Word and Wordless Prayer – December 2012

Question: Is process prayer with or without words?

Publication Month: December 2012

Either and both. There are many important questions that are not decided by holding the process perspective. People from many different spiritual traditions can make use of process categories to clarify, deepen, and enrich their traditions. The process perspective allows us to honor this diversity. Difference does not lead directly to judgments of truth and falsity or to the need to rank the positions. Difference as such vastly enriches the world.

As I write I am in the middle of reading a proof on a book composed chiefly of chapters by a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and a Chinese couple. All belong to the process community, and all explain how their traditions can profit from process ideas and concepts. The book is called “Religions in the Making.”

Prayer plays diverse roles within each of the traditions and certainly among them. I hope we can understand and appreciate many of the forms of prayer that have been and are being used. Of course, we will personally find some more helpful and desirable than others, but we may be able to see why and how other people may have different valuations.

There are forms of prayer that need to be judged. In general, the evaluation of process thinkers would agree with that of thinkers in most of these traditions. Even in the Bible we find prayers of which we do not approve. They may express rage at the enemies of Israel and ask God to do terrible things to them. The feelings are understandable, and perhaps something is to be gained by expressing one’s hatred before God. But the gain would be through awareness that God calls us to transcend this hatred, understandable as it is.

The questioner may feel that better than speaking to God is simply emptying the mind. This is an important form of spiritual discipline. It is most encouraged in traditions that focus on what is called Being or Emptiness, what Whiteheadians understand as creativity. These traditions may aim at the realization of the universal fact that we are instances of this creativity. In this way we are one with the divine. The use of words blocks our entry into this realization. Process thought fully affirms and appreciates this goal and admires the wisdom of the communities that help people to realize it.

If some in those communities also deny or minimize the relation to God, process thought does not agree. Much of what has been called prayer in the Abrahamic traditions is expressing our hopes and fears, our needs and our desires before God, believing that these have some reality and even importance for God as well as ourselves. The practice of these traditions implies belief that praying makes a difference.

It is hardly disputable that prayer affects those who pray. Process thinkers especially emphasize that it can bring our desires into line with what God wants. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is, for us, a model. Jesus did not want to suffer and die. That in no way demeans him in our eyes. He asked God to save him from a cruel death, but he concluded “nevertheless, Thy will be done.” Prayer can lead us into acceptance of what happens or strengthen our desire for the realization of what God desires. Words are not always needed for this to happen, but language is of great importance in shaping and expressing our experience. Words are not to be disparaged.

Some spiritual thinkers assume that the only change that prayer affects is in us. This need not belittle prayer any more that it belittles human activity in general. For them, nothing could have any effect on God, because they hold that God is metaphysically immutable.

Nevertheless, the practice of prayer has always been connected with the idea that it may lead God to act in ways that might not have occurred if there had been no prayer. When a mother pleads with God for the healing of her baby, she does not enter into prayer in order to achieve acceptance of the baby’s death. This may occur, but very rarely would this be her goal. She prays because she hopes that her prayer may influence God in such a way as to make more likely the recovery of her baby. She may have magical ideas about manipulating God, but process thinkers are glad that none of the religious traditions encourage that.

Process thought, however, rejects not only the idea that we can manipulate God but also the idea that God is immutable and therefore unaffected by our prayers. We believe that God is affected by everything that happens. The effect of our passionate beseeching God to heal a child will be real. It will not change God’s general will, but since God always wills life and health, that is not what is sought.

The prayer is a change in the situation surrounding the child. God’s healing work in the child can make use of that change. Jesus often credited healings to the faith of the one healed, but sometimes to the one close to the sick person. A process thinker can say that God’s action in the world is always conditioned by the exact situation in which God is acting. Changing that situation changes what God does. There may be no necessity of words in this process, but words are a natural, healthy part of this prayer.

I am suggesting that the goal of wordless prayer and the goal of prayers with words are often different. The former is the realization of an ultimate aspect of who and what we are. The latter is an effort to affect some feature of the situation within oneself or within the world. The former focuses on the relation to creativity, the latter, on the relation to God. Process thought affirms the reality and value of both. It does not rank them.

Of course, there are still other forms of verbal prayer. I have focused on petitions and intercessions. There are also expressions of gratitude and praise. They are designed to give expression to healthy feelings and to strengthen those feelings. They shape our basic orientation in the world. They focus our attention on what is right with our lives and with the world. These changes in us cause changes in how God works in us and in the world more generally.

They could, of course, lead to a “Polyanna” mindset that would be profoundly unhealthy. But this is for most people a minor danger. It is much easier for us to focus on our disappointments and the horrors of history and on natural disasters. It is all too easy to fail to recognize that all these evils presuppose the basic goodness of the life that we are given. Thanksgiving and praise can be given without words, but overall, if they are not verbally expressed there is danger, even likelihood, that we will focus too much on what is wrong.