American Christians seem to have rediscovered prayer. And even among the quasi-religions that so profitably proliferate today, prayer, as either meditation, recollection, chanting, or auto-suggestion, makes up a good deal of their appeal. The no-nonsense, square-jawed, steely-eyed social activist has turned into a mellower man, convinced, whether by the Bermuda triangle or by possibility thinking or by something else, of a spiritual realm wherein lie great and untapped reservoirs of power. And, as with the Alaskan pipeline or the North Sea discoveries, everyone wants to get in on it.

Many scoff at ignorant dupes who send their pension pittances to radio preachers for a special petition on their behalf; yet some of those same scoffers will part with a tidy sum themselves to receive a few secret syllables to repeat over and over in the search for peace. There are chain prayer letters warning of dire consequences if the magic spell is broken. Books of folksy monologues with God written in a somewhat choppy free-verse fashion twirl round on supermarket display racks. There are prayer breakfasts, prayer fellowships, prayer groups.

The problem, as it was in New Testament times, is not so much becoming willing to pray as learning how to pray, how to prevent the draining off of the true energy of communication with God into phony and ultimately dangerous short circuits.

Spiritual power exists. Even the feeblest and most misguided attempts at prayer yield some intimation of a lurking reality. And prayer is our link with that powerful reality. Unfortunately, we tend to transfer the ruling images of our culture uncritically into our life of faith. We hear ourselves spoken of as “consumers” so often that it is no wonder we ...

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