Chapter 7: Making Prayer Meaningful Today

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: Making Prayer Meaningful Today

This has been a book about prayer, intended for modern men and women who find difficulty not only in seeing how prayer is possible but in understanding what it really is. We have defined prayer as the intentional and attentive presence of God, with the purpose of alignment of self -- in desires and actions -- with the divine Lover who is our heavenly Father. We have set prayer in the context of the Christian faith that God is Love as revealed in Jesus Christ; and we have sought to take account of modern knowledge of the world so that prayer does not seem an unreal escape from the facts that we all know about that world. And we have looked at various aspects of prayer -- in word, in thought, in public worship, at the Lord’s Supper. Through all of these occasions opportunity is given us to open ourselves to God, to link our little manhood with his divine will, and to cooperate with God as his "fellow-workers," in the word used by Paul.

As we have shown, prayer is to a large degree a matter of attention; we quoted a classical definition that said that "prayer is the attentive presence of God." Of course we are always in God’s presence; it is like the air we breathe. But like the air, it is not always vividly realized as being there. We must make a conscious effort if the presence is to be known to us at first hand and not simply by hearsay. Yet "effort" may be the wrong word, since it could suggest that prayer is just a business of struggle, striving, almost of combat. This is not really the case; although there must be determination and concentration in prayer, there is also "resting in prayer" (as our fathers in the faith used to say), and delight and refreshment for us as we engage in it.

We have also looked at some of the problems posed to modern people, but we have seen that most of these are reflections of mistaken ideas, theologically and scientifically as well as philosophically and practically. Once we have got the right perspective, most of these problems take care of themselves. At the same time we have recognized that for modern people there are certain questions that require a rather different emphasis in our praying from that of former days. How to pray, how to arrange occasions and opportunities of prayer, and the types of prayer may not be the same as for an earlier period of Christian history. We have discussed "vocal" prayer, as it has been called, in its various aspects; we have also discussed "mental" prayer, laying particular stress on the simplicity of meditation and the desirability of engaging in it. Then we have looked at public prayer, saying a great deal about its congruity with human nature and human life and attempting to show that it is both a duty and a privilege for anyone who would call himself a Christian in any serious sense of the term. Finally, we have considered eucharistic prayer at the Lord’s Supper, as the focal point for all Christian praying and the center of Christianity as such, urging that it should also be the focus and center of the life of prayer of every Christian believer.

In this closing chapter we shall try to relate all this to the Christian enterprise in its totality. After all, unless prayer "fits in" and thus both makes sense of and gives sense to that enterprise, it may appear as no more than a peripheral although useful exercise in the life of Christian discipleship. But it does "fit in"; and precisely for this reason it is what Montgomery called it in the hymn quoted at the beginning, "the Christian’s vital breath."

Perhaps our best approach here will be to consider the plain fact that the world in which we live presents itself to us as a mystery. Now a mystery is to be sharply distinguished from a problem. The French thinker Gabriel Marcel has pointed out that a problem is something with which we can deal; we can "solve" it. Of course we may not be able to do this immediately; perhaps we may not be in a position to make much progress toward its solution. But in principle, when we are given a problem, we know that there is a genuine possibility of its solution. A mystery, on the other hand, is very different. A mystery is that which puts us in awe; we cannot "solve" it, we can only accept it and wonder at it. Bertrand Russell was an excellent example of the sort of man who honestly recognized mystery when he saw it. Despite his agnostic position in respect to religious faith, Russell had no patience with what he called "cosmic impiety," by which he meant the assumption that somehow by manipulation and techniques the mysterious puzzle of the universe could be neatly solved and everything made tidy. He criticized the American philosopher John Dewey on precisely this ground.

The mystery in things is spoken to each of us. Some contemporary writers have pretended that modern people do not acknowledge that there is any mystery at all. One can only wonder how well they know those about whom they write. Within the weeks during which this book has been written, I have seen the reality of the sense of mystery time and again in people whom I have met. For example, there was the young couple so deeply in love. They were waiting for a bus, simply standing on the pavement at a bus stop. But to witness the wonder that was in their eyes as they looked at each another and murmured I do not know what, was to see the great mystery of love. No amount of physiological, psychological, sociological, or any other type of problem-solving would have eradicated that mystery. Or again, when I began this book I was sitting with friends on the terrace of a resort hotel, with the stars brilliant in the sky, with the hush of late evening around us. I noticed that the littleness of man against the background of the "infinite spaces" (as Pascal phrased it in his Pensées) made its impression upon them. Oddly enough, it was just after the first landing of men on the moon; yet that great achievement had not obliterated the mystery of the vast expanse of the heavens above us.

Two other examples brought this sense of mystery, as felt by ordinary people, vividly home to me. I was listening with others to a superb rendition of the Third Symphony of Beethoven (the Eroica). There was silence, so pregnant that one could feel its presence -- and at the very end, before the applause broke out, there was another silence, a strange testimony to the fact that here, in great music greatly performed, a mysterious quality had impinged on those who heard. And finally, a very simple thing indeed: two young people, standing with their newly born baby held by the mother. Sheer wonder was in their eyes as they looked at this tiny bit of humanity, brought into existence by their own sexual union, yet obviously speaking to them of the wonderful and mysterious creation of an entirely new life.

We are surrounded by mystery and we live in mystery; and the day when the awareness of it vanishes will be the day when man is no longer man, for he will have lost his capacity to grow, to love, to wonder, to yearn for some strange "more" that beckons to him and speaks to him in all his experience. But that day will never come. And my reason for thinking this includes, among other things, the fact that my scientific friends in a great college of a great university (among them many agnostics and self-identified "atheists") are the very people who often seem to me most aware of mystery in the world, even in the scientific research that they carry on with such devotion and yet with such humility.

But if we know that the world presents us with mystery, we also believe that it has a meaning. The meaning may be obscure, but some sense of the significance of things is an integral element in human life. Even a professed atheist like Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his protests and despite his insistence that the only meaning is what we ourselves put into things, evidently still finds sufficient sense in the simple fact of living so that he does not take his own life. Schubert Ogden has written an essay on "The Strange Witness of Unbelief" (included in his book The Reality of God, SCM Press, London, 1967), in which he demonstrates how often it is the very negators of meaning whose way of life, attitude toward others, and struggle for a "better world" exhibit a dim yet pervasive feeling of significance in the world and in their own existence, a sense of meaning that (as Ogden argues and as I believe) is a hidden working of divine Love in their hearts.

Meaning, then, is universally sought and universally presupposed. We speak of the universe as a cosmos, not a chaos; we believe that we are in touch with how things go in the world, so that we can to some degree understand them; we count on regularity, predictability, orderliness, as present and real -- and what are all these but a mute testimony to meaning? But underneath the obvious "meanings" of the immediate facts that we encounter, we are led to ask the question about "ultimate" or "final" meaning. Does the whole enterprise, in its mystery and with its problems, mean anything? What is its true significance? Man is a meaning-giving animal; can it be that he is also an animal who is found by meaning -- meaning that illuminates his darkness and gives dignity and purpose to his little day in this vast world?

Where do we find meaning spoken to us? Usually, I think, in the very places where we sense mystery. In the joy of human companionship, in the call of duty, in the sense of awe on a starry night, in the face of the one for whom we care, in great music, in beauty, in the presence of courage -- here are some of the places. But above all we find meaning speaking to us in the pathos of our human loving -- and I have said pathos because I intend here combined joy and sadness, the awareness of another with whom we would unite our lives yet the equal awareness that the other, even when he also would unite his life with ours, remains "the other" whom we must reverence for himself. This distinctively human experience of love, its commitment of self, its giving of self, its readiness to receive the other’s gift of self, its evocation of hope, and its capacity to fulfil, is not something that just "happens to us." The world is the sort of world where this can be known; and in knowing it we are released and empowered. Meaning comes to us at such times; and when it comes it gives us dignity as men and women.

It is in such a context, I believe, that religion at its truest and best is crucial to man. In primitive days men were aware of an emptiness that had to be filled with innumerable divine powers working in ordinary things. Later, or even at the same time, life was marked by a dreadful fear of such powers. The divine was seen as man’s enemy who must be placated if harm were to be avoided. But when religion was rationalized and moralized, in the light of man’s own growing sense of order and his increasing awareness that mutuality and love were the condition of human community, it became more and more a sense that the worth in things, the significance they possessed, the meaning they had, could be found only in love and in loving. This process of development is seen in all parts of the world, as for example in India and in China, so very different one from the other yet moving toward compassion as the key to life (in India) or family affection and mutual concern in an ordered society as that key (as in China).

The Jewish religious experience, from earliest days through its highest moments in a Jeremiah and an Isaiah, is also a development from primitive fear of omnipotent power to communion with a goodness that seeks only the best for men. Thus when Jesus appeared, his coming was against that background. What the event of Christ accomplished was the purification of ancient Jewish insight and the completion of ancient Jewish aspiration; in him Love was seen at work in a fashion that those who responded knew to be both mysterious and full of meaning in their lives. That Love, humanly expressed to the point of sacrificial death, was validated and confirmed, for Christian faith, in the resurrection of embodied Love from death and hatred, evil and deception. God was like that; indeed God was that Love, only he was its source and its goal -- the human love of Jesus was the expression in terms of genuine human existence of "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars." God as Love and man with his human loving were not identical, since God is transcendent over the creation -- he is unexhausted by what he does there, he is ceaselessly faithful, he is supreme and altogether excellent. Yet in human loving, such as Jesus disclosed, the divine Love was shared and outpoured.

So Jesus is that One in whom the deepest and highest reality, divine Love, which is the mystery behind all things and the meaning of all things, is made decisively visible and tangible in a manhood that is our own and in terms that we can understand and grasp, and by which we can be grasped and thus directed on the path of right and true human development. This is Christian faith -- nothing other, nothing less. The meaning of the mystery is Love; and it is the only meaning as it is the enduring survival from what goes on in a world of "perishing occasions."

What we have been saying about prayer and its practice has this broader context. It is man’s desire to work with the purpose of Love and it is his opening of himself to that working. All the magical notions about prayer as the conforming of things to one’s own imperfect notions fade away. Most of the problems that have been raised about prayer are shown to be based on a misunderstanding of what prayer really is. Modern men and women can pray with just as much sincerity, honesty, and devotion as could their ancestors in the Christian tradition. And they can pray with their whole selves, disregarding the nonsense that has been talked about prayer as a matter of merely "spiritual" nature. Indeed, any man who knows what it is to love and be loved can pray -- Christian faith does not contradict the meaning of his praying, but crowns it and fulfills it, while correcting inadequate and childish ideas about what that praying intends.

Some readers may think that the constant emphasis in this book on love, on God as Love, on man as being created for love, and on love as the deepest significance of prayer, has been overdone. He may think so; but I believe that he is terribly and tragically mistaken. It has already been made clear that by love we have not meant sentimentality or niceness or indifference or kind toleration. It is very difficult to eradicate from many minds the notion that this is always what one means so soon as the word "love" is uttered. Yet to entertain that notion is to show oneself imperceptive as well as inattentive. Love is a very terrible reality, precisely because it is a glorious one. There is nothing soft or weak about genuine love. It is "terrible as an army with banners," in the Old Testament phrase. It is the only really strong thing in the world, because it is what Paul said it is: never failing, able to endure all things and yet still be love. God is that; and even human love, in all its frustration and distortion, can touch such heights now and again.

Furthermore, love is passionate. Here again there are some who would not agree. They think of passionate love, perhaps after the fashion suggested by Dr. Anders Nygren in his well-known book Agape and Eros, as selfish in desiring a response and damaging in its feeling-tones of high intensity. Hence they reject it as an inappropriate term for man’s relation to God and substitute "faith" instead. For them "faith" is a steady setting of the will on God in commitment or surrender; and the only kind of love that is truly "religious" is the intent of the will on another’s good. I believe that this analysis is biblically mistaken, historically false, theologically disastrous, and psychologically impossible. All love, even in the somewhat chilly sense of this "faith-love," has an element of passion. This means that it contains some genuine desire, perhaps not strongly felt but nonetheless present. If that element of desire were not there, it is hard to see how anyone could be "moved" to love, as we commonly say. We could observe and even sympathize in an external way; but we could not urgently identify ourselves with the condition, the problems, the suffering, as well as the joy, of other people. "Cold charity" would be all we could manage; and that is a quite dreadful thing for the recipient, even if it may for a moment assuage his need and provide him with food and clothing.

But Christian love is not "cold charity"; it is charity with a passionate concern for others and a deeply felt care for their situation. This is what makes all the difference in the world between the well-intentioned and zealous social worker, good and important as such a person is, and the man or woman who gives himself to a needy and hungry and lonely person. The old saying tells us that "the gift without the giver is bare" -- and I am convinced that one reason that aid programs so often meet with antagonism even from those who most will benefit from them is explained in just this way. Perhaps an incident from my own experience will illustrate my meaning. Many years ago a black student of mine was in great trouble. He came to see me to talk over the problem he faced. I made what suggestions I could and at the end of the half-hour walked with him to the door of my study. As we approached the door, I put my hand on his shoulder and spoke some words of encouragement. To my horror, the young man broke into tears. Thinking that what I had said might have offended him, I apologized. And then that young black student said this: "You can’t understand why I’m crying, try as hard as you will." I answered, "Well, tell me why and I’ll attempt to understand." He said, "I’m crying because you’re the first white man who has ever touched me." Then he fled from the room. And I wept. I wept because I had been made to see, for the first time, that all the justice that must be shown the black man, all the help given him, everything that should be done legally to give him his rights, will never do what a simple act of love can do: make him know that he is accepted, cared for, yes, really loved by those who do not just "do good to him" but who feel with passionate concern that he is a human brother.

I apologize for this bit of personal biography; but at least it makes my point. Love does involve feeling; at its best it is passionate. Now this is why I have ventured to stress the sexual component in human nature and to urge that it be brought into our praying. Our sexuality is the physiological-psychological basis for desire -- that is, for passion. The Beatles had a song in which they said,

For she loves you, and you know that can’t be bad;

She loves you, and you know you should be glad.

In their singing of it, the lines obviously and intentionally had specifically sexual or erotic overtones. But why not? There is a sexual element in all love -- even, I should wish to urge, in all friendship and indeed in all human relationships that are not external or superficial. Man is a unity and his sexuality is integral to that unity. What is more, for most human beings it is precisely when they begin to see that someone loves them, whether this is in an explicitly sexual sense or not, that they discover their capacity to be truly alive and to grow toward genuine fulfillment as persons designed to become lovers of God and men.

I am sure that only those who have come to some such awakening, because they have been deeply loved and because in some strange fashion they have been enabled to love in return, can ever understand what Christian prayer is really about. Augustine’s saying, "He who has loved will know what I mean," had reference to his theological insistence that God always comes first to men and through his coming arouses them to respond to him. But what he said is equally applicable to our praying. Among the many reasons for living, so far as we can, in relationships of active love with others, is this: that we can then begin to pray, and keep on praying, with sincerity and dedication and with some genuine grasp of what prayer means.

For as we have stressed throughout this book, the purpose of prayer is to bring God’s human child, now become adult in responsibility and thus asked to act in mature ways, into cooperative awareness of God, opened to his love and ready to act in love toward others. But we can now see why it is necessary to go on to say that a consequence of prayer, when it is faithfully and regularly engaged in, will be the release of the praying person from bondage to cheapness and superficiality, from slavery to immediate instinct and unworthy desire, into "the glorious liberty of the children of God." What is that liberty? Surely it is growing ability to love, growing willingness to accept love as offered to us, increasing delight in giving ourselves to others who in their turn give themselves to us. That is the human consequence. As to the divine consequence, it is the growing awareness of a cosmic Love, a cosmic Lover, that holds us tight, that never lets us go, that stays with us in all our problems and troubles and sufferings as well as in our joys and delights, that lives with us and for us, and that in the end receives us into his own life -- where we are forever loved in the Love that endures, beyond all "changes and chances," in the everlastingness that is God himself.