PRAYER: The Foundations of Prayer, by Philip and Carol Zaleski

From Prayer: A History

Prayer encompasses heaven and earth; it tangles angels, paramecia, and humans in its cosmic web.  Prayer can be brief — “short prayers penetrate heaven,” says the anonymous author of the mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, who recommends the one-syllable exclamation, “God!” as the ideal prayer.  Or prayers can be long, stretching for months on end, interrupted only by essential needs of the body, as in the lives of some religious ascetics.  Prayer can take place alone or in a vast fellowship, on the deathbed, or in the wedding chamber.  Prayer’s scope extends from the private ceremonies of the morning toilet to the public arenas of politics and war.  Prayer can be a matter of high aesthetics, as in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, or of low humor, as in Apuleius’s brayings in The Golden Ass.  Prayer can also be a matter of spiritual surrender, as French philosopher Simone Weil reveals in one of her letters to Father Perrin: “In 1937 I had two marvelous days at Assisi.  There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”

One may be seized by prayer, as happened to the apostles on Pentecost, or one may lust after prayer, like some of the Virasaiva saints of medieval India, or one may resist prayer with all one’s might and yet pray nonetheless with all one’s might, as famously happens to the atheist in the foxhole.  Prayer may lead one to God, or it may convince one of God’s absence.  Prayer can bless or prayer can bite (“When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers,” says Oscar Wilde).  Prayer may help one to quit alcohol, stay off drugs, or become a better parent.  Prayer may cure an incurable illness or save an unsalvageable marriage.  Prayer works miracles, not least in the one who prays, (Søren Kierkegaard: “Prayer does not change God but it changes him who prays”).  For those who have contemplated the subject, prayer is a cosmos whose center is everywhere, in every human heart, and whose circumference is nowhere, in the infinity of God.  Something of the limitless universe of prayer shines brightly through a Christian lens in the following celebrated poem by George Herbert (1593-1633):

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Banquet, age, breath, soul, plummet, engine, thunder, spear, world, tune, manna, heaven, man, milky way, bird of Paradise, church-bells, blood, land of spices: this torrent of concrete nouns reveals prayer’s depth and breadth.  Herbert’s litany contains images of feasting, warfare, art, religion, agriculture, and industry, which leads to another important truth about our subject: prayer lies at the heart of culture.  

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