Skip to comments.Miserable sinners that we are, we'd sooner reach for the whisky than venture a prayer
Posted on 12/13/2003 1:09:28 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
Prayer, for most of us in this country, now seems, if anything, a little odd, if not embarrassing. You have only got to visit, for example, the US Presidential Prayer Team website, to feel your English eyebrow rising. It is an organisation that claims to be 2.8 million strong, and which prays every day via the internet for the wellbeing of the Bush Administration and all its policies.
And when I say all, I mean all. Yesterday, for example, we were invited to pray not only for the American businesses that were opening up new branches in Iraq; for James Baker, who has been charged with restructuring the Iraqi debt; for the President himself and Mrs Bush during the large number of Christmas parties they will be holding in the White House; for Treasury Secretary Snow "and his team as they work to combat identity theft in America"; but also to "give thanks for the excellent service of Secretary Mel Martinez as he has led the Department of Housing and Urban Development". We were urged to "pray for wisdom for the President and his advisers as they seek a new candidate to lead this important department".
Praying for the American government, it turns out, could well be a full-time occupation. But why does all this strike us as a little absurd? In the long historical perspective, of course, it is our radically secularised society that is the anomaly, not the Americans. Most societies at most times have been happy enough to bind together the idea of prayer with the most mundane, business-like realities of life. And most of them still are.
The Dalai Lama has said recently that putting the famous mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" on your hard disk drive will have exactly the same effect as a traditional water- or wind-driven Buddhist prayer wheel. "As the digital image spins around on your hard drive, it sends the peaceful prayer of compassion to all directions and purifies the area." Since a hard disk spins at about 5,400rpm, that endlessly repeated prayer will soon rid the entire house or maybe even your whole street of any negative karma. Do it now!
Is this mad? If it is, the English have been mad for most of their history. Repetitive restatement of formulaic prayers was our habit for centuries. Take, as an example, the great 17th-century divine Lancelot Andrewes, bishop in turn of Chichester, Ely and Winchester, Privy Counsellor, heavyweight European player, engaged in major theological disputes with Catholic theologians across the Continent, leading translator of the King James Bible, fluent in 15 modern languages and six ancient, and James I's favourite preacher. The king, who thought he had "sparkles of divinity about him", used to sleep with the text of Andrewes's sermons under his pillow. Andrewes, in other words, was as involved in the political, intellectual and administrative life of his time as it was possible to be.
But the foundation of this great, witty, powerful man's life was prayer. Every morning, he spent five hours alone on his knees. He once said that anyone who visited him before midday clearly did not believe in God.
The manuscript copy of his own private prayer book, which he left to Archbishop Laud, was "slubbered with his pious hands and watered with his penitential tears". That was no exaggeration. Those who knew him had often witnessed his "abundant tears" as he prayed for himself and others. And just to drive this point in, this was Andrewes's own view of himself: "For me, O Lord, sinning and not repenting, and so utterly unworthy, it were more becoming to lie prostrate before Thee and with weeping and groaning to ask pardon for my sins, than with polluted mouth to praise Thee."
If we met Andrewes today, we'd probably give him a course of Prozac. Or sit him down with a bottle of whisky. And that modern response is surely a key to why we don't pray. The ancient assumption is the pessimistic one that the human condition is essentially disastrous. We are weak, incompetent and fallible. We are miserable sinners. The modern, liberal assumption is the very opposite of that. It is the essentially optimistic idea that, if only we sort things out properly, we are fine.
Feeling like Andrewes is not a recognition of how things are; it is a failure to get your life sorted. If you believe that, to resort to prayer would indeed be mad, because you would be diverting your attention from the real issues of getting a good job, meeting a lovely wife/husband, buying a centrally heated house, knowing you have a car that starts in the morning and looking forward to two weeks in Barbados. Prayer, of its essence, would be a waste of time.
That deep shift in the idea of the self is what marks the modern sensibility. The American religious Right hasn't made that shift, which is one of the reasons we find it so difficult to understand each other. They still think they are rotten. But there is something disturbing for the modern secularised liberal in the example of a figure like Andrewes: the admission of his own hopelessness gave him an extraordinary potency. His miserableness as a sinner, and his constant submission in prayer, made him not an invalid, but as powerful as almost anyone in 17th-century England. The sheer vitality-drive that you feel around the American religious Right is in some ways equivalent to that. That's the disturbing thought: is prayerlessness debilitating?
***Conservatives who think progressives are misinformed idealists will forever be blind-sided by the malice of the left-by the cynicism of those who pride themselves on principle, by the viciousness of those who champion sensitivity, by the intolerance of those who call themselves liberal, and by the ruthless disregard for the well-being of the downtrodden by those who preen themselves as social saints.
Conservatives are caught by surprise because they see progressives as merely misguided, when in fact they are fundamentally misdirected. They are the messianists of a religious faith. But it is a false faith and a self-serving religion. Since the redeemed future that justifies their existence and rationalizes their hypocrisy can never be realized, what really motivates progressives is a modern idolatry: their limitless passion for the continuance of Them. *** Source
Absolutely. Prayer should be as natural and frequent as breathing.
They saved the best bigotry for last. By this construction, the US religious right (the religious Left is not acknowledged to exist by European sophisticates) does not share a modern reality. They are something else, something less than modern.
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