Sunday, January 11, 2015

Observations on prayer, part I

Several readers have asked me recently for some commentary on prayer.

I’ve participated in, and read about, many forms of prayer, but in the end I think this is an intensely personal subject. So I will just offer the readership my own direct observations and experience, no more than an infinitesimal drop in the oceans of comment people have written over the years on this subject.

I don’t like to pray in public, except as part of a formal group and in a formal context, such as church, whereby the community… whichever community it may be… agrees to engage in the formal ritual. 

Outside that form, which is well established, prayer ought to be an intensely private matter, not taught to others; prayer is so personal as to be sexual in nature, and one cannot engage in it outwardly without perpetually risking an excursion into a certain kind of pornography. To me, it is repellent; and yet society strangely demands it of us. Prayer, as I said earlier, cannot be taught; it must instead be discovered, which is an entirely different matter.   

On the form of prayer

Gurdjieff pointed out that the prayers in today’s church are actually very ancient forms; and this is true. If there is one thing traditions do effectively, it is preserve information; that is what they are for, and the very rigidity they impose on the outer world (that lamentable rigidity of form!) is exactly what enables them to preserve important… even vital… information that might otherwise be lost. Their strong resistance to change is the internal “immune system” that prevents infection of the preserved knowledge by outside ideas. The contradiction is evident. We fault traditions for rigidity; yet we ought to thank them for it. Rigidity is needed; one just need know what it is for, and where to use it. You would not, for example, want to cross a flaccid bridge over a deep chasm; yet we are all over a deep chasm, and most of us is flaccid.

This rigidity can, of course, work against, as well as for, a living tradition; because change and movement are necessary if any tradition is to remain alive in the times it lives in. Yet so often people attempt to change tradition through outward form; and it is the inner tradition, the way that tradition speaks to one’s inward parts, that really matters. 

Prayer and hymnal—for this, too, is an integral part of prayer, all prayer being in its essence vibration—have been handed down since ancient times. There is little doubt that some of the ideas, forms, and tonalities we encounter today in modern churches and temples repeat the echoes—sometimes not just faint, but even powerful echoes—of prayers that go back to the temples of ancient Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt—and even earlier. When we pray in churches and temples are are participating in rituals so ancient we can imagine them in their original forms from perhaps even as much as 10,000 or more years ago. We reach back into time, and the collective unconscious of humanity, as we reach into prayer. Yet in prayer we don't just reach into time and the collective unconscious of humanity; we dare to stare into that chasm beneath us, and into the endless heavens above, hoping to become aware of where we are.

The prayers of churches and temples preserve very ancient understandings, from times when man’s conception of the world was far more inward and less driven by our modern obsession with technology.   In those days, mankind understood that we don't know where we are; today,  in our unbridled arrogance, we think we can know. 

Higher truths were embodied in these ancient, more humble prayers; and we still encounter these prayers, essentially unchanged, in the liturgy of the modern Catholic church. So this is a good place to turn for some basic understandings. 

Prayer, however, always needs to be understood, in the end, through inner revelation. Outward teachings about prayer are, forever, window dressing; prayer in a human being does not exist until it arises from within, through the secret wellsprings of the soul. Prayer must, in a word, transcend its outward form and move from the impersonal (the outer form) into the personal. 

The outward form of prayer serves as an introduction to the inward form; and some elements of it can be quite useful. Yet if the motivational force is outward, the effect is outward; and prayer ought to be pursued for its inner effect, not its outer. In order for this to take place, a new and different kind of sensitivity must first arise.



  1. "prayer in a human being does not exist until it arises from within, through the secret wellsprings of the soul."

    That's very good, I'm writing that down. Jesus taught to pray to the Father who is in secret, not to be 'seen of men.' Heschel also said that prayer is like an intimate song.

    Thank you for this today, even as I head of to church where everything is done to be seen of men.


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