides, although there is a whole lot of chicanery masquerading as Christian prayer, prayer is nonetheless something that Christianity has always taken very seriously. I doubt there is another faith tradition that has spent more time researching, exploring and experiencing it.

Despite this background-o'-mine, honesty also demands that I admit that prayer does seem to have a lot of the same positive effects, regardless of the particulars of the religion of the prayer. Does this mean that there is no God and that the benefits of prayer are psycho-somatic? Reason would seem to lean that way, but again, I don't think so. Rather, I think it means that God is bigger than any individual's conception, and willing and eager to hear the prayers of God's creatures.

Before I get firebombed, I have to re-iterate for the sort of people who like to firebomb heretics that I do, in fact, believe in Christ, and am the sort of person who answers the question "are you a Christian?" with a resounding, "well, I sure try to be." I know that won't matter to those to whom even a whiff of what they regard as pluralism damns me to the damnedest hell. To them I say, "Well, gosh-darnit, I shore am glad y'all ain't the ones in charge."

Besides, the way I have experienced and attempted prayer in my own tradition has often just felt so deeply flawed, superficial and ugly that I am willing to look at other traditions to provide myself with some kind of context - and perhaps even to learn from them. One of those traditions is that of the Muslims. Now, I never paid the Muslims much attention before my sister went to live among them. They were just these slightly scary oogah-boogahs whose most radical adherents sometimes strapped explosives to themselves.

But as my sister sent video clips and pictures of their lands, cultures, and traditions, I started to hear in their (what to me is gibberish) calls to prayer a sort of beauty. Their devotion intrigued me, and I got so fired up with passion that I went to all the trouble of typing the words "muslim prayers" into wikipedia, seeing that the article that came up was really long, and after reading a tiny bit, going somewhere else.

I recommend, however, reading the bit about the five daily prayers, called "Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha'a," that are to be performed at five distinct times throughout the day. If nothing else, these prayers force a devout Muslim to think about God (even if only briefly), at regular intervals throughout the day. More than that, it forces them to pause and orient themselves, at those regular intervals, in the context of the God in which they believe.

For someone such as myself, raised Protestant and undisciplined spiritually and otherwise, this was a bit of a revelation. I tend to drift through life, fractal and unfocused, and I very much liked the idea that I could set myself a schedule of prayer. I could not only get those holistic health benefits it provides, but I could also remember who I believe I am and get some context on the disconcerting barrage of experiences I have to deal with.

I mentioned this thought during a discussion with some Christian friends and the immediate response was, "well, I can't really believe something as rote as that could have any meaning."

And I thought... what?!?

And then I thought... oh. So that is where some of my prayer-confusion comes from. My religious culture believes that prayer has to be spontaneous and original to mean something.

Again, I don't buy it. I'm an artist, so I love creativity and originality. But at the same time, most of what I experience as a human being is determined by habit and by rote. In a world frantically pursuing innovation and the titillation of new experiences, I enjoy tradition and the comfort of regularity and ritual. It provides me with a sense of inner peace that enables me to handle with grace the insanity of my scattered life. The more I live, the more I realize how little I understand of anything, and how helpless I am against the forces of nature - especially human nature (my own, even). In that helplessness, I am starting to learn to find a sort of quiet strength in not depending on my own creativity, originality and gumption as I attempt to rest my soul and self in the comforting grace of a higher truth, a higher power.

As I put less of my faith in me, I find that prayer as a habit or a ritual becomes more and more of a balm. And even though I am not likely to starting bowing in any particular direction on the dictates of a clock, I am beginning to believe that perhaps in this sort of regular, external approach to prayer, I might find the healing for which I yearn.

5 comments:

  1. "My religious culture believes that prayer has to be spontaneous and original to mean something."

    This is certainly the subculture I grew up in too :-) but through college and for a few years beyond I became very drawn to the Episcopal tradition of liturgical prayer, which is a very different approach but no less spiritual. I think our subset rejected the high-church approach because rote repetition can become devoid of heart-felt meaning (which is what our sub-tradition prioritizes) but at the same time the emphasis on emotion and spontaneity can lose the aspect of discipline which the liturgical approach offers.

    Richard Foster wrote a very thoughtful book on the spiritual disciplines (which include fasting and others I don't remember in addition to prayer) titled Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth that I liked.

    I would argue with you though that the Christian tradition does not out-do other religious faiths in terms of the prayer thing. I guess it kind of depends how you define prayer, but Buddhism and Hinduism also have very profound prayer/meditation traditions with tomes upon tomes of written reflections on the subject. I don't know anything about Islam but I wouldn't be surprised to find both scholarship and practice matching Christianity for frequency, intensity, and duration (if that's a meaningful measure).

    My impression, too, is that within each faith tradition there are a range of approaches to prayer that range from the more mystical/ecstatic/emotive to the more structured and ritualized approaches.

    Having said all that, I will confess that I stopped praying about 12 years ago, unless I'm in a certain emotional state (anguish, e.g.) but I don't really count that as prayer, it's more a reflexive reaction of no other recourse. Or, if I'm in a group situation that demands it. On a personal level I have problems with the premise itself - at least the way it's practiced in nearly all Protestant contexts - but that's another story. Sometimes I really miss it.

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  2. I agree that it was a bit presumptive of me to suggest that Christians pray more, or better. I think if you carefully read my exact wording in that sentence, you'll find that I am learning to hedge my bets a bit when I make grandiose statements based on ignorance :) Although perhaps my writing has gone past the place where just saying I doubt something is an actual signifier of epistemological humility.

    When I started this post, I thought it was going to be all about how I dislike the way Protestants generally practice prayer - but it transmogified into this... whatever this is. I think the results are a bit more constructive than what I had in mind - which was to do my usual thing and just sort of poke at something without offering any alternatives.

    I guess I'm learning to listen to the work.

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  3. Josh, I really wish we could sit and talk. I have read many of your posts (but not all of them) and I sense such a void in your life. Reading your writings has given me a very small glimps into your life. Very small, I know. However as a result I have begun to pray for you. Not regularly like I do for my own family but more than before I read your posts :) And I don't use that term lightly. Our culture, society and even the media, churched and non-churched, Christian and non have taken the meaning out of that phrase. "Oh I'll pray for you" is as common as "I love you man". I don't use it regularly and I don't say it unless I mean it and then therefore will do it. So believe me when I say "I am praying for you". I have so much to say on prayer but not enough time or energy to write it. I have studied prayer for years, read and researched the topic and it is a discipline that I do daily. I guess to sum up all my opinions would be to say this. Prayer is nothing with out the belief in it. Now that is not saying it's good enough just to believe prayer works. Or to say it is unimportant to whom you pray. No, not at all! God the Creator of the universe, his son Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior who died on the cross for my sin is the only One to pray to. He is the only One who can and WILL answer our prayers. However, one must believe and trust in Him and commit their life to Him and have personal relationship with Him to have prayer work (be answered). Just like you have to have a friend to talk to (unless you can talk to a wall) you must have Jesus as your friend to talk to Him in prayer. Without that prayer is void and meaningless, just an act that people do for show or to make themselves feel better.
    P.S. Prayer can and should be spontaneous, as needed, for comfort, spur of the moment, etc but ALSO a daily discipline, a routine, a habit but the beauty is that it's individual no two people have to be alike.
    Josh, I'm praying for you! Katie

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  4. Rote prayer is good. If anyone even ritually praying the "Lord's Prayer" does so with any reflection, they express thereby reaffirmation of allegiance, awesome reverence, anticipation of God's Kingdom, desire for God's will, reliance on God's provision, foregiveness of insult and injury, rejection of base compulsions, exaltation of the Creator.

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  5. Wow, Katie. I've never been told I have a void before. I definitely do have one, but I tend to think that it's a consequence of living in a broken world, and that while I live here, it will be with me.

    I am really struggling with how to respond to your comment. I appreciate the spirit of concern and love I'm sure it was written in, but it seems to me that you're trying to explain away what I consider to be an essential ingredient of my faith - mystery. Sorry if I've mis-interpreted you.

    A good blog I read these days maybe gives a better breakdown of how I feel about this stuff is called "Hacking Christianity". Here's a link for your consideration:

    http://blog.hackingchristianity.net/2010/03/clergy-dont-stop-believin-hold-on-to.html

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