3. A Universal Sense of Prayer
I had said it my last post that I would next lead into a Christian sense of prayer and its intrinsic role in the salvation and sanctification of the human person. However, I sensed that first we needed to establish what prayer is in the most universal sense in various cultures, which I do in this section, and then distinguish prayer from meditation, which will be in the next section.
Prayer is intentional communication with God (or gods). It can be spoken, written or communicated through affections, sighs, groaning, prostrations, attitudes, dispositions, and by other interior and exterior ways of intentionally communicating with God. The essence of it though is threefold:
- It is intentional
- It is communication
- Its object is God (or gods).
If a human act contains these three features then it is prayer even if God is poorly or incompletely perceived as an impersonal divine reality, as gods, or even as heavenly ancestors. This would be prayer wanting of completion in the gift of Christian faith, but nevertheless prayer. Prayer is a universal human act and not limited to Christians because it is part of the nature of every human being to have the desire and capacity to communicate with his Creator, even when this capacity is wounded by sin and alienation. That is why it is important to examine prayer at a universal level so that Christian prayer can be better illuminated.
In a weekly Catechesis that began in 2011 on the topic of prayer Benedict XVI wrote that prayer in ancient cultures were oriented toward a transcendent source, Another. He mentions a story from ancient Egypt where a blind man asks the divinity to restore his sight praying, “My heart longs to see you… You who made me see the darkness, create light for me, so that I may see you! Bend your beloved face over me”.1 The former Pontiff remarks, “That I may see you; this is the essence of prayer!” There is here truly a sense of an ultimate presence and source of goodness that the blind man desires to be touched by – to see with the heart.
A traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer that celebrates the birth of the great Indian Buddhist philosopher and founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava, and invokes his intercession reads, “You are renowned as the “Lotus-born”, Surrounded by many hosts of ḍākinīs. Following in your footsteps, I pray to you: Come, inspire me with your blessing!” To Tibetans, Padmasambhava is considered a second buddha (awakened one) in his own right and in that sense he (similar to a priest) mediates the divine reality to those seeking to awaken to it. Thus the invocation seeking his blessing. It is not wrong, nor lacking in virtue for the pre-Christian to seek transcendent truth and in fact those who commit their lives to it have a type of piety. Yet, it wouldn’t be right to call this prayer Christian.
A New Age prayer from a the website of a self-proclaimed “spiritual teacher” named David Cunliffe reads, “I cleanse myself of all selfishness, resentment, critical feelings for my fellow beings, self-condemnation, and misinterpretation of my life experiences. I bathe myself in generosity, appreciation praise and gratitude for my fellow beings, self acceptance, and enlightened understanding of my life experiences.” These aren’t bad desires at all, in fact these are good things to wish and pray for, yet, it wouldn’t be right to call this prayer Christian. What is missing?
Here it should also be noted that there are many prayers and invocations that are intentionally and directly opposed to Christ, prayers that invoke the power of satan, prayers that are meant to harm others, prayers that are meant to manipulate, and undermine what is true, and holy, and good. Obviously, nobody would claim that such prayers are Christian.
Yet still we see that the human heart is made to be oriented toward a source that is more powerful than it – because there are powers greater than it, and most importantly one that is all-powerful, i.e., not bereft of any possible power – God. So, whether it is terribly misguided or dangerous prayer or the prayer of pious pre-Christian peoples, or the prayer of fallen away Christians who know nothing more than human-centered new age prayers, there is still prayer. It happens in the person and is oriented toward, as Benedict XVI mentioned, Another, even if this Other is conceived in a more rudimentary way as in principles or virtues – such as in atheism. But Christian Prayer is not distinguished by the fact that a person is doing it, or that the person doing it may have means of a remote and proximate preparation, or that it is in relationship to Another – what makes it different, again, is its object.
Christians believe that, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”2 And we recognize that this desire is expressed by man universally, irrespective of culture and epoch, it is intrinsic to human nature because the Creator freely made the human person for loving communion with Him. In his own words Benedict XVI remarked, in “prayer of different epochs and civilizations emerge the human being’s awareness of his creatural condition and of his dependence on Another superior to him, the source of every good. The human being of all times prays because he cannot fail to wonder about the meaning of his life, which remains obscure and discomforting if it is not put in relationship to the mystery of God and his plan for the world.”3 In the pagan cultures we see invocations that await a complete response, at times in need of purification of harmful notions of the transcendent reality of the true God. But we truly do see the orientation of cultures to to a divine source and cosmic plan that transcends the world as we know it, again, even when it is still shrouded in myth and superstition.
Even in contemporary atheism there are self-contradicting references to principles such as justice and truth which implicitly invoke an eternal source (otherwise they are rendered meaningless). One atheist author invokes the holy trinity of science: reason, experimentation, and observation as the one and true saving power. While it is not difficult to feign atheism it is much harder if not impossible to follow it through to its consequences – because the human being always exists in relationship to principles, forces, and wisdom that transcends him. He cannot, in the end, remove his own reality, which always is a mystery that transcends him. Does the atheist pray too, then? Certainly not Christian prayer, but if worship is a way of prayer then the atheist often prays (worships – offers to) an idol of science or of human reason. Such principles for the atheist have soteriological value, i.e. they have the power to liberate man in an ultimate way. So, we can say prayer understood as petition, invocation, praise, worship, repentance, adoration, and thanksgiving is something so central to human experience that there is no human heart that doesn’t pray in one way or another. We see here that the question of prayer is not at issue here: the question becomes what the object of prayer is. Again, what is Christian prayer?
All cultures have ritual, all have techniques of meditation and prayer, all burn stuff that is fragrant (incense) as some type of offering, there are postures, clergy, places of worship, etc.. Even the contemporary atheists have their Sunday Assembly. What is different is not in what man does so much as how the object of worship, of meditation, and of prayer is known and then responded to. This is a hint to remember later on in this essay that we are wrong if we emphasize a criticism against a type of prayer or meditation because it uses a method. This misses the point.
It is the object of Christian prayer and what that object asks of the human person that distinguishes it from non-Christian prayer. Before we visit directly the object of Christian prayer and its necessity for salvation we need to take a moment distinguishing between two terms that are commonly confused, by ordinary Christians as much as by non-Christians. We need to distinguish meditation from prayer and examine the contemporary usage of the term meditation.
1. Benedict XVI. (4 May 2011). General Audiences of Benedict XVI (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.↩
2. Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 13). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. ↩
3. Benedict XVI. (4 May 2011). General Audiences of Benedict XVI (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. ↩