Prayer: Reorienting Desires and Rehearsing for Death

In his book Atheist Delusions, Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart writes,

[I]t is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside. If [Daniel] Dennett really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion (which…does not really exist), and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step, he should certainly–purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor–begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is a drastic and implausible description, no doubt; but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not (pg. 11-12).

Praying is an aspect of religion I actually struggle with. It’s very difficult for me, largely because it feels repetitive and admittedly silly. What’s more, it is difficult to stay focused. But this seems to be the nature of the beast. Mormon philosopher Adam Miller captures this well:

When you pray, notice how the same thing happens almost every time. You address God and then you start to think about what you should say and then this prompts you to think about something else and then, caught up in thinking about this other thing, you forget that you were saying a prayer. Your brain browns out. Eventually, after a few minutes, you remember why you were kneeling there in the first place. This moment is the key. When, for the first time, you remember this, your prayer can start for real…To pray is to practice remembering God. The more frequently you forget, the more chances you’ll have to remember, and the more you remember, the deeper your prayer will go. With patience and practice, you’ll remember God more often.[ref]Letters to a Young Mormon, “Prayer,” Kindle edition.[/ref]

However, I’m beginning to think I need to try harder. Anglican priest Sarah Coakley provides some reasons in a 2012 interview:

It took me a long time to realize this, but I think that what seems to be our sheer incompetence in prayer is actually the place where something is happening: it is God invading our willed vulnerability. I think a lot of people try to pray and then give up. They feel it isn’t right for them, that they aren’t good at it. But prayer is not like riding a bicycle or getting a good grade on a term paper. It’s something sui generis precisely because relating to God isn’t like relating to anything or anyone else.

…Many traditions that are enfolded within Christianity plot a sort of progression to prayer, but I’m fairly resistant to the idea of progress as prayer because I have a strong sense that every time I try to pray I know I’m incompetent. At the same time, however, anyone who is seriously committed to prayer on a daily basis will know that things do start to happen: one is being transformed, one’s whole life is being drawn like a magnetized set of iron filings in a unified direction so the bits of one’s self that one thought were completely unconnected suddenly become vibrantly connected. The greatest writers on prayer in the Christian tradition tell us that once you seriously embark on this journey, it’s like giving your life away: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31 NRSV). And we could say that there are stages of progression in this journey, but it’s never for us to say where we are.

Now, I think that one of the most important things to happen in such a progression is a barely perceptible sharpening or transformation of the senses and the mind, partly because what we now call the unconscious is welling up and forcing itself to be integrated. We suddenly realize that we are seeing and knowing and responding to the world in ways that we didn’t before…[T]he basic idea is that our life is set on a course of transformation and purification. We are given a sensual life, an imaginative life, an affective life, and a noetic life, and each of these features of selfhood has to pass through transformation and purification en route to the vision of God. So of course that affects the mind, the senses, and the imagination.

She continues:

Christianity tells us that these senses ultimately unite in the beatific vision—because there could be nothing more joyous or transformative or pleasurable than being desired by God and responding in complete unity with God—but in the lower rungs of life we have to make choices about how we are going to spend our time, let our imaginations play, or direct our will. In prayer, particularly in silent prayer, these choices press on us in a way that is very disconcerting. We only have to spend about five seconds in silence before we’re thinking, “This is boring. Why don’t I go do something more interesting?” Our minds are immediately distracted with intense desires for cream buns or with random sexual fantasies. Laying ourselves out before God in a sort of naked way releases the imagination. It isn’t relieving; it’s humbling. It’s also quite funny—this is the lot of humanity! Yet if I were starving or dying of thirst, I would only have one interest: the desire to find something to eat or drink. This wandering of the mind—that I can wonder what video game I’m going to play or whether I’m going to have a diet Coke or a non-diet Coke—is thus a privilege of affluence. In North Atlantic culture I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that desires are all related in a kind of nexus, that our desire for a cup of tea is intimately, though not obviously, connected to our desire for sex, for power, and for influence, and these things are ultimately bound up with our desire for God. Silent prayer forces us to think about these puzzling connections and to order our desires in relation to God… Desire isn’t simply about sex; the tether of desire is the lot of humanity, and it requires spiritual and moral discernment. And theologically, I think our goal is to spread out these desires before God, to have them find their proper place. Some of these desires are strongly inflected by sin, and they need attention through grace and the Spirit. Other desires are not necessarily sinful but can get wrongly intensified; they can be in the wrong place or in the wrong order at the wrong time.

She concludes, “Prayer is this constant return to the place where one’s projects are frail and fallible and where one can only fall on God’s mercy. That’s the place God works. And God works powerfully there.” Perhaps prayer is an act of vulnerability and humility; what Coakley refers to below as “rehearsing for death.”

Perhaps I need to rehearse more.