Sunday, April 16, 2006

On prayer

The earliest prayer I can remember is "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep." Head on pillow, tiny palms pressed together, parent sitting close at hand, I sleepily mumbled the words, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." The prayer was formulaic. It might as well have been a nursery rhyme, or a string of made-up words like "abracadabra." It was in fact an incantation, a magical plea to the powers of the universe to guide me through the little sleep of night into the light of another day.

So began my little book, Natural Prayers, recalling the petitionary prayers of my youth. All of my prayers then assumed a listening deity whose interventions in the world might be bent to my will. Now late in life -- a life in science -- I am less confident that petition has a response. Every double-blind test of the effectiveness of petitionary prayer that I am aware of has been negative.

Which proves nothing, of course. God may simply refuse to allow for a scientific test of his interventions. But for me, I am content with the cosmic silence. I no longer pray: Here I am Lord, seeking your attention, favor, healing, forgiveness. Rather, I have bent my life to another tradition of prayer: Prayer as attention to the world.

"Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view," wrote Emerson; "It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul."

The Trappist contemplative Thomas Merton spoke of "prayer of the heart." He wrote: "In the 'prayer of the heart' we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or 'the mysteries.' We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith, finding ourselves in God's truth." We discern this truth in direct and simple attention to reality, he says: "[Prayer} is thus something much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our own deepest concerns."

This is a concept of prayer that is not foreign even to the scientific skeptic, and it is found in all of the great religious traditions. It is related to an idea that can be traced through western Christianity (the tradition I know best) from Columbanus, to Erigena, to Eckhart, to Thomas Berry, including others, and often comdemned as heretical: The creation as the primary revelation.

Saint Columbanus spoke for many in the early Celtic Church when he wrote: "If a man wishes to know the deepest ocean of divine understanding, let him first if he is able scan that visible sea, and the less he finds himself to understand of those creatures which lurk below the waves, the more let him realize that he can know less of the depths of the Creator."

And so I attend to the fishes in the sea, the birds of the air, the rocks beneath my feet. I attend to the DNA that spins and weaves in every one of the trillions of cells in my body. I attend to the myriad galaxies in their agust spinning. I expect no response. I do not worry about dogmas or mysteries. I do hope to understand something more of myself and my place in the creation. I want to know the thing of which I am a part. And I exhalt in the stunning, inexhaustible fullness of the world with thankfulness, jubilation, praise.

If that counts as prayer, I'm a praying man.

(This essay appeared as my Natural Wonder column in the March-April issue of Science & Spirit.)

Further Reading

Two of my books that address this issue are Natural Prayers and Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.