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.

Amen.

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