Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness


Of all the things the world now desperately needs, none is more needed than an upsurge of vital, God-centered, intelligently grounded prayer.

This is a considerable claim to make in view of the other things now needed. We need a new international order of peace, justice, and security, in which a third world war may be averted. We need the control of atomic energy for constructive ends, lest civilization and perhaps humanity itself cease to exist upon earth. We need better understanding and more justice in the relations between labor and management. We need to banish poverty and hunger. We need to get rid of race discrimination, here and everywhere. We need to see the end of human slavery, whether in the form of race tyranny, exploitation, forced labor or imperialism. We need adequate education, medical care, and housing for all. We need a society without crime, drunkenness, or sexual looseness, and with far more wholesome family life than is now prevalent. The bare enumeration of these familiar sore spots suggests the enormity of the social tasks that confront us.

Nevertheless, I repeat that though we need all of these things, nothing is more needed than a general upsurge of the right kind of prayer. A "revival" of prayer will not do, for while some previous periods have been more given to prayer than ours, the world has never had what our present need now calls for.

Lest it appear that this book proposes to substitute piety and devout words for action, let it be said at once that only by a great deal of determined action can even a minor dent be made on the evils just mentioned. A new order of peace and justice, abatement of economic and racial tension, the banishment of ignorance, poverty, and disease will not come about solely through prayer. Nevertheless, without the spiritual and moral resources which prayer exists to heighten, the action required for dealing with such issues is likely to go on being as limited and as misdirected by self-interest as we now see it. Before there can be constructive action, there must be a goal and a motive and willingness to pay the cost. A major reason why the world is now on the brink of the abyss in spite of many good intentions and valiant efforts is that there has been no general openness of life to direction and power from God, and hence no general acceptance of responsibility for doing "the things which belong unto peace."

Until recently it was mainly the religious leaders who were saying this. Now a call for the remaking of the human spirit has become a familiar theme of scientists, journalists, statesmen, and people of many diverse interests. The prophetic words of General Douglas MacArthur from Tokyo Bay still ring in our ears, "We have had our last chance. . . . The problem basically is theological. . . . It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh." It is not a preacher, but Albert Einstein, chairman of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, who writes, "Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men. . . . When we are clear in heart and mind, . . . only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world." Not all of the people now calling for a new spirit among men believe in a personal God, or would counsel prayer in the Christian sense. Yet if there is one thing that thinking people and men of good will now agree upon, it is that a new fund of spiritual resources must somehow be discovered and brought to bear upon the current scene.

If spiritual resources are needed for our social salvation, it is still more apparent that they are needed for the inner life. Our age, on the whole, is not a happy one. In spite of a million gadgets for our comfort, pleasure, and laborsaving, it may be doubted that there is as much cheer as in earlier days. In any case the personalities of hosts of individuals are torn with what Paul realistically called "fightings without and fears within." Any counselor soon discovers the welter of anxieties, frustrations, and conflicting desires that clutter the lives of people, including many people who seem outwardly to be making a rather good adjustment to life. In spite of the emergence of better psychiatric knowledge both professional and lay -- than in any former period, mental hospitals in the United States continue to care for more patients than all others combined. Among persons not hospitalized there are relatively few who do not at one time or another suffer acutely from a malady which goes by the simple name of "nerves," until a doctor or psychiatrist diagnoses it in more forbidding terms. No claim is made in this book that prayer is a panacea for all such disturbances. Nevertheless, without prayer there is no likelihood of a high general level of inner adjustment and mental health.

If it is granted that there is now a desperate need for an upsurge of vital prayer, why, it may be asked, are we not having it? The most obvious answer lies in our competing secular environment. One believes in God, yes, but a vast number of things seem more important. The things that matter most are the things immediately at hand, or the things one does not have but desires to have at hand. It is what the billboards, the radio, the magazine ads, and the store windows attempt to sell us, what the movies and the radio attempt to divert us with, what the job demands of us, what has to be done next -- and that quickly -- in business or school or family or bridge club, that occupies most of the ordinary person’s attention. In this general tempo of high-pressured existence God and prayer get left out along the way. Prayer gets pushed to the fringes, as something one expects to hear at a wedding or a funeral, or at church if one goes. As for doing it oneself, well, probably one ought to, but -- When an emergency arises, as in fear of imminent death or for a loved one in danger, then one prays ardently, even violently. But often it seems a futile beating of the air, like trying to fly with unused wings.

With others the problem goes deeper, and stems from a latent or open skepticism as to whether prayer accomplishes anything. It is more often latent than open, for a reasoned philosophical refutation of the theistic foundations of prayer is as uncommon as a clearly thought-out defense. However, there is a wide-spread skepticism among the semi-sophisticated, arising partly from a fear that prayer is unscientific and partly from a suspicion of the unreality of anything so intangible. Psychology in many instances has taught us enough to thrust forward the bogey of autosuggestion but without presenting an intelligible and defensible psychology of religion.

Skepticism grows also, in what is perhaps a more tragic form, from the soil of a too naïve religious faith. The novelist Faith Baldwin tells of a girl whose experience was doubtless duplicated many times in the recent war. The girl, whose pilot fiancé was killed, is reported as saying, "I went to church every day and prayed. I prayed every night and almost every waking hour. But he was killed. I shall never pray again nor enter a church."

Difficulty emerges, then, both from the crowding in of the common life and the crowding out of prayer because of inadequate foundations. Still another problem confronts those who, believing in prayer and wanting to pray, do not know how. One can say the "Now I lay me down to sleep" that he learned in childhood, but that does not seem appropriate for many adult experiences. Or one can say the Lord’s Prayer. Or one can read a page from a devotional manual. But beyond that, what? Not having been taught, one does not know. There is nothing heard more often in churches than that one ought to pray, there is nothing in which concrete instruction is more rarely given.

Our need, then, has a triple thrust. If prayer is to be practiced enough to make a difference in the common life, people must be convinced that prayer matters -- and matters enough to call forth the effort to pray. Instruction must be given to those who would like to pray but do not know how. And if prayer is to be validated by its fruits, it must rest on foundations that cohere with what may reasonably be believed about God and his total relation to the world. Lacking any of these bases, prayer terminates and secularism reigns.

We began by saying that there is nothing of which the world has greater need than an upsurge of vital, Godcentered, intelligently grounded prayer. The adjectives are chosen designedly, for there are kinds of prayer that are useless or worse than useless --indeed, blasphemous.

We do not need prayer that is an emotional luxury, forming a comfortable insulation from the demands of action in a shattered, suffering world. Prayer can be what Karl Marx called religion --an opiate.

We do not need prayer -- or at least, not much of it -- that centers in observation of one’s own inner states. There is a place, as we shall note presently, for self-examination in prayer. But to make prayer mainly a matter of psychological analysis is to miss its true center in God. The psalmist had the right order when he said, "I have set the Lord always before me."

We do not need prayer that is out of focus with all the rest of our assumptions about the world. Our prayer must fit in with what we believe about God’s relation to the world and our own place in it. Prayer is not theology, as it is not psychology. But unless it is correlated with a true theology, bitterness and frustrated hopes are too often its results.

Three questions will be kept in mind throughout this book. What are the foundations of prayer? What are its methods? What are its fruits? These questions set the keynote for the three main divisions of the study. Yet no sharp lines will be drawn among them. Prayer must be considered as a whole in order to have any measure of accuracy in the consideration of its parts.

In the chapters devoted to the foundations of prayer an attempt will be made to relate prayer to the basic structures of Christian faith, with particular reference to the Christian understanding of man and of God. This treatment must of necessity be brief, and it is hoped that the reader may wish to pursue this study further. (My Understanding the Christian Faith gives a survey of theological concepts and is written primarily for laymen. Its appendix contains an extensive bibliography of both simple and more scholarly works.) Then four chapters, which except for consistency in length could as well have been one long or eight short ones, analyze the elements in prayer and offer some suggestions as to problems that arise in connection with adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession, commitment, assurance, and ascription to Christ. The attempt here is not to prescribe a prayer scheme, but to show how these elements belong together and follow from one another in a natural movement of prayer.

The second division of the book deals with ways of praying. Here one must go softly, for there is no one way of praying, and what is fruitful for one person may not be for another. However, it is necessary to move with enough decision to give some concrete guidance, for as was intimated above, many people who want to pray do not know how. There is a chapter on the hindrances to prayer which are other than intellectual, two on procedures in private prayer, and one on corporate worship from the congregational end. Most of the seminaries, if not all, teach young ministers how to conduct public worship, but the ministers less often teach their people how to worship when they get to church.

The third division is primarily psychological and social. I profess no advanced psychiatric knowledge, but such knowledge as a layman may have about the causes of disturbance to the human spirit is here placed in conjunction with what prayer can do. Under the general caption of prayer and peace of mind, disturbers of the peace in the form of frustration, fear, loneliness, grief, and guilt are canvassed. Since the problem of peace is not only within man but in proportions of terrible seriousness within nations, the final chapter surveys the requirements of world peace and suggests what prayer can contribute to the peace of the world.

That these three main approaches needed to be made I have felt no doubt. It is at these points that Christians, and particularly laymen, have been baffled in their attempts to pray within the conditions of the common life. There are more manuals for cloisters than for the common day -- and most of us do not live in cloisters. But in what order should the theology, the methodology, and the psychology be placed? Most people are more concerned with their own troubles than with Christian faith, more eager to know what to do than what to believe particularly if the believing requires rigorous thinking. Would it not be best, then, to begin where people are?

Perhaps so. And perhaps it is my theological bias that has determined the order as it now stands. Nevertheless, there is a reason, psychological as well as logical, for putting the foundations first. A great many people have tried to get the fruits of prayer without the roots, and as a result have missed both. There is nothing to hinder anyone who wants to from beginning in the middle or at the end of the book. But if he does, I cherish the hope that he will then read backward to the beginning.