Chapter 2: Coming to Understand What Prayer Is

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2: Coming to Understand What Prayer Is

God is Love; he is the cosmic Lover. Everything else that we say about him, as creator, redeemer, companion, the maker of moral demands, the righteous and just one, must be referred back to that abiding Christian conviction. Otherwise we can hardly claim to live up to the Christian name or pretend to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And this is as true of prayer as it is of other aspects of Christian life.

The God who is Love is also the God who works unceasingly in the creation. He is related to it in the most intimate manner; as theologians put it, he is immanent in the world as well as more than the world -- transcendent. He is incarnate in the world, too, having taken upon himself the reality of manhood and human experience in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ; and elsewhere he also is present in what may rightly be styled "an incarnational manner," since in, with, through, and by creaturely agents he is actively at work there. When we put together the Christian conviction that God is Lover and the fact of his immanent and incarnational activity, we have a picture of a world that is dynamic, moving toward real goals, with genuine continuity in the process yet with new occasions when God’s love is signally manifested and operative. Indeed, the world is basically a way in which the supreme Love that is God expresses himself.

Furthermore, this cosmic Love is no thing; it is personal and personalizing, since it is a unity in itself, with goals for which it works, with relationships that are more like those we know with each other than like those proper to things, and with the capacity to communicate with men in full awareness and self-awareness. These are the ingredients of personeity (to use a word of Samuel Taylor Coleridge); and that is why we cannot think of God as less than personal, to be conceived not as "It" but as "He," and to be addressed as "Thou."

In that context prayer is to be understood. Otherwise it will be mis-understood. But if this is the case, what then is our best definition of prayer? I shall give the one that seems to me to be right; then I shall comment on it.

Prayer is the intentional opening of human lives to, the alignment of human wills with, and the direction of human desiring toward, the cosmic Love that is deepest and highest in the world because it is the main thrust or drive through the world toward sharing and participation in genuine good -- and hence toward the truest possible fulfillment of human personality as God wishes it to become. Private prayer is the way we do this in our own particular personal ways. Public prayer or church worship is the way in which we unite with others in expressing dependence on this Love, opening ourselves to it, and willing cooperation with it as "fellow-workers with God." And prayer at the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is an identification of those present with the self. offering of Christ to his heavenly Father, as we are nourished by his risen life in the receiving of bread and wine and so "make memorial" of him and of all that he did and was. The end-product of prayer is conformity with God’s purposes, joy in his fellowship, newness of life with him and with our brethren, and the recognition that (in Paul’s words from Romans) "God works towards a good end, and in every respect, for those who love him." Thus we are enabled to become the personal instruments for his loving concern as it is worked out in the creation, despite the evil and wickedness, the sin and injustice, the pain and anguish, that are obvious to an honest observer. This way of understanding prayer is very different from thinking of it as the effort to plead with God to do the good; above all, it is very different from magical notions of prayer’s efficacy, as if we were trying to use charms to rouse him to action. And it is certainly important enough to engage us and encourage us to persist even when praying is not easy or when we do not much feel like carrying on with it.

Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed, "Not my will but thine be done." There is the great example of prayer; and for Christians it should be all-compelling. But we may look also at lesser examples -- for instance, Francis of Assisi and his friends praying continually that they might be "instruments" of the "Divine Charity." They asked, in words that have become celebrated in Christian history, that they might be enabled to give "love where there was hatred, pardon where there was injury, joy where there was sadness, light where there was darkness"; that they might seek "not so much to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand; not so much to be loved as to love." Those words show how deeply the early Franciscans had caught the spirit of Christ their Lord and Master; they show how faithfully they followed the example of him who "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister" and whose whole life and death was a self-offering to God so that God’s will might effectively be accomplished in the world.

To some it may seem that the early Franciscans, and even Jesus himself, are advocating passivity on the part of those who pray. But the passivity here in view is neither sloth nor indifference nor some variety of "do-nothing-ism." It is an active passivity. It is the demanding passivity of those who would be made "patient" of use by God; and that means a willed opening of the self so that all one’s efforts and energies are at his disposal. Two things follow. First, as all who have prayed seriously will agree, the cosmic Lover is enabled to use the human agent, despite that agent’s failures and defects, for the good that he would establish. Second, such opening is the way in which false self-assertion, pride, and the other obstacles to genuine growth as God’s child will be overcome. Like calls to like: the Love that is God awakens, stimulates, and strengthens the capacity for loving that is God’s very image in his children. One who has been caught up into the divine Love becomes, through his praying, a participant in the on-going movement of that Love in the world; he becomes a lover -- and that is what man is being made for, what he is to become as under God his personality is integrated and energized and directed.

The best way to come to such an understanding of prayer is by thinking of the common human experience of being loved by another and of loving that other in return. This experience may be "lowpowered," lacking in intensity of feeling, or it may be accompanied by an enormous passion and a yearning for total self-giving to the other who himself gives totally. Such a variation in quality depends on many factors, not least on the particular psychological and physiological equipment of the lover. Yet if the love is genuine, it involves commitment to the beloved, desire to give and readiness to receive, hopefulness in respect to the enrichment provided in the relationship, and above all a yearning for deepest fellowship with the beloved. In some strange way, the lover is an "I" in contact with a "thou," yet he is also made one with the other so that a true union of lives takes place without the slightest loss or diminishment of the distinction between the two who have become one. It is no accident that the Song of Songs finds its place in canonical Jewish scripture nor that in the New Testament the analogy of marriage or the relationship of bride and bridegroom is used to point to the relationship of God and men. Nor is it accidental that in the writings of great Christian masters of prayer a parallel is drawn between sexual love known on the human level and the divine-human love between God and his children. To this point we shall return.

For the moment, however, let us look at the analogy and recognize that a true human lover wishes with all his heart to fulfil the requirements laid upon him by his beloved. These requirements or demands are not imposed in a coercive manner; often they are not put into words; perhaps they are not vividly in the consciousness of either person. What is in view is the necessity each feels to be his very best, to realize all his possibilities, to obey by his own free and glad decision. Thus the lover is purged from less worthy ambitions or desires; there is an alignment of himself with his beloved, and he can say, "Your wish is my command." Once again, deep speaks to deep, like to like. And this may not be an easy matter; for real love includes and requires a certain anguish as the complement to its ecstasy. Thus the Spanish folk saying is right, "To make love is to declare one’s sorrow" -- sorrow for defects and also pain (since the Spanish word here used is like the Italian equivalent do lore, meaning both sorrow and pain), pain from separation from the beloved, pain suffered as the self is purified or purged by love. Love is not all sweetness and light; it can and it does hurt. Common human experience testifies to this; Christian insight confirms what that experience knows.

Two corollaries are to be noticed, if what has been said so far is true. The first corollary is that sharing in love is the strongest imperative to activity. By this I mean the desire to do what will be pleasing to the beloved, thus demonstrating the reality of the relationship. This should not be taken to suggest that anybody can "earn" love by "doing good deeds" for the beloved. Love is always a gift; it is "of grace, not of works." What is done is an expression of gratitude for being loved; the works of love are a thanksgiving for love. When we apply the analogy to our praying, we see then that faith (and prayer) and works go together, but that the former precedes and causes the latter. Christian prayer always leads to some sort of doing, even if the doing is not always obvious to others since it consists in a relationship that is "in secret" and may not always involve external activity that the world can see. What is at stake here is "doing the works of him" that loves us, thereby becoming "fellow-workers with God."

The second corollary is that in the relationship between lover and beloved true freedom is found. The man who does not know love cannot know the liberty that is given when two have become one in love; he remains a captive to a false centering of self upon self. As Martin Luther put it, he is incurvatus in se, twisted in upon himself. But by "falling in love" -- and notice how this suggests that love happens to us, rather than is "earned" by us -- the lover is captivated and captured; he becomes indeed a captive. Here George Matheson’s hymn speaks the truth: "Make me a captive, Lord; /And then shall I be free. . . ." To be held captive in love to God who is Love is to know the freedom of love. So the Prayer Book says, "Whose service is perfect freedom," here harking back to Augustine’s golden Latin phrase, cui servire regnare est, "whom to serve is to reign."

In a world like ours, open to new possibilities and genuine novelty, prayer as the expression of love between God and man can accomplish great things. But it must always be remembered that God acts in his world persuasively for the most part, and chiefly so on the human level, rather than coercively or by violent force. An American poet (F. Bland Tucker) has translated part of the ancient Christian document known as the Epistle to Diognetus, using these words: "He [God] came to win men by good-will, for force is not of God." Perhaps that is a bit too strong, since in the realm of the inanimate and the impersonal God does employ power, while everywhere he sets enforced limits so that contrast and conflict shall not become sheer chaos or anarchy. But in dealing with his human children, God’s way is the way of love, in all its tenderness but with all its strength. For love is no cheap sentimentality, never making demands, always tolerant of the easy and superficial response of men. Love wants and love demands the best, and that means what is courageously active and indefatigably responsive. Lure, persuasion, invitation, solicitation, appeal, require freely given response. This goes with the freedom-establishing quality of the love-relationship. It is true of the finest human love; it is even more true of the love between God and men. And when the response is given in full freedom, as in genuine prayer, things can happen that otherwise could not happen, since now God has at his disposal the desires, willings, yearnings, and energies of his human child.

Prayer, so understood, releases men from fear, turning their necessities into privileges. "There is no fear in love; for perfect love casteth out fear," writes John in his First Letter. Love is expressed in prayer; hence prayer is a way of overcoming human fears and anxieties. Of course much depends on what we mean by "fear." There is a right and proper fear; it is awe or reverence toward God -- and love does not cast that out, for men must worship and adore, in all reverence and awe, the holy Lover who is God; while true love respects the mystery and wonder in the Other (and also in the human beloved one, too). But John is not talking about such "fear"; he is speaking of the debilitating fear that American idiom describes by the words "being scared." And love does cast that out. I remember a small child saying, "A Christian ought never to be scared"; how right she was! And prayer is the way to be delivered from faithless fears and worldly anxieties through "the expulsive power of a new affection," as one writer has phrased it.

In this relationship between God and man, expressed in praying, we are brought to a deepened awareness of "the exceeding sinfulness of sin," since we see ourselves as unworthy, defective, sinful beings in God’s known presence. Our response in loving obedience is so feeble, so inadequate, so distorted, that we are ashamed of ourselves. This is why frank confession of sin is appropriate in the context of prayer. Yet at that very same moment, the reality of God’s love is sufficiently great to provide reassurance. We are feeble, but God’s love is strong; we are inadequate, but God is always unfailingly adequate; our love is distorted, his is pure and perfect. And he accepts us for what we are to become through his companionship in grace, even though now we are far, far astray. This is what "justification by grace through faith" tells us, in quite practical experience. "Just as I am" God receives me, since his "love hath broken every barrier down"; and he receives me for what I may be, since in fellowship with him my potentiality for loving response is awakened and empowered and I am enabled, more and more, to say "Yes" to him.

In all that has been said in this chapter, we have been giving variations on the theme that Christian prayer is essentially the opening of the self, intentionally and attentively, to the reality of God as cosmic Lover. It is not an attempt to get our own way by invoking deity. Jesus said, "Not my will, but thine be done," as he addressed himself to his heavenly Father and as man prayed to that Father in an hour of trial and anguish. Prayer is the means by which our desires and our will are brought to care for what God cares for, to will what God wills, and to do what God desires to have done. Thus prayer is human passivity at its most active, human potentiality brought toward realization, man’s "initial aim" made truly his own although it was originally given him by God, man’s whole life open to become the personalized instrument for the divine Goodness.

We shall be seeing in the next chapter that this understanding of prayer does not rule out "petition," or asking, both for others and for ourselves. However, it puts such petition in a new context, saving it from the danger of turning into a sort of magical exercise by which we secure, through the use of some formula, what our uncriticized and probably entirely wrong inclinations lead us to want. Asking is part of Christian prayer, although by no means the whole of it, as so many seem to assume. The validity of asking is tied in with the plain fact that we are in a world where things go wrong and where we know them to do just this. We cannot nor do we wish to extricate ourselves from such a world, at least if we are Christians; and in any event the world is always with us. What we should desire is to live and work to God’s glory, where we are here and now. And prayer as asking or petition helps us to do that, among other things that prayer does.

I believe that the understanding of prayer presented here can make sense to modern men and women. Something more must be said about how it fits in with the world as we know it to be; but before we do this, it is worth observing that our approach to prayer is, as a matter of fact, no new invention. On the contrary it is a reworking of the approach that all the great masters of prayer have taught. The ancient Greek theologian John of Damascus said that prayer is "the elevation of the mind to God." Thomas Aquinas, in the Middle Ages, used the same definition. Perhaps the word "mind" is unfortunate; as we shall suggest in a moment, all of a man is or should be included in that "elevation to God." Other classical writers have spoken of prayer as "the attentive presence of God" -- putting ourselves with attention in the presence of him who is always with us but is not thus attended to all the time. Augustine Baker, an English writer of some centuries past, said that prayer is "a desire and intention to a union of spirit with God." Martin Luther wrote that our "praying teaches us to recognize who we are and who God is, and to learn what we need and where we are to look and find it." John Calvin spoke of prayer as our desiring what God desires for us and the world.

Behind all these stands the figure of Jesus himself. Or rather, kneels that figure; for in the Garden of Gethsemane he knelt in prayer, saying, "Not my will, but thine be done." It is too bad that we fail so often to put the stress here on the "be done." Jesus was identifying himself with God, in urgent desire and entire surrender, purposing that through him and through his death God’s loving will would be accomplished. Here was active passivity, as we have described it, not negative or passive passivity. And when Jesus responded to his disciples’ request that he "teach them to pray," he gave them the prayer we call "The Lord’s Prayer" (and which Roman Catholics, with much insight, call the Our Father). Notice, then, that in the prayer Jesus taught the order of things is this: first, identification with God, his will, his kingdom of sovereign love; next, asking for daily bread or what is needed to make life possible; then, deliverance from evil and from the test that will be too much for us; and all of it, as Matthew’s gospel recognizes when it adds the doxology to the simpler Lukan version, to God’s glory -- so that the divine will may be done, and be seen done, "in earth as in heaven."

In concluding this chapter, we shall pick up some of the points that have been mentioned briefly with the promise that they would be discussed later. The first has to do with the way in which man as a sexual being engages in prayer. This may surprise some readers, who would think that it is almost blasphemous to bring prayer and sex together. Their mistake comes from assuming that man is a purely "spiritual" being and that prayer is a purely "spiritual" enterprise. The fact of the matter, however, is that man is both body and spirit and that if man prays at all he must pray as body and spirit. If this is overlooked or forgotten prayer becomes inhuman, unnatural, and unreal. One of the chief reasons for the neglect of prayer and for the rejection of what was thought to be Christian teaching has been the tendency of Christian people to try to be more spiritual than God himself! After all, God must approve of material things, bodies, and the physical stuff we know so well, since he made and makes them.

One aspect of human nature is our sexuality, largely a matter of physiology but (as we now increasingly understand) involving emotional, psychological, and spiritual qualities as well. Human sexual drives and desires seek union with another human being, in as intimate a way as possible, through the sharing of bodies as well as mental concerns. These desires and drives are good; it is only their distortion or disordering that is evil. This sexuality finds its best expression when genuine love is present. And there is a sexual element in everything that we are or do; the urge toward union, physical and spiritual, is basic to us as the libido that drives our existence toward fulfillment in an other. Freud stressed this in recent years, but Augustine spoke about it centuries ago. In our praying we should not seek to trample down this sexuality, as if it were displeasing to God. He made it too. What we can do in prayer is to take our sexual instinct and let it find, for the time being, its center in a love that is utterly demanding and entirely good and which will purify human sexuality and rightly order and pattern it, although it will not destroy it nor remove its urgency and its physical accompaniments. By ordering and directing sexuality, that central aspect of our human nature will become still another channel through which we serve the divine Lover, in and by means of the proximate and creaturely human loving natural for us. Our human loving, with its sexual overtones and its physical expression, can thus be set in the context of a divine-human loving that redeems it from triviality, frustration, and ultimate irrelevance.

Second, much of what has been said so far may seem beyond the reach of most of us most of the time, if not all the time. That is indeed true. We are not yet "made perfect"; we are on our way toward fulfillment in God. What matters is not that we have arrived or failed to arrive, but that we are on our way. The direction in which we are moving is what counts most of all. This is true of every aspect of human life; above all, perhaps, it is true of prayer as an exercise in which we engage. The goal toward which we move is just such an identification with the divine Love as shall make us urgent in every area of our lives to perform the divine will. Some have gone a considerable distance, others have not got so far, some are lagging far behind. Very well, then; that is how things are with us. But God takes account of this, and uses us as and where we are. There is no reason, then, to give up praying because we cannot pray as well as we should like or as well as our friend prays; our job is to do our best in the particular moment at which we find ourselves. If we do this we may be confident that we shall be able to move a few steps forward; if we do not continue, we may fall into despair, feel disappointed at our lack of progress, and stop praying altogether -- and that would be a tragic mistake.

Here we can find help from some things once said by the French writer Jean de Caussade. He lived in a time when prayer was more generally accepted than it is today, but was perhaps no easier for earnest Christians. This French master wrote that the only place where anyone can pray is in what he styled "the present moment." There, and only there, is where we are; there, and only there, can a man find, and be found by, God. So we are to identify ourselves with God’s love, and purpose fulfilling his will, in that one possible place, the here and now. Elsewhere de Caussade spoke of "abandonment to divine providence," the way in which God pro-vides for, or sees to, our condition exactly where we happen to be. To surrender ("abandon ourselves") to him there is the same as finding him in the "present moment"; it is the acceptance of God’s will, which is always love, and the implementing of it as much as we can, in the given time and situation that is ours now. After all, we have no other time, no other place, than that one.

In the ongoing process that is our world, we have our human existence. The world is a concatenation of cause and effect, to be sure; it is also an interrelated process where everything affects and influences everything else. It is a dynamic enterprise whose advance is through the way in which each part, including ourselves as men, seeks fulfillment. Through all of it God, the cosmic Lover, is at work, ceaselessly and inexhaustibly moving it toward the good that is his purpose and which is also the good of each and every part. There is struggle here; and we are called to share in that struggle. Precisely because God is no static or inert "first cause" or "unmoved mover" or "absolute self-contained being," but is sheer Love in action, he delights in our joys and suffers in our anguish. Prayer is our willed "engagement" or identification with God in this great cosmic adventure, our willed linking of our littleness with God’s greatness through the opening of our lives to the working of the divine Charity in us and through us and for us.

Thomas Cranmer, the sixteenth-century English divine, translated many ancient Latin prayers for the new English Prayer Book of 1549. In one of these translations he omitted a Latin phrase and spoiled the sense of the prayer. In Latin, the prayer says amantes te in omnibus et supra omnia, "loving God in all things yet above (or more than) all things." Cranmer stupidly dropped the first bit about "loving God in all things"; why, we do not know. It was a great mistake, because we are indeed called to find, and to love, God here in the world where he has willed to be present as well as to love him as that which is more than or beyond the world. God is in the world; or the world is in God -- we can put it either way. He is not himself the world; he is in it, and it is in him, for he is the sovereign and untiring Lover of his creation. A modern hymn writer, Laurence Housman, has put it well, "How can we love thee, holy hidden Being, ⁄ If we love not the world which thou hast made?" To love the world, in this sense, is to love God in the world and to love the world as the creative work of God. Of course God is "more than" the world. That is how there can be novelty and change, out of "the dearest freshness deep down things" (as the poet G. M. Hopkins so beautifully phrased it). Isaiah said that God "always does new things"; but it is equally true that he is in the old and continuous process too. He possesses infinite capacity for adaptation and adjustment, but he ever seeks in old and in new the best good of the creation, always takes it into himself, and uses what is available for his purposes as his creatures, by their free decision, put themselves at his disposal.

Prayer, rightly understood, is our identification, by conscious and intentional and attentive act, with God the great Lover of men and the world. It includes the whole man; it takes all there is of him. And it makes him what he is meant to be: free, whole, integrated, on the way to true fulfillment as a son of God. In prayer man is even now sharing in God’s kingdom, where love reigns supreme and where all things find their joy in mutuality and sharing.