I genuinely long for honesty and transparency so it’s only fair to disclose here that which I’ve privately held for many years: I don’t understand prayer. This isn’t some blithe ministerial bait-and-switch. I really, really don’t get it.
I’ve genuinely tried to diagnose this problem, and it wasn’t until recently that my wife managed to help me realize my aversion to prayer stems directly from my own “collapse narrative.” At some point, one must confront the realities of higher textual criticism and all its claims on Scripture. For most college and seminary students, this is the point at which one’s faith is exposed for alleged certainty, and the rock-solid foundations crumble like a parlor game of stacking bricks.
Before the collapse I prayed fervently – violently at times. I can remember sitting in a courtyard around midnight as a 16-year-old talking with friends as we shared our struggles. I actually thought I might be able to understand how Jesus could burst a few capillaries in Gethsemane. I didn’t feel far from it that night.
After the collapse, I confess I couldn’t really figure out (and for that matter, I still can’t) how or what to pray for. Some of this is theological. If God has it all figured out, what effect can prayer have? Conversely, the thought that God is swayed by petition hardly seems fair.
But a far more likely explanation is that I just wasn’t sure what, if anything, was to be accomplished by it. In this case, prayer became purely existential. I consoled myself with a somewhat apocryphal remark from C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
When I was in seminary, I was asked to lead community prayers for chapel one day. I remember quoting that exact line and saying, “We pray because we are helpless – we pray because we need to get it out of us, whether or not God hears us, unsure if God hears us, ultimately in spite of whether God is listening or not.”
I felt awkward about it afterward, and even now regret forcing my own pain on others. I was at the water fountain right after the service when John Claypool spoke to me. “What you said about prayer – what Lewis said – is right you know. Everyone offers these things up, but we don’t know where they’re going, what they’re doing – but they get us through – we’re just reaching at Mystery.”
I felt some consolation in that, but I’m not sure I’ve pushed past that. Friends, professors and colleagues all extolled to me the benefits of spiritual formation, but I dismissed it as “un-academic.” We always push away that which we fear, which goads our inadequacies and puts them front and center for all the world to see.
Praying in public wasn’t daunting because it was an opportunity to give a light sermon or, at best, a form of public poetry that happened to thank God for the things already received and petition God for the outcome I desired. It was selfish, unhealthy and flat-out wrong.
Since that time I have struggled all the more. About a year ago I found a wonderful Jesuit resource that provides a disciplined, guided prayer process online. I could easily rattle off endless quotes and images that God has used to move me to action or inspiration, thoughtfulness or repentance. I could also tell you just as many times I have clicked my mouse through those pages as fast as I possibly could.
I know that this impulse comes from something I heard many years ago. A campus minister spoke to our Baptist Student Union (as it was known back then) and described himself as “half cynic, half mystic.” That stuck with me, mostly because I felt the tension of my unyielding academic side pulling over and against my mystic side, which was and is now all the more fascinated by the person of Jesus.
Trying to reclaim that mystic side has been an uphill battle, but I’ve found some fellow cynics-turned-mystics along the way. Recently I read of the poem of George Herbert, an Anglican minister and poet who managed to pen a poem devoid of punctuation or rhyme scheme before E.E. Cummings was a glint in his father’s eye.
Apparently poets and professors speculate on the inspiration for Herbert’s heretofore unseen “free-form.” I think it far more likely that Herbert knew what everyone who prays knows – and what I am s-l-o-w-l-y learning. Prayer is images and daydreams, visions and dirt under your fingernails. It is conversation and laughter, wordless grief and bitter tears. It is strife, it is conflict, and yet it is peace and irrational, unspeakable calm.
It is, as Herbert writes, “something understood.”