Last Sunday, Jeanne and I stumbled across Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie “Nixon” as we were surfing through the channels. In the last few minutes of the movie, on the same evening that he signed his letter of resignation from the Presidency, Richard Nixon (played by the always-brilliant Anthony Hopkins) gets a reluctant Henry Kissinger to kneel with him to pray in the Oval Office. A jarringly out-of-place activity, it would seem, for the disgraced and apparently unrepentant Nixon–but then prayer has seemed jarring and forced to me for most of my life. I reflected on that about a year ago in the essay below.
Wednesday night prayer meeting—yet another opportunity to go to church. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time.
Many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t “work.” This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Kathleen Norris
I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.
How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just “talk to God the same way I talk to her.” That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling.
Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. Annie Dillard
Remnants of my Baptist upbringing reared their head the first time I saw the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The whole idea of written, non-spontaneous prayer was foreign to me, despite the beauty of many of the petitions in the book. I’ve gotten used to the idea, though, since I’ve spent my working career with people trained in the “prepared prayer” camp. As the chair and only non-Catholic in a large philosophy department, for instance, it fell to me to ask a colleague to open our monthly meetings with prayer. I was expected, of course, to ask the professionals, one of my priest colleagues, so I took great delight in occasionally asking a lay colleague just before the meeting. Without fail, you would have thought I had asked the colleague to solve several problems in differential calculus on the spot—apparently Catholics aren’t used to praying on a moment’s notice, with priests in the room and no prepared text at hand. Well, at least I thought the reaction was funny.
My overall attitude about prayer over the years has been, sad to say, an angry one. Prayer is supposed to be such a central part of the life of faith, but the transactional model I had been taught revealed God to be arbitrary, powerless, uninterested, or hard of hearing. Angry prayer doesn’t do much to establish a prayer life with one’s spouse, especially a spouse who, like Jeanne, seems to take to prayer as naturally as a duck to water.
There is an affinity between cursing and praying . . . both forms of discourse address what is out of human control: one with a destructive and the other with a creative purpose. Both praying and cursing flow from frustration. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham
One day after expressing my frustration about the whole prayer thing to her, Jeanne said something that, for the first time, began to chip away at my icy attitude about talking to God. “Vance,” she said, “for you thinking is praying.” And since I do much of my thinking in the context of reading, I took that to mean that maybe when I’m reading I’m praying too.
When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God. Kathleen Norris
That was the most helpful thing anyone ever said to me about prayer and, in turn, it freed me to hear from my teachers what else prayer might be.
Among the writers who have been most important to me over the past several years, there turns out to be an amazing consensus about what prayer is and is not. It definitely is not begging, asking, bartering, transactional, projecting religious white noise into the void. Rather, it has to do with openness, with waiting, with an attentiveness that does not fill in the silence but, as Adorno said, is “fearlessly passive.”
Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. Iris Murdoch
Experiencing Benedictine noon prayer over the past few years has helped me with this. There is more silence than speaking in their petitions, between the lines of the psalms that we read together and between each portion of the rubric. I’ve heard “Be still and know that I am God” since my childhood, but finding myself a part of it in action is transformative.
As a new attitude of attention develops, it has slowly been possible to return to spoken prayer without all of my previous baggage. Yet for the most part, prayer is an attitude rather than something verbal, an attitude that begins with finding the silent space inside. Some days are tougher than others, the sorts of days when Anne Lamott’s insight that the best prayers are often “Help! Help!” or “Thank you! Thank you!” rings true. But when Jeanne said to me a while ago that my prayers aren’t angry any more, I was both thankful and aware that a change had indeed begun.
The essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel