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 slip into thinking of prayer in those terms (“I’ll trade you 317 mantras for twenty-four hours’ worth of serenity”). I have even heard from the pulpit the metaphor of prayer as a power source we “tap” as if it were a utility line. Notice, however, that the very image betrays our attitude toward this power: it is a great way off, as remote as the Arctic oilfields or ITT, and connected to us only tenuously. And of course the switch is always on our end. The great turbine of spiritual power sits there awaiting our summons.
If power is what we are seeking in prayer—power to change our lives in one way or another—then we must become aware of the nature of that power, which is fearsome to the last degree. It is not a power that can be harnessed. The images from the Bible shatter us with their uncontrollable force. A dove descends. Tongues of fire flame out. An angel appears. A bush burns. A mountain trembles. A whirlwind answers. God invades.
If we get so far as being ashamed of our overt consumerism in prayer (though who among us is really satisfied with asking only for his daily bread?), the next danger lying in wait for us is a sort of spiritual consumerism. As Jacques Ellul has put it in his book Prayer and Modern Man, “each one of us is so profoundly patterned in accordance with this necessity to consume that everything we lay hold of we value from that standpoint, even God.… We talk of having faith, of having the Holy Spirit, not of living in and by faith, of receiving and being sent forth by the Holy Spirit” (Seabury, 1973, pp. 144, 145).
Just how perverted this desire to consume God’s power can be—and how he can use even these misguided attempts of ours—can be illustrated with an example from my own life. Having read in perfectly reliable sources that prayer should not be simply a matter of speaking to God but that we should also listen to hear him speaking to us, I finally decided to put this theory to the test. I poured out every concern, every petition and intercession I could rake together and presented this knobby bundle to God. Then, exhausted by this mental and emotional effort, I felt it was time for a little feedback. So I waited, staring into the darkness, straining my ears—for what? I didn’t really expect to hear a voice, but I did want some response, an inner voice, an assurance, all those phenomena described by authors of true-life religious adventure books from Saint Augustine to Catherine Marshall. Nothing. My ears were ringing. Either God had nothing particular to say to me or I was not giving my imagination free enough rein. Worn out and dissatisfied, I drifted off to sleep.
Hours later but just before the winter sun climbed over the frozen ridge behind our house, I opened my eyes, instantly wide awake in the grey half-light. Already I was in tears. For suddenly, at the very moment of waking, there was in my mind the vivid memory of a situation in my adolescence. I had been promised a room of my own when we moved into a new house in my sophomore year in high school. As things turned out, however, it was my little brother who got the room while I had to share a room with a spinster aunt, a semi-invalid who had always made her home with us or other relatives.
For all the ensuing time in which I lived at home I had burned with the injustice of this reversal, convinced that my parents had decreed it just because I was a girl. I had made my feelings clear in devious and subtle ways, and I had carried this grudge with me for years.
But now in this early morning light, I was feeling for the first time the scalding shame this elderly crippled woman must have felt. Moving from house to house, never having one of her own. Totally dependent on the good graces of nieces and nephews for the very necessities of life. Never in all my years at home, or indeed till now, had I given a single thought to how she felt in the situation. But now I was getting a full dose of it—the pride that had to be swallowed daily in a galling gulp. It was more bitter than I could bear.
As far as I knew there was no apparent reason to have this experience. Although I think of my great aunt with affection often and although I continually spoke of the injustice of no room of my own when recounting the wrongs against myself as a female, this other perspective on the situation had never before entered my mind. And it was a whole, complete experience, simply there as soon as I opened my eyes on the morning, not something I had analytically thought out and become convinced of. The feeling simply engulfed me, and I concluded, as soon as I could get my head above water again, that this was the way God spoke to me, showing me a piece of reality to which I had been blind. Bitter and humiliating though it was, I was pleased.
When it happened again the next morning I was scared. The process was the same. As soon as I came awake, which was suddenly and out of a deep sleep, I was totally aware of another incident from my past life. This time it was my wedding, the day after Christmas during my first year in college. I had experienced the whole event totally from my own vantage point, indifferent to the heap of details that was smothering my mother. But this time I was seeing it all from her point of view. It had been a time of great anxiety for my mother, and indeed even her towering strength almost collapsed after the ordeal was over, but I had driven blithely away, proud of my new status of independence from my family and never once thinking of her pain.
I had often confessed in my prayers to being selfish. I knew I was at times. But this particular incident had never been revealed to me in those terms before. And it was revealed so totally, given all in one lump, so to speak, that the experience devastated me, and once more I began the day in penitential tears. The feeling of satisfaction at having evoked a response from God evaporated under the fear that I would have some horrid scene from my past to wake up to every morning for the rest of my life. He proved to be more merciful than that, however, although I was quite wary for a while about how I prayed.
And yet, chary as we may be of this awesome power we confront in prayer, what other choices are really open to us? Can we simply hide our eyes and try to stay out of its unpredictable path? That is essentially to leave ourselves powerless in a world that swirls with spiritual battles all around us; it is like standing in the middle of a battlefield protected by nothing more than an insipid smile.
Christians have always interpreted the splitting of the temple veil during the crucifixion as symbolic of their liberation from the mediated presence of God. Henceforth they were “free” to approach him directly—which is almost like telling someone he is “free” to stick his head in the lion’s jaws. For once you start praying there is no guarantee that you won’t find yourself before Pharaoh, shipwrecked on a desert island, or in a lion’s den.
This is no cosmic teddy bear we are cuddling up to. As one of the children describes him in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, “he’s not a tame lion.” Ellul is convinced that prayer for persons living in the technological age must be combat, and not just combat with the Evil One, with one’s society, or even one’s divided self, though it is also all of these; it is combat with God. We too must struggle with him just as Jacob did at Peniel where he earned his name Israel—“he who strives with God.” We too must be prepared to say, “I will not let you go till you bless me.”
Consider Moses, again and again intervening between the Israelites and God’s wrath; Abraham praying for Sodom; the widow demanding justice of the unjust judge. But in this combat with God, Ellul cautions, we must be ready to bear the consequences: “Abraham had to submit to the sacrifice of his son as an answer to his prayer for Sodom. Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint, and he went away lame. However, the most usual experience will be God’s decision to put to work the person who cried out to him.… Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake” (pp. 161, 162).
Awful things happen to people who pray. Their plans are frequently disrupted. They end up in strange places. Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was to go”—hardly the picture of someone who has struck it rich on a brand new power source. After Mary’s magnificent prayer at the annunciation, she finds herself the pariah of Nazareth society. The well-worn phrase “Prayer changes things,” often meant to comfort, is as tricky as any Greek oracle.
In trying to compete in the religious marketplace today, we should, I think, be very careful about how we portray the power of prayer. All the other religious rivulets that trickle across this parched land seem to promise, through their diverse modes of prayer and meditation, inner peace, serenity, and security, all manner of well-being. How tempting to up the stakes, making prayer merely another consumer product. How embarrassing to have to admit not only that prayer may get you into a prison, as it did Jeremiah, but also that while you’re moldering away in a miry pit there, you may have a long list of lamentations and unanswered questions to present to your Lord. How are we going to tell them they may end up lame and vagrant if they grasp hold of this God? Anything else is false advertising.
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