In reading Blake Huggins' recent blogpost "Prayer (still) does not change things," I found a lot which resonated with me (and some that didn't fit with my personal journey) and a lot to chew on.
if theology is primarily about developing a sound and coherent word (logos) about God (theos) — however limiting and finite it may be — what could be more important than prayer? If I am feebly and delicately trying to develop ideas about God, about the divine, about that which is beyond me and that which consumes me — which is what I have devoted the remainder of my life to doing — what could be more weighty and significant than my ideas about addressing the divine, than my approach to communicating with God, than the way in which I, to borrow from Brother Lawrence, practice the presence of God?
This is what I am trying to get at: prayer says more about our theology and our ideas of God than we realize; indeed, I would go so far as to claim that how we view prayer in some sense determines what we believe about the nature of God and vice versa. If God is a deus ex machina, a mechanistic deity, a Big Daddy in the Sky who pulls strings for good people and cuts strings for bad people, then we will pray in a certain way. And, like my example above, how we pray will reveal an understood theology whether we overtly claim it or not. If we really want to “do theology” well and uncover all those areas in which the residue of our tacit assumptions about God still remain, then we had better take prayer seriously.
What can we do, then, in developing a theology of prayer but return to St. Augustine’s age old question in book ten of the Confessions: what do I love when I love my God? Is that not the ultimate question of prayer? Does that penetrating question not guide all our prayers and all our tears, all of our weak attempts to address that which calls us into being? To paraphrase Jacques Derrida, what can we do but re-inscribe that question into our own context and our own language?
[My note: See also Blake's earlier post in which he talks about (among other things) relationality in reflecting on the question "what is it that we love when we love our God? Who is it that we love when we love our God?"]
I must confess that I am not consistent in setting aside time for prayer or “quiet time” as they used to say at church camp. Yet I wonder if in some sense doing so might minimalize the power and potency of prayer. Here I want to be very clear: I am not suggesting dropping such exercises altogether, of course there are important and edifying. I’m just wondering out loud if hyper-emphasis on that alone misses the point of prayer. What if instead of being relegated to the mundane as some sort of chore one must undertake in order to reach a certain quota prayer (and here I am relying on Brother Lawrence and others) demanded a radical restructuring of one’s life in response to the always ever-present Spirit of God in the world? What if we lived life itself as an act of prayer rather than reduced prayer to mere daily exercise? What if prayer is simply (and complexly) the ongoing outworking of our reply to Augustine’s question, which is always left open as a question?
It is in this vein that I read Oswald Chambers when he writes, “It is not so true that ‘prayer changes things’ as that prayer changes me and I change things.” I do not pray to change God’s mind or to change reality, I pray because I myself am changed and transformed in the process. And because I leave Augustine’s question open as a question I am always answering (rather than a question to which I Answer) I stand with John Caputo, Derrida and the medieval mystics in saying that I do not know to whom I am praying, I do not know where my prayers and tears are directed. Yet I am (at my best) transformed and empowered to restructure my life as an ongoing act of prayer in response to the question “what do I love when I love my God?” Such a response is made palpable in my direct encounters with the other, encounters in which I am humbled to see myself as (an)other and encounters in which my normal, boring mode of being in the world is ruptured by divine grace, pushing me beyond a place of comfortability and into the realm of the im/possible where I see the other face-to-face.
I do not know to whom I pray, yet I continue. And in so doing I, a broken vessel, am made new again and again. In this way I can turn Derrida’s oft quoted statement (”I quite rightly pass for an atheist”) in my own direction: I quite rightly pass as one who prays. I seek to structure my life as an act of prayer itself insofar as such an act is an act of transformative response to the rupture of the divine event, of continually answering the questions of what it is that I love when I love my God and to whom, if anyone, my prayers are directed. These are open-ended questions, they are never nailed down and only loosely demarcated. My prayers are, like Augustine’s, prayers of a restless heart, of an unhinged being who does not know who he is and yet still seeks to understand from whence he came. My prayers are always already unfinished and any “Amen” that I utter is always already the beginning of my next prayer, my next attempt at answering or reformulating these questions.
Our prayers have no real discernible beginning or end, only movements or acts (as in a play) in between. This is, I think, precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr. said that to be without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without drawing breath. To be in prayer is to be in touch with the divine, something which never really ceases albeit something of which we may or may not be aware. The more efficacious prayer is — and here I turn back to Brother Lawrence — that one which is aware of one’s being in touch with something beyond oneself, something which beckons a tangible, sustained response; the most efficacious prayer is that one which heeds the call for response and allows oneself to be changed, both through the prayer and through outworking of the response. This is the sphere we should inhabit as those who seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God — a sphere of continual prayer, a posture of “praying without ceasing” as Paul wrote (I Thess. 5:17). So let us pray and let us continue to pray as together we work toward more faithful participation in the divine life.