|Beliefs about Prayer
An Essay on 'Beliefs about Prayer and Ritual'
By Peter Longley, MA
Author of A Star's Legacy, Volume One of The Magdala Trilogy, a six-part epic depicting a plausible life of Mary Magdalene and her times.
As long as human beings believe in some supreme force controlling our universe, we will, if only as a last resort, revert to prayer in moments of fear and stress. We petition 'God', or whatever we choose to name that force, whether a single deity or a plurality, to help us, or those whom we love, through difficult times. Prayer undoubtedly increases in times of war, national emergency, natural disaster, epidemic, or personal disease. Such prayer is based on our emotions—both fear and compassion. But, there are also those, smaller in number, who see prayer as an act of thanksgiving for good times as well as petition, and in their words pour out an emotional response fostered by peace, serenity, joy and happiness. Such persons may be moved by beauty, silence, success or gratitude, creating prayers of contemplation. An even smaller number of humans, at least in the western world, then take this a stage further, falling into a deeper prayer, by contemplating on that state of contemplation in meditation, bringing them into a 'holy' state at one with the creative force, even if only for a moment. Such are Zen and Buddhist practices, but elements can also be found in Christian contemplative prayer, or Kabala within Judaism. Such methods are also found in Sufism within Islam. Then, there are the prayers of grace—the prayers that simply acknowledge our dependence on the creative force. This is most commonly found in saying a 'Grace' before we eat, acknowledging the reality that we only live because we eat. Without food, we will starve to death—so we acknowledge that 'God' has provided us with food to eat or we would surely die. Saying 'Grace' is a form of thanksgiving, but it mingles with fear and compassion, giving rise to the idiom that there, but by the grace of God, go I. Although the practice of saying 'Grace' before a family meal is not as widespread as it used to be, it is still well observed in institutions, often accompanied by ritual, especially the ritual of music. Another form of this grace is experienced in sharing food with 'God' or the gods, as is found in Buddhist and Hindu temples or Christian harvest festival rituals, and initially in the Jewish sacrificial system of ancient Israel that Christianity adapted in the Eucharistic ritual or 'Holy' communion with God. Prayer and ritual have long been bound together.
When we pray, most of us assume we are in some kind of dialogue with 'God' or our gods—the creative force. We see that force in human terms and enter into this dialogue as one human being, or in public prayer as a collective, communicating with a super-human being, or cohorts of that super-human being. We assume the super-human being can hear our words and understand them. And whatever language we humans may speak, we still make that assumption. God must be a multi-linguist! But, if 'He' is the creator of all that is, this might not be an impossibility. Can 'God' hear us all at the same time, though? Again, in human terms this would be an impossibility, but if 'He' is the creator of all that is, it might be possible. It all becomes more of an impossibility, however, if this 'Creator of all that is' does not have human attributes. After all, human life is a very tiny part of 'His' cosmic creation, and if an evolving part of 'His' ever-expanding universe, not likely to be around for very long in cosmic time. So, does God hear anything we say? It is unlikely. If prayer is not a dialogue with God, what is it, and what purpose does it serve?
Perhaps prayer is a dialogue with ourselves—a dialogue that provokes a response from us that can be positive for us as individuals or for the compassionate common good. It is interesting that outside the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught little about prayer. Of course, it is true that he was teaching in a praying society. He was a Jew, and Jews already had a long tradition of personal prayer with God. The basic Jewish prayer of Jesus' time was the 'Shema'—Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Praised be His name Whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.
The Lord's Prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples starts as a version of the shema: Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Jesus then adapts the prayer to practicalities of how he sought to teach his disciples to live in the 'Kingdom of God', not so much as a place, but as a way of life—Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus then gives us the 'Grace', or at least that petition for the 'Grace'—Give us this day our daily bread.
After this, however, the prayer continues with practical advice for life in the Kingdom of God: And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us—the kernel of all Jesus' 'kingdom' teaching. In both the St. Matthew and St. Luke accounts of Jesus' teaching on prayer, the Lord's Prayer is given to the disciples in a context of action rather than words.
"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." St. Matthew 6:7-8,14.
And in St. Luke's gospel Jesus inserts the Lord's Prayer into an extended teaching on action rather than words in answer to the question: Lord, teach us to pray.
"Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within, 'Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything'? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs." St. Luke 11:5-8.
It would seem that for Jesus, the essence of prayer is not so much the petition itself, as the action in the spirit of the Kingdom of God that the petition or words engender. He, himself, puts this into practice in his healing miracles. Jesus obviously had great healing gifts, but in his words he directs his healing energy to focus, and thus enact his healing miracles. Communal prayer is also about focus—the focus of a whole group of people directing their energy on one petition to create joint action. Together, we can move mountains, but it is because our shared words create the focus for us to achieve great things. It is not the magic of the words themselves. Great healers today are working more and more with the focused force of energy to heal, and to inspire responsive focused healing from the innate intelligence within their patients—an answered prayer. The healing of our planet can be engendered by a similar process of focused energy, the words being but a channel for that Divine process—the living power of the Kingdom of God.
The dialogue becomes a powerful tool for this focus, but the action is the fulfillment of the focus and not the dialogue. Is the dialogue between God and man, or is the dialogue between man and his own inner Divinity? Either way, most people on our planet, whatever their religious persuasion, will probably agree that prayer is powerful.
The power of prayer is often enacted in rituals. The simplest of these center on survival. Tools for survival allowed 'Homo Sapiens' to develop from the rest of the animal kingdom. Anthropologists usually attribute this to the faster development of the human brain over the static reptilian brain of most other species. Animal species have come and gone because they lived in a limited environment where they either used up their source of fodder or lost it through climatic or geographic change. Thus, we presume, ended most the dinosaurs. Mankind, through his thinking capacity, developed a certain mastery over environment, beating his rivals in the game of becoming successful hunter-gatherers. We moved tribally into new geographic areas and adapted. We developed tools that gave us mastery over the animals of those new environments, and ultimately we acquired the art of cultivation so we could keep on gathering non-flesh foods in one place. For successful cultivation, however, we realized that we were also dependent on weather patterns that were seemingly beyond our control. We attributed these weather patterns to some form of Divinity and thus entered into a dialogue with this perceived Divinity to ensure our survival. Was this the birth of prayer? Was earliest prayer some form of survival bribery between man and the Divine?
From earliest times, mankind not only used chants or words to invoke Divine response for survival, but also dance. In primitive societies this is still manifest. The dance of 'the rainmaker' is a ritual that was found in almost all primitive, but settled, 'homo sapiens' societies. Even today, in civilized western Christian societies, in times of drought we pray for rain, for we have little more control over our weather patterns now than we did millions of years ago when we first became hunter-gatherers. We have developed some safety nets like irrigation systems and drought resistant strains of seeds, but ultimately we are still at the mercy of what the climate sends us. Dust bowls come and dust bowls go. We are still dancing the rain dance.
Sailors from ancient times prayed to gods of the seas for safe passage, seeking protection through Poseidon, Neptunus, or Almighty God, our Judaic-Christian-Islamic deity. Until relatively recent times, the seas were an unknown, poorly understood, facet of our planet, full of danger to all mariners. Many ships and lives were lost. To this day, ships of the British Royal Navy and merchant marine resound to the 'Sailors' Hymn' Sunday by Sunday, dating from as recent a time as 1860 when marine travel was still one of man's most dangerous undertakings:
Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who biddest the mighty ocean deep, its own appointed limits keep; O hear us when we call to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.
The hymn was sung at the Sunday morning prayer service on the Titanic just hours before the ship went down in 1912. It closed every Sunday service on board the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 when I was cruise director of that great ship in the 1980s and 1990s. The hymn, like many hymns, is a prayer—a prayer of protection. Many rituals also come with the idea of invoking Divine protection, too. The Christian practice of making the sign of the cross is a protective gesture mingled with reverence and awe. The practice of wearing a cross, often a confirmation present or rite of passage gift to Christian girls, has similar origins of Divine protection.
The fact that the 'Sailors' Hymn' has a stirring tune is not insignificant. Music evokes emotional response, and focused emotion is prayer. Music plays a huge part in all religious life and much of the greatest music in the western world was devoted to Christianity. Music played a significant part in the Temple worship of Ancient Israel. Meditative music plays a huge part in Tibetan Buddhism and in Hindu temple worship. The whirling dervishes of Sufism in Islam are worked into their frenzy by music—a frenzy that ultimately removes the mind from this world and its affairs to a spiritual world of contemplation. We are uplifted by music into spiritual focus—prayer. How true it is that our favorite hymns are usually not our favorites for their words, but for their tunes.
Candles were, of course, used to light a basilica or church. But, the whole concept of light is steeped in Jewish and Christian tradition, which is why in many Christian churches tapered candles are still lit on altar tables even in broad daylight. The Jewish Sabbath starts by the ritual of the kindling of Sabbath lights accompanied by this prayer:
Come, let us welcome the Sabbath. May its radiance illumine our hearts as we kindle these tapers. Light is the symbol of the Divine. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Light is the symbol of the Divine in man. The spirit of man is the light of the Lord. Light is the symbol of the Divine law. For the commandment is a lamp and the law is a light. Light is the symbol of Israel's mission. I, the Lord, have set thee for a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations. Therefore, in the spirit of our ancient tradition that hallows and unites Israel in all ages, do we now kindle the Sabbath lights?
Jesus, himself a Jew, said:
I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life — St. John 8:12
The Christian practice of lighting votive candles, found mostly in the Roman Catholic tradition, again unites light and prayer. The emotional connection of praying as the candle burns creates a focus that makes the prayer that much more powerful. It is easy to become mesmerized by a flickering flame—a ploy even used by some hypnotists. It creates concentration and focus, and as a result, emotional action.
Symbolic ritualistic incense is also found in almost all faiths—a burning perfumed stick that takes its pleasant odors upward to the heavens. Again, it is associated with prayer. It was used extensively in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman temples to hasten the petitions of man to the gods. It was considered in the Christian nativity story to be one of the three precious gifts left by the merchant princes, kings, or wise men who visited Jesus at his birth—the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense grew on the gum trees of southern Arabia along the trade route from India across the Middle East into the Roman Empire. It was much in demand in the Roman Empire and thus a valuable trading commodity. Hindu and Buddhist temples use incense as a form of silent prayer. In these eastern traditions, prayer is seen more as a stilling of the mind in order for the Divine chi, or spiritual life force within us, to bring about a powerful personal union with God. Eastern ritual, therefore, appeals to the senses, to create this quietening of the mind. Not only is this done with incense, but through the sounds of gongs, chimes, and singing bowls—uplifting sounds that have been readily taken up by western practitioners of yoga workshops, meditation groups, and alternative medical practices. The release of the Divine chi within us can and does create miracles in personal health and relationships. It is the silent prayer in action.
In some respect, incense has replaced the more primitive concept of animal sacrifice that is found in the origins of much religious thought—appeasement. When an animal was sacrificed on the high altars of ancient tribes, the smoke of sacrifice drifted up to the gods taking with it the gift of the sacrifice to the tribe's protector. It was an essential part of Ancient Israel's ritual and was still very present in the time of Jesus, who himself made sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. The burned sacrifice was a gift to God that was not just a thanksgiving for His bounty in providing for His people, but also a sacrifice from that bounty made for the purpose of appeasing God for our wrong doings. In its extreme, this practice became human sacrifice. This was widely accepted in Meso-American societies. Did this ever happen in Ancient Israel and in the Judaic-Christian tradition? We certainly know that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
And God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." And when they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not witheld your son, your only son."— Genesis 22:1-2, 9-12.
Isaac was spared, but we are not party to know how many may not have been spared in this primitive society. Was this a common practice that the pre-Mosaic Jews of the first covenant actually took on from the Canaanites? What we do know is that the idea of the ultimate sacrifice was revived in early Christianity. Jesus' death was seen by some to be the ultimate Jewish sacrifice necessary to place those who believed him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, in a state of atonement with God. Christians as they moved from Judaism into the Gentile world then interpreted this sacrifice as redemption, not just for the sins of Jews, but for the sins of the whole world. What a ritual! The sacrificial altar of the Temple became the cross of the crucifixion—the paschal lamb of God. The ugliness of this concept is redeemed, however, by the hope and glory of the resurrection. Whether Jesus' death was part of a divine plan, or whether it was a human accident created by Jesus being in the wrong place at the wrong time attracting crowds around him arousing Roman suspicion, his followers quickly believed in its redemptive value. They believed salvation came to them after his miraculous resurrection from the dead, giving them an equal chance to be raised—a resurrection that could not have taken place without his martyrdom or sacrificial death.
The result of this extraordinary act of faith by the earliest believers in Jesus, is the central ritualistic act of Christianity, albeit observed at different levels within different denominations—the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion. Just as we have been lifted up to God in the promise of resurrection, so God has come down to us in the flesh and blood of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus instructed us to enact a ritual at his last supper with his disciples when he took bread and wine and likened that bread and wine to his own flesh and blood.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said: "Take, eat, this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying: "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my father's kingdom."— St. Matthew 26:26-29.
The earliest Christians had already made this into a ritual before the accounts in the gospels were actually recorded. As early as St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, generally considered to have been written from Ephesus to the Corinthians in 52 AD, the Apostle to the Gentiles, uses almost identical words in describing the ritual:
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said: "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.— First Corinthians 11:23-26.
The Corinthian early Christians were obviously practicing this ritual at the time as St. Paul describes it as a ritual in First Corinthians 10:16-22:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.
To any of us, and I am honored to count myself as such, who have had the privilege of administering the Eucharist or Holy Communion among Christian people, there is an extraordinary feeling of power at the moment of reception. One can sense the total focus coming from the participant, which in turn creates great focus in the giver—the focus of prayer, and the releasing of the Divine chi. Do we literally believe that this is bread and wine miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ, the sacrificed Jesus? Some do, and for centuries most did. However, strong thoughts on this were raised at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. The Latin Mass states in the Eucharist: Hoc est corpus meum, which translates: This is my body. In Sixteenth Century England, opponents of Roman doctrine actually coined the phrase 'Hocus Pocus' meaning 'magical rubbish', a deriding play on the Latin 'Hoc est Porcus'- This is the pig - as opposed to 'Hoc est Corpus' - This is the body. Most Protestant denominations do not believe in 'transubstantiation' the literal changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, although liturgical prayers remain ambiguous. Martin Luther described it as 'consubstantiation', allowing for the prayer of consecration over the bread and wine at the Eucharist or Holy Communion to activate a change without change, which he described as similar to putting an iron poker into fire so that the tip becomes red hot, but it is still iron. Some scientists will claim the applied heat causes momentary molecular change—molecular change, however, that reverts back to its original form when it cools off. In our contemplation of the ritual, either way what we are really witnessing is focus—focus of energy on the power of the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit or the Divine chi as we allow them to revitalize us and our lives. The fruits of the Spirit will then follow, just as Jesus taught us in prayer—the action will follow the words or the ritual.
In its simplest form, some Christians only see the Holy Communion as a commemoration of the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. In this form, they might conceive of the ritual as a 'Grace'. But it is still a 'Grace' that uses the words ascribed to Jesus that at their very least can be paraphrased: "Take this bread and drink from this cup, and every time you eat and drink, remember that just as God feeds you with this bounty so I feed you with the fruits of His Holy Spirit." In the focus of those who participate, the gifts of the Holy Spirit will grow. St. Paul believed our bodies to be temples of the Holy Spirit fed by this Holy Communion:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's spirit dwells in you? First Corinthians 3:16.
And he describes the fruits of that spirit:
The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. Galatians 5:22.
We continue to pray because we know it works. Does it work all the time? No, not in our perceived experience within the confines of our own interpretation of our universe. But powerful things have been achieved in individual lives and world situations by that concentrated focus that is prayer. How it works, may yet remain a mystery, a multi-dimensional experience, but the result of prayer is action—action that hopefully each time it is enacted brings us all just a little closer to living in the Kingdom of God.
PETER LONGLEY, MA (Cantab)