Recently, in an e-mail exchange, Gerard Van der Leun brought up the issue of prayer, and how it was a difficult learning experience for him. Like so much in the world of web logs, a seed gets planted which starts you thinking. Well, Gerard’s been thinking — and writing — while I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts box for a month. Seems like one of those pokes in the ribs that awakens you when you’re in the blessed arms of Morpheus — and snoring…
The subject of prayer is a fascinating one for me in many ways, not only because of its effect on my life, but because — as a logical-sequential scientist by profession and disposition, I want to understand how it works — and I don’t, and I can’t. But it does. And that cognitive dissonance drives me a little nuts.
Billions of words have been written on prayer, by foolish and wise, scholarly and simple. For the secular skeptic, baptized into the random meaninglessness of a life accidental, it must seem odd — if they stop to think of it, which I suspect they rarely do — that mankind throughout eons and cultures has devoted so much time and energy to a pointless litany of words directed to the non-existent. Even among we who confess to the existence and significance of a Being higher than ourselves, prayer confounds and frustrates us, as we search for some formula, some talisman to garner the attention and blessing of the invisible, inscrutable deity.
But this does not keep us from trying. The drunk asks God to help him out of this jam, promising not to drink again. The agnostic pleads with God that the biopsy not show cancer. The unhappy spouse prays that her husband change to her liking. We pray for money, for success, for jobs, for relief from emotional agony and physical pain. We pray ritualistically, hoping that by repetition an indifferent or annoyed God will throw some crumb our way to get us off His case.
Prayer, perhaps more than anything else, reveals what we think about God and about ourselves in relationship to such deity. If our God is remote, abstract, indifferent, then our prayers will have the character of whistling through the graveyard — hoping against hope that the very act of addressing this unknown force will ward off fear of some greater evil closer at hand. If we serve an angry, judgmental power — vengeful and quick to accuse — then we will pray from fear, pleading nervously for mercy while recommitting ourselves to the required perfection we have no hope of achieving. If we worship Santa Claus, then endless lists of self-gratifying demands will appear, as we hope we have been less naughty than nice.
Like nothing else, prayer reveals the smallness of our god and the poverty of our souls. It lays forth the preconceptions which rule our lives and the limits which bind us — if we will but take the time to examine them. Gerard, in his thoughtful meditation, says the following:
In fact, whole elements of religion are centered around having you find and keep a personal relationship with God. But just because you have a personal relationship with God (and you should), doesn’t mean God has to have a personal relationship with you. He is, after all, God and He’s got a whole universe to run. It’s a big place and He’s just one God and He’s busy.
Far be it from me to disparage a friend’s worldview or theology (and this is most certainly not my intent) — my own will likely be the standing joke at the Pearly Gates. But his depiction — intended to be humorous, if I read correctly (in risio, veritas?) — nevertheless strikes me as a nearly-universal presumption, a governor principle on the engine of God. This understanding of God — called theism by those who put names to God-ideas — has just never made a lot of sense to me. God — whose presumed job is to handle very big enterprises — sets out to create a spectacular universe of unspeakable complexity and beauty. At the high point of His craftsmanship, He creates a being a lot like Himself — capable of thought, reason, passion, beauty, love, creativity — and gives this creature a glimpse of the spiritual, of that which is beyond time, place, and limits, beyond the physical, in a universe without dimensions. He endows this being with a relational spirit, made whole through interaction both with Himself and with others of like kind. Having crafted such an extraordinary masterpiece, the blind watchmaker then supposedly just walks away — too busy polishing the instruments and arranging the sheet music to listen to the symphony He has created. I for one find this concept of God implausible, unfulfilling and even cruel — to say the least.
A God who can craft a universe of unspeakable vastness and beauty with but a word, who designs galaxies and gamma particles, black holes and hummingbirds, is not stressed out by its administration. We have no grasp of the infinite — after endless accomplishments, there are endless more yet to come: there is no exhausting the infinite. There is only one limit on His limitlessness: the limits I place by believing He can’t, or won’t, or is too busy, or not interested.
So what then of prayer? Is it the missing nucleotide in the DNA of evolution, as Gerard postulates? A cosmic post-it note? Perhaps, although I prefer to think of it rather differently — it is, to my mind, the coffee house of another, non-dimensional world, the spiritual world. A world not bounded by time or space, limits or liabilities. It is friends — not equals, mind you, but close, trusted friends — sitting together over too-strong brew, sharing odd thoughts, mulling questions, venting frustrations, angry, remorseful, laughing, weeping — melding hearts, two into one.
It is in many ways an odd but satisfying conversation: I speak, He listens — yet somehow I know what He is thinking, and He most surely knows my thoughts. It is decidedly non-linear. The questions I ask, the problems I present, are answered — always. But not in words, almost never at the time I speak or ask. But I know they have been answered — although the fruition, the language, the form of the answer may be hours, months, years away. It may arrive as circumstances, or in a conversation with a complete stranger in another time and place, or in an entirely unexpected — even unwanted — change of heart or inner peace about some deeply troubling or puzzling dilemma. Yet I know it is God’s answer — the answer He gave me back at that table, shootin’ the breeze and guzzling joe. It is a conversation freed from time and space — bizarre, but strangely more real than that which we unwisely and hastily call “reality.”
Now the skeptic will ask — including the skeptic in my own head — how do you know? What proof do you have that these occurrences, these thoughts, these conversations and situations, have anything to do with God? Are they not mere chance, wishful thinking, psychological crutches, neuro-endocrine surges that my highly-evolved cerebrum maps into culturally-molded thought patterns?
Of course, the skeptic’s challenge contains a presumption — one rarely recognized, in fact: that everything which exists, all that is real, can be measured, tested, analyzed, proven, and recorded. But much which is human — perhaps all which makes us uniquely human — is beyond such simple means of measurement and proof. How much does love weigh? What are the dimensions of courage? What is the deceleration velocity of a failing marriage? What color is hope? What formula predicts despair? Why does a rose smell exquisite, but a rotten egg horrendous? Sure, we can speak of neurotransmitters and aromatic organic compounds, but such things touch on the spirit, and the tools of the physical realm are wholly inadequate as inquisitors. The disciplines which come closest to addressing these matters — psychology and social science — are at best mediocre observers — and miserable failures at repairing the damaged spirit. Don’t believe this? Ask your friendly secular psychologist to explain the phenomenon of evil — then sit back and enjoy the blubbering blather of psychobabble which results. Evil will be alive and well — and wholly uncomprehended — when he finishes.
I do not point this out to dodge the question of proof, or disparage a profession, but simply to illustrate the inadequacy of physical science — or reason handcuffed by concrete presumptions — to measure the real yet intangible realm of the spirit: you cannot measure your shoe size with a Geiger counter. But the evidence is there, in abundance, if you know where to look. Medicine is near-miraculous at healing the body — and miserable at healing the spirit. We can cure cancer, but not save marriages; give you new kidneys, but not flush the impurities from your mind or the hatred from your heart. But prayer can — and does — do just that, a work far more miraculous than a wonder drug or robotic surgery. When a hopeless drunk, an avowed atheist, starts to pray out of desperation to a god he doesn’t believe in, and loses the compulsion to drink, it is an aberration; when it happens to two drunks, a coincidence; when it happens to tens of thousands, it begins to look a lot like evidence. What cure will you seek for unhappiness? (Hint: it’s not a new car, a younger, trade-in wife, or a diamond-shaped blue pill). Medicine can kill the pain, but not cure the spirit; prayer can do both.
Of course, it is not the prayer itself, but the power it unleashes, which accomplishes such things. Gravity worked the same for Cro-Magnon man as it does for a modern physicist; understanding the force changes it not one wit. But you say: I prayed for this or that — many times, even — and it did not happen: prayer does not work. And here’s the rub: the power behind prayer is not an inert physical force, but an infinitely wise and caring God. Whether you believe in Him or not, He exists, He listens — and amazingly (given our reprobate nature), always has our best interest at heart. As I look back at my own life, were I to have received a tenth of the things I asked for in prayer, my life would be an unmitigated disaster. God knows when to say “no”, where to say “wait”; He knows how to listen to what I ask for and give me instead what I really need, and truly want.
There is one secret ingredient to make prayer work: trust. Gotta have it. Can God work without your trust? Sure — the rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the proverb says. Our problem is we want to understand God before we trust Him. We want Him to strut His stuff, lightning bolts and miracles and the like, before we’ll acquiesce and maybe give Him a break. Sorry, that’s not trust — just the opposite. But God cannot be understood — even in a limited way with our most enfeebled minds — until we first trust Him. Sounds like a bum deal, a Catch-22, but that’s just the way it works. Get over it — you won’t regret it.
And one last thought in this long-winded essay: If you’re new to this prayer thing (or even not so new), start small. Praying for world peace or a cure for your cancer is fine, but a bit grandiose for starters. Pray about your misplaced car keys, finding a parking spot, the wisdom to deal with that difficult patient, or co-worker, or child, or situation. Then open your eyes, your ears, your heart for the response. You won’t hear it every time — but I bet you’ll be surprised how often you do, and you’ll learn something about God, about yourself, and in some small way about how this spiritual world works.
And set aside a little time for a cup o’ joe with God — good news is, He’s already picked up the tab.