Sermon on the Nature of Prayer

“I will pray for you,” the mother says to her lost son.

“You’re in my prayers,” says the funeral attendee to the grief-stricken relative.

“Pray for me,” the frightened hero says to his love interest.

Lately, I’m not prone to turning down prayers from strangers or loved ones.  You want to pray for me, go ahead.  Your prayers certainly won’t hurt me, if they don’t necessarily help.  The world never suffers from more kindness.

But sometimes the statement “I will pray for you” falls flat.  I can almost see it die somewhere between the speaker’s mouth and my ear cavity.  Or, it’s so vaporous, so full of casual levity, that the wind catches it as soon as it exhales into air.

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of prayer–what is it, exactly?

“I will pray for you” is an active statement.  I, subject.  Will pray, verb.  Direct object, you.  As a statement it also implies that the speaker will create something–the prayer–as though our bodies can conjure up a physical, produceable thing with shape and form and then offer it to God.  Here, God, I made you this prayer. 

The syntax implies that we provide the contents and God the vessel for them.

What if prayer works the other way around?

Mother Theresa once said, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

Similarly, Ghandi said, “Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is a daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Both of those quotes evoke emptiness, a void, a lack of words or desires, and turn the person who prays into the vessel for God’s grace.  What is longing if not a chasm?  And if the goal of prayer is not to request or complain or beg, if we are not the subject but the object, not the giver but the receiver, and in prayer we hollow ourselves before God, then prayer must be intensely personal and private.  I could no more do it for someone else than I could peel back their scalp and read their thoughts.

Prayer is not purpose-driven, but instead a motion toward the most sublime passivity.  And in that sense, it strikes me as essentially feminine in nature.

For example, one synonym of empty or hollow is barren.  

Prayer is an emptying out, an act of becoming the vacancy, the womb, into which the seed of God’s grace implants itself and grows into a thing we could not have conceived of on our own, and is never what we ask for or expect, a thing that we carry, a wondrous thing that sails through us, but is not of us.

When I understand prayer this way, I feel more comforted lately than when I imagine prayers said for me dissipating as they aim upward with their flimsy wings.

Sylvia Plath–less virtuous and well-adjusted perhaps than Mother Theresa or Ghandi, but nevertheless a mentor for me–said, “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”

May I be that empty sky and God talk to me.


5 thoughts on “Sermon on the Nature of Prayer”

  1. Fantastic! This reminds me of something I heard about Judaism once – that the term “chosen people” came about because for the first monotheists, they believed that God was so awesome and powerful that he could only choose them, they couldn’t choose him.

    Also, I read Haruki Murakami’s *Kafka on the Shore* this week, and he talks about how crossing over into this other spirit world (sort of like heaven…?) empties you completely, but leaves you peaceful.

  2. prayer never really made sense to me, either–or seemed cheap and bargain-y, like a Christmas wish list, until a dear friend who happens to be an Episcopal priest (& was my teacher at one point) observed that my in-class doodles were a kind of prayer. now I “prayer doodle” actively, letting myself empty out that way.

    I grew up meditating and chanting/singing hymns, which is kind of Hinduism’s version of prayer–sometimes that activity, whether it’s prayer or not, is welcome when one feels compelled to “do something” on those occasions when there’s really nothing to *do*.

    I am guilty of saying “I will pray for you,” but I try to speak it into listenings that I know will be receptive to such a statement…I have asked for prayer from friends who believe, deeply, in its power, and I have to say there’s something kind of powerful about knowing folks are praying “for” you, whatever that means. in the way that funerals are for the living, prayer is really for the one praying, in the way you so articulately point out.

    1. Nishta–

      I believe, too, that kinds of prayers, especially chants and repeating prayers (like saying a rosary, for example) are forms of meditation meant to “empty out.” That’s why they feel more powerful to me than, say, a prayer before dinner (although gratitude is always a good thing). I like the idea of “prayer doodle.” Might steal that.

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