On prayer

Hick on prayer (p. 18f) asserts that ‘we are all linked at deep unconscious levels in a universal network in which our thoughts, and even our emotions, are all the time affecting others as others are in turn affecting us.’ This is simply an assertion, an article of faith, and he admits that there is no evidence to support it. He gives the impression that the good wrought by prayer is simply the result of this human solidarity, unconscious and unfelt. No mention is made of God. Perhaps this last is an oversight and he does not intend to exclude divine influence.

Prayer is very mysterious and I think it does work in something like the way Hick describes. Although there is no empirical evidence for it, there does appear to be a network linking, not only we sentient humans, but also everything in the cosmos. Rupert Sheldrake, with his morphic fields, is quite convincing. There is also a wealth of anecdotal evidence of a bond between people, usually where there is an intimate relationship, such that when something significant or tragic happens to one the other is immediately aware that something has happened to the other even though they may be widely separated. This is the sort of thing to which Hick is referring. But prayer goes much deeper than what may simply be a natural bonding.

There is, first of all, the urge to pray. This is universal and has always been a factor in our religious behaviour. This is so deep rooted that even those who have never previously shown any religious commitment or belief often turn to prayer in life threatening situations. The cynic might say that here is an example of someone making Pascal’s wager. But I do not think so. This is no calculated gesture based on a rational assessment of the odds but a deep-seated emotional response to a limit situation. Prayer springs from the deepest roots of the self, from that zone in the affective system which straddles the conscious and the unconscious mind. Here situations, events and actions initiate emotions, feelings and moods, which are evaluated as meaningful and significant. Here we touch the foundations of our being. None of this is in the rational mind. It is not something we can conceptualise or argue with. It is a given, with the numinous quality of an ancient memory.

Here we sense not just the interlinking network which binds us all, although that is sensed. Here, obscurely and tentatively, we sense the Presence within. This is what prayer does. It brings this Presence to the surface of our minds. It opens the channels which link us and which have been narrowed and constricted by egotism and self-interest. God is active, not as a puppet master manipulating the strings of cause and effect. God acts in and through us. This I believe to be true, though I am not aware of it in any concrete sense, nor is there any empirical evidence of it. I will never forget one day when I was in the Little Brothers. Dominic Voillaume had come to make his annual retreat and had spent a week in a hermitage on San Capracio, the mountain above the village. I walked into the room where he was bent over a table reading the paper. He turned to greet me and his face was – transfigured, is the only word for it. There was joy, peace, beauty – impossible to describe. It was almost embarrassing to look him in the eye his face was so naked. The story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and having to hide his face behind a veil came to mind. Dominic had just come down from the mountain and his face reflected what he had experienced.

I think when people talk about prayer they concentrate too much on the knowing and rational activity and not enough on the emotive and feeling side. It is relatively easy to come quite quickly to the existential limit of the senses and to sit simply aware that one is sitting. If there are thoughts and images they run in the background like an unattended television screen. Emotionally one feels calm and at peace. There may have been emotional turbulence but that, like the thoughts, has been put to one side. One still has not reached the limits of being; knowing – yes, perhaps, being – no. One is still ensconced in the affective self. We are like the child who, when the events of the day become too much, sucks his thumb and hugs his comforter. These, insignificant in themselves, are the psychological substitute for the warmth and security of his mother’s breast. As long as we can snuggle into the comfort of withdrawing into ourselves we have not reached the limits of being. We have reached, perhaps, the foot of the mountain and before us is a long, hard climb into the obscurity and darkness of the clouds at the top.