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
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.
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.