The Perils of Public Prayer

I agree with the epigraph that stands at the head of the Orthosphere webpage. “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” If the wise Savoyard had ventured the converse formulation, I would agree with that also. For there can be no civilization where an altar is absent. The reason for this is plain enough. Civilization is man’s attempt to rise from brutality; an altar is a barred gate through which we see how very far we have to go. Remove the altar and there is no prospect of higher ground; remove the prospect of higher ground and we will shrug, turn away, and trudge back to the mire from whence we came.

The same might be said of prayer, as it both confirms and reveals the higher ground. Prayer is rather like a rope with which a benighted wanderer hopes to raise himself from a sucking morass. He casts his coil into the gloom, perchance it catches or is caught, and with this anchored line he heaves and hauls and slowly makes his upward way. This is why civilization cannot survive without prayer. If the rope does not catch, if the rope is not cast, there is nothing to climb. There is nothing but the sucking morass.

I say all this as a stumblebum of prayer, as an awkward, diffident, tongue-tied hobbledehoy of devotion. I have never surveyed that higher ground with wide eyes in broad daylight, and far from resembling an anchored rope, my prayers are mere shoestrings that sometimes snag in the fork of a brittle twig. Between ought and is there is with me a gulf, not a gap; it is a Grand Canyon or Marianas Trench of separation.

So my dislike of public prayers does not arise from their failure to match the ecstasies that occur in the privacy of my own closet. I am no country boy who, accustomed to whole milk fresh from the cow, pukes at the taste of powdered whey concocted from a box. Nor is my dislike of public prayers a sneering distain for the men and women who brave the perils of this treacherous task.

The first peril of public prayer is the strong temptation to affect becoming piety. The mind naturally drifts from the object of the address, which is to say God, to one’s audience. It is they, after all, who will pick the thing to pieces later in the day. And so, as with so many of life’s deepest transactions, public prayer is degraded when it becomes a performance. Nothing equals public prayer in recalling to mind the diction of the seventeenth century, for as everyone knows, God speaks the language of the King James Bible. There is also, I believe, a powerful undertow pulling those who pray publicly into the deep water of polite insincerity. Victims of evil who make it into newspaper headlines seldom fail to make it into public prayers. Public prayers resound with hollow sorrows and hyperbolic grief. In fact, public prayer far too often orbits the manufactured opinions of the mass media, as if God is dependent on us to keep abreast of the news of the day.

The second peril of public prayer is threading one’s way through between the Scylla of offensive dogmatism and the Charybdis of outright blasphemy. Some of the men and women who undertake public prayers are simple phonies, who wish to lecture an audience whose eyes are closed; but most have genuine convictions, and these convictions will always be narrower than those of the motley audience. Imagine a Baptist, for instance, who must offer a public prayer before a crowd that includes Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Jews, vaguely post-Christian spiritual types, and atheists who will acquiesce up to a point. He is in a delicate position because he has (or at least should have) a holy terror of offering up a fake prayer, but he also has a profane terror of triggering the Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Jews, vaguely post-Christian spiritual types, and atheists who will acquiesce up to a point. His position is only more delicate when the audience includes Muslims, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Odinites.

When placed in this delicate position, a sensible man does the sensible thing. He runs and takes cover in the platitudes, which inattentive listeners will mistake for the beatitudes, and careful cavilers will find hard to condemn. There was a fellow who took it on himself to offer up prayers before swim meets in which my children competed. For the most part he stuck to platitudinous petitions. He asked God to keep us safe, ensure universal fun, and enforce the rule against running beside the pool. He asked God to make the winners fast, the losers philosophic, the weather fine, the volunteer timers conscientious, the stopwatches accurate, the towels dry, and the showers warm. He often yielded to the undertow and asked God guide our president, protect our troops, bless our crops, and do whatever was in his power to help with the swim team bake sale. In this way he steered clear of Scylla.

But there remained the Charybdis of his own conscience, which I suspect was Baptist. If the foregoing sentiments were to be a real prayer, they must be addressed to a real God. Apart from Unitarians, everyone knows there is a difference between a platitude and a prayer. So this poor fellow had to slip in an oblique suggestion that he was addressing a being who not only cared about our swim meet, but who also, err, had a Son. No doubt you have seen the same thing happen when students have led prayers at commencement ceremonies and football games. These are Christian prayers in false whiskers, and the false whiskers fool no one.

Offering a Christian prayer in false whiskers makes it more of a performance, since, far from joining in the prayer, most in the audience are on pins and needles, anxious to see just how far the speaker will go. Will he produce a fake prayer, and so founder on Charybdis, or will he trigger his audience, and so break up on Scylla.

8 thoughts on “The Perils of Public Prayer

  1. Speaking of student-led prayer at H.S. football games, it seems to be a matter of how fast she can say “injesusnameweprayamen.”

    • Among young Catholics, an equivalent dodge is to make the sign of the cross in a way that might be mistaken for trying to catch a fly that is buzzing around their noses. I have a lot of sympathy for young Christians in this bind. They are acutely aware of the Scylla of social shame and the Charybdis of Hell Fire.

  2. The only time I am ever called to pray in front of others outside a church is when I am with family and must thank God prior to feasting at a meal, and even then it isn’t out loud. I think there is a certain feeling of inadequacy when addressing any authority in front of other subordinates, but you should never be phony about it. A phony prayer is actually rather insulting.

    • For occasions such as family feasts, I like set prayers, perhaps with a few occasional addenda. I know that set prayers can become mindless, but think this must be set against the danger of improvised prayers, which is to become self-conscious. It’s not impossible to turn a set prayer into a performance, but the theatrical possibilities are limited.

      I would use the phrase “phony prayer” to denote prayer by someone who doesn’t actually believe in prayer, and so is only pretending to pray. When a phony prays, you get phony prayer. We need another term to name what occurs when a man who believes in prayer offers up a prayer that is not, in terms of his creed, an authentic prayer. I used the phrase “fake prayer” in the post, but toyed with the idea of “simulated prayer.”

      • That’s the reason it’s important to understand the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, not just the words. This can be said of many things besides prayer too – I’m thinking in terms of marriage vows, oaths and so forth.

      • Marriage vows are a good example of a formula recited without much thought about what the words mean. The scope of the promise one makes is really rather appalling, or at least was so, when there was some likelihood one would be held to it. We should teach our children that formulas are binding, and that there are no circumstances where they should say what they do not mean.

      • “We need another term to name what occurs when a man who believes in prayer offers up a prayer that is not, in terms of his creed, an authentic prayer.”

        “inauthentic prayer?”

  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/11/01) | The Reactivity Place

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