‘Theopoetics, Prayer, Words beyond Words?

Posted: July 19, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Theopoetics, Prayer, Words beyond Words?’

Today is one of those times in the lectionary when the topic is prayer and one wonders whether there is anything new to say about prayer. So given all that I thought we might begin by placing the challenge in the search for the theopoetics of prayer and the words beyond the words perhaps and just touch into some theological wanderings through the prayer I think is the most used and dare I say it, the prayer we spend the least time on analyzing what it is that we are saying when we recite it out of habit.  Am of course talking about ;The Lord’s Prayer.

Rex Hunt gave some thought to this that I found interesting and so I thought we might see what he says as we explore. Like me he reminds us that most analysis of prayer begins with what prayer is and what it isn’t.

Rex says; that, prayer was not some Harry Potter-style magic where you and say certain words and specific things happen. Neither is it Santa Claus–style bargaining… Be good and you get what you ask for. Be bad and you don’t. Instead he suggested that prayer was more akin to the ‘language of the heart’… Rex suggests that prayer is more like a conversation with oneself than one with a higher power, more an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life – and the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God” (Morwood 2003:8).

He suggests that the characteristics of this kind of praying would include listening in silence which I think is like taking one’s mind to a place where no words or concepts or anything is required, just a conscious attempt to note all the things swirling around in ones mind as if waiting for a sign or something to take up and still the swirling. A silence that shuts the outer world out and attempts to still the inner one.

He suggests another characteristic is one of giving insights into ourselves and possibly others, and by this I think he is suggesting that the discovery of this silence, this nothingness highlights the fact that we are unique, nothingness is only nothingness when confronted by somethingness perhaps,  there is a self that fills the space, and when we get there we realize that all human beings are alike in this commonality of what it means to be human, sure we know that genetics and environment and relationships all impact on who we are but that commonality is clear and it doesn’t wipe out our uniqueness or our particular input into the wider world, it enhances and clarifies it.

Rex highlights another characteristic as connecting us to each other and here I think he is exploring the world of mirror neurons, of environmental and genetic cause or why do we need to be a particular species. What is being human and why is it important in the greater scheme of things? What is our relationship with the trees and plants and other animals? What is our connection with the planet and the cosmos. I was watching a couple of movies this week. One was Tomorrowland about the insatiable desire of humankind to find another futuristic world and Interstellar about the end of this civilization and the desire of humans to find another planet to live on.

What his this got to do with prayer, well maybe that desire to be connected to one another both at a personal and procreative imperative level and at a planetary survival of the species level. We know instinctively that we need each other yet we spend so much time fighting for our individuality. Is this not at the seat of prayer conditioned by consciousness?

But all this is psychological wandering and its not all that has been said about prayer and its ability to change things. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once commented: ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’. Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’. Henry Nelson Wieman went further and suggested that prayer ‘works’ with the: “re-creation of the one who prays, of [the] appreciable world, and of [their] association with others, so that the prayerful request is fulfilled in the new creation” (Wieman 1946:282).

Here we leap to my favourite approach to this. Prayer is about ‘Reimagining the world!  Reimagining relationships!  Reimagining possibilities!

Returning to our text we see that the focus of today’s Lectionary story is again on ‘prayer’.
In particular what we have called The Lord’s Prayer. And our storyteller says the context of the story is a request from the disciples for Jesus to teach them how to pray. And so we are given Luke’s version of that prayer.

If we are honest at this point, we have to says that there is a fair amount of doubt as to whether Jesus actually taught anybody how to pray, let alone a group called the disciples. Recent 21st century scholarship now suggests this prayer comes from a group of people called the Q People… One of several groups of people who make up the early Jesus movements. Their particular ‘claim to fame’ was they were only interested in the teachings of Jesus “and not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny” (Mack 1993:1).

It is suggested that during their life together as a community they began to develop a series of strategies to help them survive. Those strategies were:

  • they started writing their wisdom down,
  • they began to claim Jesus as their founder,
  • they began to compose and write down angry sayings, condemning those who rejected them, and
  • they began to institutionalize prayer as a response to their situation.

And the outcome of one of those strategies was what we have come to identify
as the Jesus Prayer or The Lord’s Prayer. Named that way because they took bits and pieces of his teachings and wove them together, so every time they said these words, it reminded them of Jesus, their founder. It was a brilliant strategy!

This short prayer showed they believed Jesus prayer life was, and as a result, their prayer life needed to be, basic and broadly focused, “and more broadly focused than that of many religious people today” (Taussig 1999:98)

One of the challenges of this stuff is what I suggested at the beginning when I suggested what prayer might be. All this latter approach to prayer acknowledges the sociological and psychological evolution of human thinking but it is very easily lost as just ‘head’ stuff rather than ‘heart’ stuff. So, what do we do with this? Well, again Rex offers us an option. He tells of a group of refugees in El Salvador where they too have taken the Jesus or Lord’s Prayer and earthed it in their experiences of living in this world. And here is the result of their reflection on this prayer.

As God’s children may we build a new earth of sisterhood and brotherhood,
not a hell of violence and death.

may your name be holy

That in God’s name, let there be no abuse, no oppression and no manipulation of the conscience and liberty of your children.

May your rule take place

Not the rule of fear, force or money, of seeking peace through war.

Give us each day our daily bread

The bread of peace, so we can sow our maize and beans, watch them grow and share them together as a family.

Pardon our debts, for we ourselves

pardon everyone in debt to us.

May our relationships not be based on self-interest.

And do not bring us to trial into a trying situation

Let us change lament for songs of life, clenched fists for outstretched hands, and the weeping of widows and orphans for smiles…

This is not some reciting of some well-known words in auto-pilot, like so much of the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form, today is. This is basic existence, real life, stuff.

And so is the story which Luke adds to this prayer story. The arrival of an unexpected guest seeking hospitality. Only for the host to have no food in the family larder.
So a neighbour is asked to help out. As Bruce Prewer observes: “…[Luke’s] Jesus is talking about basics.  Good food, not luxuries for the over pampered.  Fish and eggs were the main source of protein in the common person’s diet.  Not snapper or rainbow trout, but plain stubby little fish from Lake Galilee; the ones now called St Peter fish.  And eggs; not caviar but common hen’s eggs.  Basics” (BPrewer web site, 2001). It is for the needs of others that we are told to ask, seek and knock on God’s ‘metaphorical’ door.

That’s what makes this Lukan story, important. That’s what makes the refugees’ reflection, important. That’s what makes the Q peoples’ prayer, important. That’s what makes what we do and say every week, important. Amid the basics of life, and remembering others needs, it invites us to reimagining the world, reimagining relationships, reimagining possibilities. Not for our benefit.  But for theirs, because ‘prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things.

Paul Alan Laughlin, who’s prayer we will recite in today’s liturgy said in an article some years back that he describes his take on the Jesus/Lord’s Prayer as A Mystical Lord’s Prayer.

“The first and perhaps most important thing that sets this version of the Lord’s Prayer off from the others is its theology, which dispenses entirely with the personal, parental Father-Sky-God of the original, and replaces “Him” with a non-personal, immanent power-presence (or source-force), an infinite one (or One) that is none other (or non-Other) than the spiritual core of the person or persons reciting or singing the prayer.  The implicit theology of this prayer, then, is not monotheism but monism…

“The second distinctive feature of this version of the Lord’s Prayer follows from the first; for having eliminated a personal divine Other above, this Lord’s Prayer… has no petitions for any intercessory acts on behalf of a human individual or group.  In their stead are strong affirmations of how we are already emboldened from within ourselves to become better persons and to accomplish ever-greater things.  This “Lord’s Prayer,” then, can properly be regarded as a daily reminder of our full human potential-miraculous and praiseworthy in its own right-to be good and do good.

“Thus, he says; my Lord’s Prayer is not an invocative device, but an evocative (psyche) exercise in self-realization-or perhaps Self-realization, if the ego-self is to be distinguished from one’s deepest and truest identity, as it is in most mystical traditions.  For humanists, this “within” may be seen differently: as our rational and empirical faculties, perhaps after the fashion of Plato, who equated the human “soul” with the intellect.  In either case, what we have here is an acknowledgement of a mysterious and in some sense sans divine Immanence (versus Eminence) – a reference to the indwelling mysterious Presence and Power that (at least for mystics) permeates or infuses the cosmos, and that (for humanists as well, though probably the capitals) abides in nature, human nature, and therefore ourselves” (Reprinted from The FourthR, Vol 22, No. 6. Nov-Dec 2009

Edouard Glissant, long recognized in the French and francophone world as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of our times wrote in his book; Poetics of Relation, that the concrete particulars of reality turn into a complex, energetic vision of a world in transformation. He argues that the writer can tap the unconscious of a people and apprehend its multiform culture to provide forms of memory capable of transcending “nonhistory,” Glissant defines his “poetics of relation”—both aesthetic and political—as a transformative mode of history, capable of enunciating and making concrete a reality with a self-defined past and future. Glissant’s notions of identity as constructed in relation and not in isolation are germane to discussions of our understanding of multiculturalism. In Glissant’s view, we come to see that relation in all its senses — telling, listening, connecting, and the parallel consciousness of self and surroundings — and this is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies. The power of prayer perhaps as that which is beyond yet dependent upon the words.

In closing I want to offer you another translation this one from the Aramaic language. And the reason I do this is because in translation we often reduce, simplify it, and miss some of the richness of thought that is expressed in ancient language. So here is a summarized version of what Jesus’ own language might have conveyed.

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos,

 Focus your light within us – make it useful;

Create your reign of unity now –

Your one desire then acts with ours as in all light, so in all forms.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight,

Loose the chords of mistakes binding us,

as we release the strands we hold of other’s guilt.

Don’t let surface things delude us,

But free us from what holds us back,

From you is born all ruling will,

the power and the life to do,

the song that beautifies all,

from age to age it renews.

Truly power to these statements –

may they be the ground from which all my actions grow,



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