From The Church in her House
Prayer is simply conversation. Granted, it is conversation with the Holy One, who is creator and sustainer of all that is, so not just any kind of conversation. But it is best to begin by thinking about the character of ordinary conversations, in their simplicity as well as their complexity, before we turn our thoughts to divine conversation.
The best conversations we can think of are, at heart, occasions of reciprocity. We engage both in speaking and in listening. When we speak, we aim to be as truthful and clear as possible. When we listen, we aim to be as attentive and compassionate as we can. And when both conversation partners aim for both, then true conversation takes place. Such occasions, we know, can be quite rare. They grow best in the soil of radical equality, in a relationship of equals. But when they happen, we have a glimpse of what divine conversation can be.
In terms of content, conversations may either offer something (information, encouragement, or thanks for example). These same categories apply to prayer conversation as well. That is, we might offer something to the Holy One in prayer: thanks, praise, gifts. Or we might ask for something from the Holy One in prayer: healing, forgiveness, protection, or simply to be heard. But when we begin to think of conversation in terms of conversation with the Holy One, creator and sustainer of the universe, we begin to wonder, what can the nature of such conversation be? If the best conversations are heart-to-heart, in honest speaking and compassionate listening, how can such a radically equal conversation take place between humans and the Holy? Traditionally this dilemma of difference has been resolved by assigning to God the status of a human ruler or authority of some kind: king, father, or master, and by assuming that if the Holy One has much power, we humans (or other beings) must have less.
But must difference always be symbolized by hierarchical models and zero-sum definitions of power? What if difference is just that: difference in kind, in substance, in any other category we care to name? What if the difference between humans and the Holy One is like the difference between humans and a hawk, for example, or a deer, or a bear, or a whale? Once we ask this question, we recognize that other religious cultures have made precisely that identification, as has our own. God is like an eagle; God is like a mother bear; God is like a tiny seed.
This approach to understanding the One to whom we pray invites another model for prayer, that of encounter. And in encounters between unlike beings, speech is likely not the best means, or at least the only means, of communication. We may still understand this encounter as conversation, but now the meaning of the word conversation must shift. The language must shift, and the temporal context must shift, and the spatial context must shift.
There is the language of gesture, movement, and posture: a language of bodies that we also use among humans and at times in our encounters with nonhuman animals. The shift of body weight on the back of a horse, the movement of hand or eye to a dog or cat – we have some familiarity with this language. Among humans, we use body language extensively, including not only gesture and movement, but also our very expressive facial muscles.
There is also the language of color and light. This is a language widely used by birds, who seek out food sources, at least in part, by color. Hummingbirds famously seek sources of food that are colored red, and they can be enticed to include among the red flowers they feed from your backyard feeder made of red plastic. Humans make use of this language also when we wear bright colors to express (or create) feelings of joy and celebration or subdued and dark colors to express sorrow. All living beings respond to light and darkness and require both in order to live and grow. Humans use light and darkness not only for cycles of work and rest, but also for artistic and dramatic expressions.
Then there is the language of scent. The power of pheromones is found among insects, plants, and mammals, as olfactory communication that can convey alarm, territorial limits, or sexual availability. Insects and nonhuman mammals depend on this means of communication for survival. For humans, olfactory communication typically takes place at a level beyond (or below) conscious awareness, but we often employ scents intentionally to affect the environment, to express peace or sensuality or to stimulate appetite.
Conversations, then, can take place in a wide variety of languages, languages in which we as human beings of particular cultural and linguistic groups may not be fluent or even conversant. How much more complex, and even alien, is the language in which we converse with the Holy One?
The history of Christian prayer, especially public prayer, has made use of all of these languages at some time or another. We have used words: spoken and amplified and intensified, at times, with music. We have used sounds: bells, drums, organs, and harps. We have used gestures: bowing, making signs of the cross, lifting our hands in praise, clasping our hands in entreaty. We have used color in priestly vestments and banners and glass and paint. We have used light, in darkened chapels and rooms full of light, in candles and in light filtered through colored glass. We have used scent: incense, candle wax, perfumed oil. And sometimes, when our need to be heard was intense, we have used them all at once.
And, of course, in addition to these, or better, as a complement to these, we have used silence: silence of our own prayer, silent waiting on the response from the Holy One. And in our waiting, we do well to remember that we are beings who live short and hasty lives, compared to the everlasting life of God. Our human interactions teach us of the power of silence as a means of communication: the companionable silence of dear friends, the expectant silence that draws out true conversation, the patient silence in times of pain. We know that silence is not absence of communication, but yet another language of communication.
If we use all these languages in order to communicate, not only with one another but also with the Holy One, is it possible that the Holy One, in turn, might choose to communicate with us by means of the same languages? Because we often give priority to verbal communication, and because prayer, Christian prayer, has traditionally focused on worded prayer, we sometimes assume that the Holy One will respond in like kind. but we do well to learn to be attentive to the many languages around us, languages in which the Holy One may choose to speak to us: in sound, in silence, in breath of air, in song of bird, in scent, in light, and in darkness.
The wisdom discovered through feminist ritual pathways may provide helpful guidelines in thinking about prayer as this rich conversation with the Holy One. The wisdom of our lives teaches us to long for true conversation, to hold fast to what poet Adrienne Rich calls “a dream of a common language.” We cannot be content with language of prayer that is banal, superficial, inauthentic, or manipulative. The wisdom of our bodies teaches us to seek communication that employs all our senses and that, in employing them, honors them. This bodied wisdom teaches us to give careful attention to the nonverbal aspects of prayer, lest we incorporate, literally, behaviors of submission and passivity. It teaches us to embody and enact our prayers with joy and fearlessness. The wisdom of our suffering and struggle cautions us to take care that our use of prayer be attentive to the needs of others, to listen attentively and with compassion. This wisdom encourages us to explore means of practicing resistance to suffering (our own as well as that of others) by learning forms of lament, exorcism, and even curses, and by learning practices of blessings for those who resist with courage and grace. The wisdom of our relationships teaches us the values of openness, honesty, patience, and compassion, and shows us the blessings of true conversations of the heart as models for our prayers to the Holy One and as means by which the Holy One may choose to speak to us. Our relational wisdom also teaches us to attend to our connections to the nonhuman world in which we are enmeshed, to listen for their voices, however different from ours, to learn from their lives, to see in them new possibilities for communication with the Holy One.