Prayer as Language of The Heart

Posted: May 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

Easter 7B, 2018
John 17: 6-19

Prayer as Language of The Heart

Powell Davies, served as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, USA, during the late 1940s and early 50s and he wrote a book on prayer that raised a number of questions about prayer. What he said was that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In that simple statement he made some significant claims about prayer that I want to explore a little today. The first is that ‘Prayer is the language of the heart, the second that language of the heart is akin to poetry, the third was that Prayer is not concerned with exact description but rather with reality itself and this is a claim that reality is as I argued some months back when quoting the Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli when he said Reality is ‘not what it seems”. Prayer is more akin to being not what it seems as opposed to exact description and what is important about prayer is that it has the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off, and its main concern is to explore what is least known and yet most deeply felt. What I want to explore this morning is some of the connections this approach makes with the rest of life because I think that somehow this understanding of prayer permeates almost the whole of human living.

I am currently reading a book loaned to me by Carl Becker entitled “Desiring the Kingdom’ by James K A Smith, which talks about there being an intentional nature in being human and that this intent is a desire to be a lover as opposed to being a thinker. Much of our recent history as human beings has been obsessed with thinking and our education theory has been centered on cognitive development. Not that such learning is not important but current thinking is that it is not enough to be cognitively proficient, our learning environment needs to recognize that human development is more likely to be through cultural and sociological exposure, or as Smith suggests cultural liturgies. That are formational. We note here also that Smith talks about Liturgies as the way we pull the cognitive and the practice together. In this way he can claim what I think we already know, and that is that education is a holistic endeavour that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in the process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination and orients us to the world, all before we start thinking about it.

But returning to our topic; what is this to do with prayer? Well I want to suggest that the connection might be in the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression and this is a natural phenomenon. This is the beginning of prayer. In traditional language, this is God, or the sacred, found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. Or as K E Peters suggests prayer is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… [and] which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

To use Smiths approach, prayer is a challenge to the person as thinker model (I think therefor I am’) as being reductionist and not recognizing that the complexity and richness of human persons is not found by reducing the core identity to something less than it should be. We are not totally defined by our thinking ability and in fact other means of learning and human development are more involved in human identity. It is here that Smith I think introduces the idea that we are more likely to be driven by love than cognitive thinking. Prayer might just be an example of this attempt to reach beyond the cognitive.

Today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, is a very small part of the tradition
which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. In it Jesus addresses God as someone whom he knows
very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. At one level this is classic ‘theism’, but at another it is an acknowledgement that there is more to prayer than a conversation with a supernatural being, it is rather a claim that his human identity as a son of God is more than that which is limited by human thinking. He knows in his gut that he can trust God. He feels convinced that he is in the same space as his God. They are one in existence. And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which suggests that there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. Just as poetry engages the space between the words and evokes a person’s spirit to explore meaning and feeling and even action so does prayer.

In regard to the different types of prayer we might suggests that a prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. Any measurement of prayer has to take into account the hearer and how many hearers as well thus the cognitive dilemma. On the other hand, prayer may be just a few words, like OMG, or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer, the common thing is that there seems to be a need for some time for silence… and the deeper we get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer rather than speaking prayer. Again; we have the need for room for the non-cognitive.

This silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view,
or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while
you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He said that Prayer was “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice… to recognize that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all. What I think he was saying was that prayer is not just about thinking but rather about something more than language could engage with. He wrote “Put your ear to the ground and listen, hurried, worried footsteps, bitterness, rebellion. “Hope hasn’t yet begun. Listen again. Put out your feelers. The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers a perspective on Camara’s prayer: when he says “Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Here we again sense that prayer is not just about the cognitive approach, and that our fundamental way of dealing with the world is non-cognitive. It also suggests that because our fundamental nature is to be intentional about engaging with the world our engagement is neither reflectional or theoretical, in other words we do not go around all day thinking about how to live our lives. It is rather more that we simply involve ourselves in it and we orient and navigate ourselves without thinking about it.

For us as Progressive Christians prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural, being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. Prayer works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. As H N Wieman says: prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Before I finish I want to say two things that I think undergird these claims about prayer. The first is that Prayer is part of the human intention for the world and it is born out of that which prayer seeks to manifest. The human intention is as we said; that we desire to be more fully human and that means to be more loving, that’s the ‘why’ question, and the way in which we see ourselves involved in that intent is by loving, that’s the ‘how’ question We are more fully human by loving and agents of love in that loving. It is more about what we do as opposed to what we think.

Last week I talked about plurality and how we needed to recognize that we live beyond the theory of tolerance of difference and find the experiential place of tension between the idea of assimilation and valued differences and what I did not succeed in doing was making clear what love and loving have to say in that approach to plurality. Today I am suggesting that an understanding the importance of the non-cognitive opens doors for the language of the heart and thus for love. Some would even go so far as to say that humans are essentially lovers because to be human is to love and that what we love defines who we are.

I want to conclude this talk by claiming that if ‘Religion’ has any value at all to humanity it has to be seen not as an historical organizational problem tied to the past but rather a wisdom born of centuries of experience, that tells us that qualities of heart, and mind rather than physical blessings, are a major concern in our prayer life. I would want to add here that it is the qualities of heart and especially love that exceeds even the importance of mind in this process. It also suggests that, we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. As a footnote I want to say here that this is why our liturgies begin with ‘Awesome wonder’ as acknowledgment of the bounteous beauty with which we are endowed, followed by an ‘Awareness’ as acknowledgement of the need to ask questions of our motivation, desire and expectations, followed by imaginative choice which recognizes that the scriptures and what we say makes sense as products of the human imagination and that the creative choice returns us to a place of gratitude, and an intent to love even more fully. One could say our liturgical journey is one of heart, mind, response, heart.

Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group 2009

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