Prayer in three short takes:
Yes, at times there is intentional prayer: when one supplicates God to align reality with one’s needs or desires. One could say this is self-serving and thus ‘dead on arrival’, since God is not in the business of wish fulfillment. But still it often happens that one prays this way, for example when under great stress or pain or fear. In this case it might be true that prayer simply serves a psychological function of conjuring in us a feeling of strength or perseverance, or of not being alone. It is easy to attribute that to a supernatural actor but it could just be self-suggestion. Without deciding on that question here, it does seem like ‘monotheism’ means to subtract itself from the sphere of gods who are influenced as humans are.
Then there is the prayer of acceptance: when one asks to align one’s will to God’s will. The Letter of James asks: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas really you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” [4:13]. And earlier: “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend on your passions.” One can observe two logics of desire here: one that asks for itself (its own needs/desires) and one that asks for what is (and so desires whatever is given, even unto death). The controversy here is that then prayer seems to mean acceptance of the given ‘as is’; and that, consequently, it assumes God’s will and ‘what is’ are in accord, or tending toward accordance. That assumption can lead to some cruel perspectives if one takes it all the way (e.g., justification of present injustice). So, for this to work, one has to say that “God’s will” cannot simply be read off of what is. One would have to constantly recall that the will of God is radically Unknown, that God’s will is not known to us, that it ‘exists’ in a transitional space, in a movement into which one might better enter. One prays to recall the Eschaton toward which ‘what is’ drives: then prayer is not acceptance of ‘what is’ so much as a reorientation of the ‘mists of life’ toward the End, within the cosmic transition. “Faith” steps in at this point, as perseverance in this unknowing.
But there is another manifestation of prayer which is even more mysterious. I will call it prayer of receptivity. This is when the intention of God seems to flood in from the other side. Its markers are most akin to self-dissolution leading to self-giving transcendence. A shiver in the body is sometimes its signal: a moment of (seemingly un-willed) inward recollection that comes from ‘nowhere’, perhaps in the oddest places or at the oddest times. A feeling of confidence totally at odds with one’s given circumstances may arise. Or perhaps when one is weeping, one feels cleansed or forgiven far beyond one’s own capacities or dreams. A feeling like something is praying in us. There need be no words, no discourse in the mind, no supplication. Perhaps not even any reflection; or if there is, the mirror is decidedly other, reflecting back ‘nothing’. If anything, there is dissolution, accompanied by what seems to be the (unspeakable, unknowable) ‘discovery’ of a sort of invisible ground. But there is no ‘chasing’ after this state, no retaining it or claiming it. I would even be reluctant to call it an ‘experience’, if experience implies a separation from the experiencer and the object of experience, since in this mode of receptivity a sense of oneness prevails. So, if it is an experience, it’s certainly not one that can be possessed or reproduced at will through spiritual exercise; the latter can at best make one permeable, accessible to, prepared for, such a state, but it cannot will it into existence by force or demand. One can only request: ‘Spirit come’. But the essence of the reception is that God has sought you and found you – though in the moment, even such ‘clarity’ is not present or necessary, this ‘saying’ being deduced after the fact. In the moment there is neither leading nor leading astray: the growth is of the timeless, of rest in the invisible ground. And while it is a moment that is certainly filled with thanks, the intention to be thankful is only echo, consequence or response, and thus intuition received. Ego-satisfaction is ruled out on principle. Perhaps, then, one is ‘sucked’ into Eschaton: a loss of the All that gives it all back. No knowledge of God, no clarity from one’s purpose, necessarily comes from this. It is more like a revelation of the tenderness of being, or of its fragility. From such an invisible ground, it is probably impossible to not love.