04 August 2007

Prayer, Maintaining a Human Perspective

(First published in Review For Religious, Nov-Dec 1987)

For most of us, prayer during desperate, frustrating, seemingly futile, or insignificant moments is itself often an experience in desperation, futility or insignificance. At these times, most of us have accused God of remaining remote and distant, and often we have attempted to blunt the sharpness of the accusation by clothing it in the misleading language of a shallow and inadequate pseudomysticism. We say, for instance, that God has "hidden himself," or "withdrawn" from us, and in fact, we turn away from the actual situation at hand, focusing instead on the supposed "absence of God". In the worst cases our prayer degenerates into attempts to induce God to return and redeem the situation in the way we believe best. All of this activity is irresponsible and essentially cowardly. Certainly it is inimical to prayer. Properly understood, prayer allows no appeal to God's "remoteness," and certainly it is never an occasion which prevents us from drinking as deeply as possible from the cup of human experience.

The fundamental premise on which all prayer is based and in which all prayer is grounded and enabled is the assertion that in Christ God has drawn near to us. Prayer always involves the recognition of this nearness. Prayer involves neither summons nor dismissal, that is, we do not actually ask God to draw near to us as though he had in some way remained distant from us. Rather, in prayer we open ourselves to the fact of God's presence. Prayer does not have the character of invitation so much as it does of welcome and appreciation.

Although the soundness of this premise rest on a clear Christological basis, that is, we know this is true because this is what the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus reveal to us, we can begin to develop the assertion by appealing to our fundamental experience of prayer itself. Prayer is the interpreted experience of being comprehended by God. (Isaiah describes the experience as one of "being held in the palm of his hand.") In prayer, we are known by God. In prayer we are loved by God. And in prayer we are served by God. Prayer is the conscious appreciation of His comprehension if us. If we have prayerfully attended to any moment in our lives, we know that we have first been known. Of course it is true that if our prayer is successful, we too will have known, loved, and served God, but the priority of experience is clearly God's total grasp of us. The psalmist, who shares the Isaianic experience, sings of this priority with wonderful awe and eloquence in psalm 139.

O God, you have searched and known me! You know when I sit and when I stand. . .You come upon me behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Being known so (such knowledge)is too wonderful for me; it is beyond me in every way, I cannot attain it.

Neither is the psalmist's experience unique: his is simply the articulation of one who is intoxicated by his appreciation of something we have all known in those moments we have genuinely privileged with our attention. Simply, we are graced by the presence by the presence of God at all moments of our lives; the tragedy is we do not grace all of those same moments with our own presence. Stating this in another way, we could say that prayer is the experience of God as the One he wishes to be for us rather than as we alone are aware of needing him to be, or even as we alone believe him to be. Prayer begins, ends, and is sustained by our concern for our commitment to the life of God. We pray whenever we appreciate how very surely, gently, and completely God holds us.

Such an understanding of prayer undergirds our ability to "pray always," for it implies that we can learn to recognize, welcome, and appreciate God's presence, not only in our most positive and profound experiences, but in the most negative, and perhaps more importantly, the most prosiac and homely as well. Praying well insists that we learn to regard even the negative or seemingly insignificant as the potentially significant locus of revelation, profound in its capacity to mediate God's commitment to us. We must believe that not only that God is near to us in the apparently profound, but also that he is always profoundly near; to pray it is necessary to believe that in Christ God has drawn near to us in all experience and will not depart from our midst.

As long as we feel we must exclude negative experiences such as doubt and despair from the realm of faith or the province of prayer, or that we can blithely disregard the "mundane," we can be sure our prayer will remain severely inadequate and deeply troubled. For if the primary experience in prayer is that of being comprehended by God, to question that he knows, loves, and serves us in any of the moments of our life is to question the integrity of his commitment to and apprehension of his own creation in general. The result is human uncertainty and tentativeness in the face of divine assurance, and we will not be able to avoid asking whether his knowledge of us is incomplete, his love inadequate, and his grace uncertain if we cannot believe that his living presence is the ground of all of our existence and experience.

To exclude God, to assert his absence from any moment or mood of his creation, particularly our confession of our own sinfulness, is to abandon prayer. But note well, the failure of prayer results not when we experience absence, emptiness, or even abandonment; if that were the case much of our lives would cease to reflect God's real relationship to his creation in any way. Prayer fails when we forget that when we experience these, or any other feelings with regard to God, we can pray by attending to how God experiences us in these moments. Failure to evaluate the situation in this way can signify we have forgotten the fundamental experience of prayer and marks the most critical loss of perspective possible. Individual experiences are themselves wrongly interpreted in our interpretation is focused on our initiative rather than upon the initiative of God. Thus despair, for instance, does not represent the absence of God; rather it is a particularly difficult and intense, while mistakenly interpreted experience of God's nearness in conjunction with human brokenness and isolation.

But such an understanding of prayer is also necessary if we are to pray at all --- and for an even more significant reason: God is not someone subject to the coercion and whim of a human summons. It is true that the language of prayer uses expressions of invitation; but it does so only as expressions of our own desire for increased intimacy and in acknowledgement of the need for better appreciation on our own part. It is tragically misunderstood if it is interpreted as a form of summons, no matter how graciously extended; for no matter how "graciously extended," it will always lack the humility appropriate to humanity and necessary for prayer and summon a "God" who can only be inadequate to the role and a parody of the name. Prayer is the gift and activity of God attended to by sinners. It will always be inadequate insofar as it does depend upon our appreciation; however, prayer is possible only because God has acted, has loved us and determined to serve us in our need. Our prayer is required if God's activity is to come to fruition; it is never required, however, to summon God into action. If such an image lingers in our understanding of prayer, we can be very certain we have arrogated the divine initiative to ourselves, and diminished both ourselves and God in the process.

Yet, at the same time we renounce our supposed ability to summon God on the spot, we presume God's nearness. The Christ Event gives us the right to this particular presumption. In life, in death, and in our despairing over both, God has drawn near. Whether our experience sings of ecstasy or screams in doubt, fear, and hopelessness, above and below all, we presume God's nearness. Prayer is always an act of presumption, but it is the only presumption God's presence allows; it is always an act of profoundest humility. That God has drawn near, we who are sometimes aware of our seeing and tasting and touching of the Risen Lord, cannot doubt. But the paradox that we cannot doubt even when we feel we must, and even when we are only aware of doing so, must reduce us as it did the psalmist, and certainly as it did Jesus, not to arrogance but to awe.