Who Are You talking To Anyway?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I really learned how to pray only about a half a dozen years ago. Not, as I would assume most would learn how, through grace and necessity, but because I took a class in it. I have mentioned before that I spent the first two of my three academic years in a Methodist seminary. Having grown up in a strongly humanistic UU church, this was my first real foray into things Christian. It was, you might say, an immersion not a sprinkling. Anyway, I was sitting at a table with a rather ecumenical mix of students and our teacher, Sister Joan Marie Smith, who was explaining the sheet of paper that was going around the table for us to sign-up on for either the opening or the closing prayers of the next eight class sessions. And I learned to pray right then and there, “O God, please let the list be full before it gets to me.”
But that was not the way it worked out. And about half way through the quarter, I lead the rest of my class in one hell of a prayer. I had spent the prior three weeks composing it in my head and editing it so that it would neither shock nor scare them too much, but was something I could authentically say. And I practiced it late at night to get just the right emphasis here and inflection there. It was a great performance, if I do say so myself. And I even ended it with theological integrity. I didn’t do the “In Jesus’ name we pray,” as most of the students did. I said, “In the name of all that is holy, may it be so.” I felt really good afterward, and everyone seemed to be fine with it. It wasn’t until about a week later that it began to bother me that what I had really given to my classmates was not a prayer, but a performance.
Since then I have grown more accustomed to and more honest with prayer, due in large part to grace and necessity. Since my first unsettling experience with prayer back in the classroom, I have been seeking to find through reason and study a deeper understanding as to what is going on and to be able to articulate this. But as someone once said, “We learn to love by loving.” (Iris Murdoch) I found it a little helpful to try to think through what function prayer served and what language to use. But I also kept praying, hoping, really, that no one would catch me doing it because I had not at that time figured out why I was trying to figure this out!
In my searching, I found a wide variety of prayer styles, of ways to pray, from throughout the world’s religions. Some pray with legs crossed and hands on knees. Others pray standing up with arms and eyes stretched high. Some pray with eyes closed, head bowed, and hands clasped. Others pray knelt down, head to the ground, with arms stretched out toward a holy city. Some pray with dance and song, others with work and toil. As the Sufi mystic Jalal Ud-Din Rumi says, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are hundreds of ways to express to that which is holy the things which you need to say.
The antiphonal reading today was a composite I made of sayings from a variety of people, saints and mystics, educators and reformers among them. The commonality was that for all of these people, prayer was central to their lives. Perhaps this is most noticeable in the quote from Susan B. Anthony: “Work and worship are one with me.” I like that a lot.
And yet many people, including myself at times, take a more banal view. The entertainer, Flip Wilson, is noted for saying, “I’m going to pray now, does anyone need anything?” This view of prayer, as some form of wish-fulfillment technique, is common, insidious, and unfortunately scriptural. “Ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened.” I’ve heard some of my fellow students at the Christian seminary push this view. When one person had a car that kept breaking down, his friend said, “Pray for a new car. If you need a new car, ask God, and He will provide.”
Now, this is not the type of dilemma faced among Unitarian Universalists. We don’t tend to go to that extreme. We seem to have a different set of obstacles. Now, with all blanket statements such as the kind I am about to make, there are exceptions. But there is an abundance of reservation about prayer among Unitarian Universalists, to say the least.
I have often felt rather out of place around some of my Unitarian Universalist acquaintances when I admit that I pray. Prayer is one of those things one does not readily admit to in our circles without a disclaimer. And I imagine that people look at me funny when I admit to praying. And I sometimes worry that those UUs with whom I share the fact that I pray will somehow poke holes of theological inconsistency in my spiritual practices with questions like: “What happens when you pray? Do you think that your prayers will somehow change the structure of the natural universe?” Or, “How can you tell whether it works or if you are just fooling yourself?” And even for prayers that do not ask for anything, I imagine I will be asked, “Who are you talking to, anyway?”
I pray to God. One of the well-worn jokes about Unitarian Universalists says that UUs pray “to whom it may concern.” We have a lot of difficulty with that word “God” and what it means. Even if we talk about the non-personified concept of God, does this ‘ground of being,’ this ‘cosmic urge’ have an ear to listen to our prayers? Our way of faith is the thoughtful and reasoned way. We are the skeptic’s choice. This would seem to rule out corporate prayer. And for some of us, it does. There are those among us who certainly do not pray and perhaps feel uncomfortable when prayers are recited during Sunday service. There may be a variety of reasons for this. Some may feel that prayer smacks too much of an anthropomorphized deity, with ears to hear and a long flowing beard and all that. Others may find it is a matter of conscience and theological integrity. For these members of our church I say: well and good! Ours is a free church.
However, I would press you a bit. Because if it just bothers you, if it is just the idea of prayer that seems a bit off to you then I would suggest to you what Sister Joan Marie suggested to a student in that class I mentioned earlier. This student expressed growing discomfort with intercessory prayer, with prayers that ask for things from God. Sister Joan Marie smiled at him and said, “You’ll do fine, sweetheart. Just keep praying. It takes some people longer.” Just keep praying. Just stick with it. Our prayers on Sunday morning are communal prayers. It’s not YOUR prayer; it’s OUR prayer. Communal prayers are based on “We.” Eventually it comes around to you. Just keep praying, particularly when you have trouble believing it.
I recognize that this is not easy and I won’t pretend that it is. I would not go so far as to say that what is being suggested here is akin to forcing yourself to believe that the world is flat by repeating it again and again. No. Prayer should never be about denying the natural world. But how then does one both affirm the natural universe and engage it with what one would hope to be a dialogue? Perhaps we have the wrong end of the dialogue image.
I have found many people who say that they do not pray; instead they meditate. They don’t talk. They listen. Soren Kierkegaard tells a story of a man who thought prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until he realized that prayer is listening. But listening to what? What does God sound like? And how is one to tell when one has heard it? Thomas Keating, a Catholic teacher and theologian, agrees with Annie Dillard as we heard her in this morning’s reading. Keating says, “Silence is the language Gods speak and everything else is a bad translation.”
There is even an explanation for this in the Bible. The story is from the time when the Israelites had only recently begun to wander in the desert. They are camping around mount Sinai while Moses is going up and down the mountain fetching commandments and dietary restrictions and tabernacle measurements, and the people witness the “Thick darkness where God was” … “And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking.” And it scared them witless; and they went to Moses and asked him to talk to God about it and to beg God to please not speak to them directly. “Let not God speak with us lest we die,” they said. And Moses took this message to God, who apparently agreed. He agreed not to speak with the people anymore.
Annie Dillard, in reflecting on this exchange, this request of the Israelites and God’s apparent agreement, writes:
It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and then change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.
This is a continuation of what she was saying in the reading this morning about her neighbor Larry, who is trying to teach a stone to talk, and how “Nature’s silence is its one remark.” “We are here to witness,” she continues.
There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need. Until Larry teaches his stone to talk, or God changes his mind, all we can do with the whole inhuman array is watch it. The silence is all there is. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence. Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.
That last line, “pray without ceasing” is from the letters of Paul in the Bible and has given many Christians as well as other religious folks no small amount of consternation. To “pray without ceasing” is not to necessarily mutter your pleas for mercy and adoration to God constantly. To “pray without ceasing” surely cannot mean that one is to do nothing else! It must mean we are to have prayer be central, to lead a prayerful life. As Susan B. articulated, work and worship can be one.
Perhaps we tend to have difficulty with prayer because it is of an intimate nature. This intense element of intimacy may be the reason why it is often so difficult to talk about prayer with other people. And further, if work and worship are to be one, if we are to live a prayerful life, can we stand to live at that intense level of intimacy constantly? No small task, I assure you. I have tried. I have listened to the silence, I have sung to the wind my joy and have shouted my pain to the swaying pines. I have knelt on the floors of cathedrals and at the shores of quiet lakes. I have held lonely hands at hospital bedsides, and have felt the long embrace of dear friends. I have nailed drywall for Habitat for Humanity, and I sing my children to sleep most every night. All of this has been prayer. I have tried. I have tried. Prayer can be, and perhaps at its best is, of the utmost intimacy. What more can I say, other than, “Thus it is with my experience of prayer.”
Meditation is a silencing; prayer is more a breaking of silence. With prayer you can express those things within you at your deepest level, even if you do not have words for it. I believe my prayers do not change God or the structure of the natural universe; they change me. I find this to be a far more fearsome and miraculous position that the opposite. If you will let it, prayer can change you, as well. Just begin where you are. “We learn to love by loving.” “You’ll do fine, sweetheart.” And I suppose, failing all that, if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.
In a world without end, may it be so.