Monday, November 10, 2008

Abstaining From Prayer

While I don't usually write on "spiritual" topics here (or anywhere else, for that matter) for some inexplicable internal reason, I feel compelled to do so this morning.

It is not a great secret that, by and large, I don't pray. I participate in a perfunctory prayer before meals, mostly because Sami and I decided that would be a decent habit to instill in Adam. And, since I left ministry, Sami has been the one - at least most of the time - who speaks those prayers aloud, while I merely try my best to remain mostly still and silent for the few seconds she takes to offer some spontaneous words of thanksgiving. I also participate in congregational prayers at church, and am still occasionally asked to lead them.

But, when I am in private, most of the time I do not pray.

Oh sure, every once in a while some impulse will strike me, and I will do something that must seem very much like offering a prayer, though I might not describe the act as prayer while I am engaging in it. There are moments in which anxiety might bring me literally or figuratively to my knees. There are other moments when I may literally or figuratively leap for joy. But the act of pausing to pray, of kneeling in silence, being mindful of the presence of God, or of offering words of praise and thanksgiving, of contrition and repentance, of supplication, of request... this I simply do not do any more.

I guess I'm thinking of that right now because this morning I read this in Abraham Heschel's classic work on prayer, Man's Quest for God (and yes, I think that if he were alive now, Heschel would recoil at that title):

About a hundred years ago, Rabbi Issac Meir Alter of Ger pondered over the question of what a certain shoemaker of his acquaintance should do about his morning prayer. His customers were poor men who owned only one pair of shoes. The shoemaker used to pick up their shoes at a late evening hour, work on them all night and part of the morning, in order to deliver them before their owners had to go to work. When should the shoemaker say his morning prayer? Should he pray quickly the first thing in the morning, and then go back to work? Or should he let the appointed hour of prayer go by and, every once and a while, raising his hammer from the shoes, utter a sigh: "Woe unto me, I haven't prayed yet!"? Perhaps that sigh is worth more than prayer itself.

We too, face this dilemma of wholehearted regret or perfunctory fulfillment. Many of us regretfully refrain from habitual prayer, waiting for an urge that is complete, sudden, and unexampled. But the unexampled is scarce, and perpetual refraining can easily grow into a habit. We may even come to forget what to regret, what to miss.

We do not refuse to pray. We merely feel that our tongues are tied, our minds inert, our inner vision dim, when we are about to enter the door that leads to prayer. We do not refuse to pray, we abstain from it.

Heschel, of course, goes on from there, but this is where I stop. I am less interested in his explanation for why we (whoever we are) do not pray, and more interested in examining for myself why I do not pray, and what is gained or lost by that decision. Though to say (or in this case write) "that decision" is misleading, because it implies that at some point some conscious choice was made to abstain from praying, whereas the truth is simply that I find myself not praying, and am trying to explain it after the fact. Here Heschel's "perpetual refraining can easily grow into a habit" strikes most true.

First, I have some sympathy for the shoemaker whose prayer life Rabbi Issac Meir Alter of Ger ponders. Unlike him, however, I do not have some noble task pulling me from prayers I wish to utter. That shoemaker may or may not be able to articulate that in some important way the act of making and fixing shoes - especially when done, as in this case, for the poor - is an act of prayer, an offering to a compassionate God distributed to the community. Heschel seems to note as much when he offers that the shoemaker's sigh of regret as he misses morning prayers to tend to his work may be "worth more than prayer itself." The Apostle Paul may have had something similar in mind when he wrote of God's spirit interceding for us in sighs and groans too deep for words.

But I am not the shoemaker, doing some noble act instead of prayer, marking with remorse the hour of prayer missed because I could not leave my labor. Even if I were, I suspect from Heschel's perspective - valuable though that sigh may be - something important, something vital is missed by not more consciously, more intentionally, attending to that hour of prayer. To see what may be lost, however, I must first explore why I do not pray.

I do not pray because I do not believe in the God I used to pray to. That is part of what I tried to articulate here, when I last wrote on prayer:

All my life... I've interacted with a God who is unconsciously conceived of as a big, powerful, and wise man, standing outside, over and above the created order. It is this concept of God that was embedded in each of my religious experiences, and which has always been a part of my prayer life. But I no longer believe in, and so can no longer pray to, a Big Guy in the Sky. However, while my theology has developed some concepts of God to replace the inadequate one, my prayer life has not. As such, I can write about a more mature and better thought out concept of God, but that God exists only conceptually, not experientially. That God is a part of my developing theology, but not a part of my religious experience or practice.

That post focused principally on the gender and location of God. God is not a

1.) man
2.) out there,

but is instead our very Ground of Being (to use Tillich's phrase), found in here, all around us and even inside us. This Ground of being is neither male nor female, but both male and female images can be used as metaphors for the divine, affirming the truth that we are all - male and female - made in the image of God, participating in the divine image.

Related to this is how we understand God's power, the topic of my Thesis.

Simply put, I do not believe in an all-powerful God. Such a God is not only philosophically problematic, but also ethically flawed and thus ultimately religiously undesirable. Simply put, an all-powerful God, where suffering exists and where such power is understood as a kind of irresistible divine coercion, the imposition of God's plan on creation, is a tyrant.

I thus do not believe in a God who of necessity hears me when I pray. I do not believe in a God who changes my material circumstances when I pray. I do not believe in a God who will - responding to my prayers - heal me or anyone I love of illness or injury. I do not believe in a God who will - again, responding to my prayers - rescue me from the consequences of my own foolish actions.

For most of my life my impulse, in times of trouble, has been to pray. Family member sick? Offer a prayer for healing. Money getting tight? Offer a prayer for help. Grieving the loss of a loved one? Take that grief to the author and perfecter of life and salvation, your very present hope in times of trouble.

But the God to whom I prayed, the God who I believed would hear my prayers, would receive my concerns and act on them, is not the God in whom I believe now. That is an awkward sentence, especially coming from someone who has always made a sharp distinction between God as God and any particular description of or belief about God. I cannot reconcile it with my conviction that God as God cannot be conflated with my beliefs about God. That conviction would lead me to say not that I no longer believe in the God to whom I used to pray, but rather that my beliefs about God are and have always been fluid, yet they arise and fall within the context of a relationship with God as God.

But that is not what I write here, nor is it what I mean. My experience is of one who prayed to a god that never existed. Not that there is not some reality to which the word "God" rightly points. But that what I used to mean by that word never was.

So, I don't pray. This is not a matter of policy, simply an articulation of historical fact. When I wake up in the morning, I no longer share my thoughts and words of hope for the day with the god I used to pray to. When I eat my meals - except when sitting at the dinner table with the whole family - I no longer offer thoughts and words of thanksgiving to the god I used to pray to. When I am sick, when I am mourning, when I am anxious, when I am afraid, I no longer turn those things, by any conscious act, over to the god I used to believe would keep me safe.

Yet these are not the only forms prayer takes, and that leads me (finally) to what is lost.

What is lost by my failure to attend to the divine in the course of my day-to-day living, no less than what is lost in the shoemaker's skipping of morning prayers to make his vocational offering, is the mystical component.

My "spiritual" atrophy (I detest the word "spiritual," not just because it so often left content-less, undefined, but also because it implies some sort of body-spirit dualism that is at the root of our collective sexual dysfunction) has robbed me of the tools I used to use to unpack that phrase "mystical component." It is, after all, such a subjective phrase, and I am no longer subject to the experience of mystical prayer. But, though Heschel is right (at least in my case) that "we may even come to forget what to regret, what to miss," I am still aware of missing something, regretting something. And that regret is no mere product of the guilt that was once instilled in me when my prayer life - no less than that of my religious leaders' - fell short of our professed ideals. It is less a guilt, and more the noted lack of something.

Of what?

I can't say. But I can say that, though I do not pray because I no longer believe that my prayers can manipulate either God or the universe, no responsible theology of prayer has ever advocated prayer as a form of manipulation in the first place. C.S. Lewis - by no means a "liberal" - famously noted that we pray not because it changes God, but because it changes us. Other voices have articulated similar sentiments. This understanding of prayer (and/or other religious disciples) as self-work permeates every religious tradition I am aware of.

Call it prayer or call it meditation, the act of simply sitting - in the presence of God, or just in stillness and solitude - can drive us so deeply into ourselves that we may come to see the fundamental absurdity of clinging to the claims of self. This may come from listening to the monkey-mind swing from branch to branch spouting the nonsense that we can so rarely see as such. Or this may come from bringing a list of claims and requests to God, only to see them for what they really are, a selfish hope for wish-fulfillment.

So I need to sit. I need to be still. I need to pray. Not to any particular deity who may choose - manipulated by my magical words - to supernaturally intervene in my life. But rather in the presence of the God in whom I need to be grounded, so that I can escape the infantile claims of self and become a more compassionate person.


Polymer said...

Your post on "Abstaining from Prayer" touched me deeply, because I know that you believe in God, but you cannot define God. I'll not try to preach to you, I am sure you can talk circles around me. But, I do feel deeply for you and I can feel your pain. I'll ask that you simply reread the last two paragraphs of the essay, and stop trying to define God. I firmly believe that God is within each of us and not some being "up there." God is real, and though at the moment you cannot seem to be able to find God. Be still -- God will find you.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.


(I, too, go to Holden Beach.)

Aspirant said...


I have forgotten how good your blog is.

There isn't much I can say here though this post touches me. I will not play psychoanalyst and wonder how your ministry experience feeds into your current experience, but I will offer some very weak thoughts.

You know I struggle with the problem of suffering (and the odd fact that children with leukemia exist in a world which also holds sublime beauty, sunrise and Mozart, and at times sacrificial love). I was browsing in a bookstore the other day and came across what is supposed to be CSL's last interview; after all his apologetic work, in 63, after his wife's death, he says something like "every war, every case of cancer, these are all powerful arguments against Christianity; it takes a strong faith in Christ to continue believing." Along those lines. I think that is the finest thing Lewis ever said on apologetics.

Thought experiment: what if there is no personal God and we just evolved without any overseeing or loving creator; what if all world religions are products of evolutionary needs? Well, if so, the sense of the spiritual/sacred is still very real, as you note. It is a need we have, to pray, to worship, to enter the sacred space. Music. Ritual. Language. I am convinced, even in my darkest moments of doubt, that most or at least some of us are much poorer without it, me foremost. And it does not seem to be all about assuaging anxiety. Talking to God, sharing fears and needs and hopes...even if God does not act on any of these in any way we see; it is still good for us, also as you note. And it may well be sometimes he does answer.

When I hear you speak of God's limitations, what I hear is of course theodicy. The only rational explanation for the problem of suffering is a limited God. You may well be right, Chris. Without the NT, experience would make it very hard for me to embrace theism and the NT by no means solves the problem. And you have read a shitload more than me on this as it is your area, or one of them. But while I used to think the answer Job provides to be ridiculous, I wonder at times. Job asks to see God, he does, he repents in ashes. The universe science has found so far is so energetic, so supremely vast and even bizarre I cannot imagine the Creator beyond it, if one exists. His relationship to the universe and to us must be complex indeed. Perhaps defined in terms we cannot even approach. This does not solve the problem, but it may be, bro, in your need for an intellectual handle, a dash of mystery is called for. It is for me. Does this help me when I see suffering innocents, the apparently random nature of human biology, death, and suffering. Not fully by any means. I do indeed hope Julian of Norwich is right and all will be well...but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet beyond the resurrection accounts.

And now it is late, and I am getting loopy tired. And it's really hard to remember what I wrote in this little box of text and keep my threads connected.

Ramble: I am thinking we see Jesus praying often in the know, I'm not very good at this myself, praying. It's one of the things I want to work on as part of my discernment. Does God answer prayers? Don't know.

But for those of us who like to think and have answers, settled conclusions, as much as you and me....well, maybe we simply do not have enough information to make assertions about the Deity on this one. Any conclusion might be inadequate or incorrect no matter the reason applied.

Now, I thought of all this while having my late night thanksgiving leftover splurge after I read your post, so this may not be worth anymore than the turkey and pie I just wolfed. But I do know this, as one who struggles very much with his own ability to experience the sacred, to trust God, to pray or meditate:

I know I miss you man. And it is fantastic to see your latest posts and the continuing wonder of your mind and heart. I hope all is well with your family. Looking forward to more reading here :)

Sandalstraps said...

Ford and Aspirant,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I greatly appreciate it when people I don't know (Ford) and those I do (Aspirant) take time to read through my more personal posts, and leave comments that respond to where I am rather than just what I believe about a particular hot-button topic.

While I've been fighting the culture wars in the comments section of another post, the two of you found your way not there, but here, where I've ever so clumsily laid myself out.


I've thought a great deal about what you wrote, but can't really respond to it. It requires not some rational response, but rather simply listening to the wisdom of someone whose experience may not be the same as my own, but is by no means less valid.


I miss you, too. There's so much in your comment that merits response, and I'll get to that just as soon as I get back home from our Thanksgiving vacation. For now, just know that I spent the whole time I read it nodding my head.

As a vegetarian, I'm not sure what the turkey's worth, but as a pie-lover I'll say this is worth even more than the apple pie and pumpkin pie I had yesterday, which is really saying something.

Polymer said...

Dear Chris –

I call you by this, since you have so obviously opened your soul to me and to others, that we must be on a first name basis. – Call me Ford.

I responded to your essay on Abstaining From Prayer. I now note that you have, indeed, found yourself praying. I consider this a sign that God has answered your prayers. The omnipotent God that you have professed does not exist. I told you before He does exist, and is within each of us – you too. This God in His wisdom has given each of us the power of “free will.” We make the choices whether for good or for evil. Now, I’m starting to preach and that is not my intent so forgive me.

Let me say that I have not forgotten you, and that I think of your pain often. I was drawn back to your website, and I had to see how you had progressed. As your friend, Aspirant, offered I am willing to listen to you anytime you wish to contact me. It might be easier for you to talk to someone you do not know than to talk to a close friend. I’ll send you my e-mail address, rather than post it here.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.