On Prayer

Mark Taylor once wrote that “religion is about what is always slipping away (1999: 1).” I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer. How does a postmodernist pray? That is, for those of us without a God to answer our prayers, to quiet our uncertainty, what is prayer? Can we pray? What is there to gain from it? Funnily enough, it’s now, no longer able to secure myself within a Christian framework, to squeeze life into a Christian shaped box, that I find myself praying, as Jesus did in Gethsemane and on the cross. This isn’t a prayer to make things right, an opiate to heal my or the world’s wound. It isn’t an attempt to smooth life’s rough edges so they fit more smoothly into the Christian shaped box. Rather, this is the kind of prayer that is uttered in the midst of all the pain and meaninglessness. Praying becomes a felt response, to the weight of the world, the sense of God’s absence, or the hardship one faces. Rather than being a means of escaping the world, prayer is a mode of being with the world, of inhabiting it, in joy and in sadness.

When I’m brought to prayer is when I’m brought to the limits of what is possible. When I feel the weight of the world, unable to make sense of all the suffering, when I’m brought to tears, or find myself staring into the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed, I’m moved to prayer. And this is a silent sort of prayer, a prayer that can come from my lips only. For every prayer is unique, is spoken from the depths of one’s own singularity. For me, praying is a way of saying all that I need to say but cannot, of asking all the questions I need to ask but for which there are no answers for. It is a silence that speaks louder than words.

And prayer happens, as Derrida once said, from the desert of love. It can come from nowhere else. Otherwise it’s not really prayer. Prayer is anything but a modernist expression. It has little to do with cold hard calculation, rational certitude, or a buffered self. On the contrary, it has everything to do with a restless heart, an uncertain soul, and a vulnerable, weeping self. Prayers are spoken from trembling lips, and they issue forth from loving hearts. As one of my heroes, John Caputo, says:

“The love of God is enacted whenever our human, all too human drives are contradicted and thrown into reverse and we are drawn out of ourselves by something larger or other than ourselves, when our powers and potencies come unhinged and we are left hanging by a prayer for the impossible.

The meaning of God is enacted in an openness to a future that I can neither master nor see coming, in an exposure to possibilities that are impossible for me, which surpass my powers, which overpower me, which drive me to the limits of the possible, which draw me out to God, à Dieu (Caputo 2001: 139).”

But prayer doesn’t always happen in tears and with trembling lips. It also happens out of love, out of a sense of gratitude for all that one has. It emerges out of a feeling of not knowing what one has done to deserve all that one has been blessed with, knowing that there are so many who suffer, who hunger and thirst for nourishment and justice. There should be, underlying our sense of joy, a prayerful watchfulness, that keeps us from taking for granted what we have, that compels us to see our own joy as a sort of grace (even if a contingent one). Our state of elation should simultaneously be one of gratitude. Prayer happens in love, amidst others, with whom we break bread, drink, laugh, and smile. But insofar as we treat this as a grace, we remain restless— restless because there is work still to be done, others who are still to join in on our happiness. Our happiness should contain a hope, a hope for those less fortunate than us, for a brighter future. In this way, rather than being a distraction, our happiness propels us to reach out to those less fortunate. This is why our happiness has to be a prayerful sort of happiness.


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