A poem by Carol Ann Duffy got me thinking about the subject of prayer.
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Carol Ann Duffy
For the last few years, basically since I stopped believing in an interventionist god, prayer has been a tricky subject for me. How can I pray if I don’t know what I’m praying to? I couldn’t see the point of prayer without belief. I’m coming to see now that this attitude is linked to the view of religion I had as a child. Over the years my spirituality has evolved. It was surprising when I realised that parts of me seem to have remained stuck with a simplistic, all or nothing approach.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem beautifully captures how prayer can be something more nuanced. She seems to present it as a natural human instinct, even for those who do not consider themselves religious or able to explain exactly why they are praying, or what they are praying to.
In my childhood prayer was a huge part of my life. Looking back it seems I was always chatting to God. Sometimes I’d be asking for help:
Where did I leave my shoes? Please make the teacher not give us homework? Can you make my dad feel better?
Other times I was just expressing my thoughts and feeling the support of what I thought of as a constant companion. Sunday school stories and songs asked us to see Jesus as a friend and picture him walking along side us, and I took that very literally. After a difficult day at school, I’d imagine Jesus’s arm around my shoulder as I offloaded all my woes.
Prayers in church meant a lot to me too. In my early teens I attended an independent evangelical church and, even though I started to question many things about it as I got older, I was often moved by the prayer. Part of it was the peace and sanctity of a space set apart from everyday life. I was also moved by the collective nature of prayer in church and the connection it created between people. The warmth of someone’s hand on my shoulder as they prayed for me, the feeling of love: connection with each other, and with something beyond ourselves, was powerful. Overall, I think prayer played a very positive role throughout my youth. It was a place of peace and it gave me strength.
I asked a few friends what they thought about prayer. They all spoke of it as something positive, even the ones who do not consider themselves religious.
Nowadays, however, I do not pray. Certainly not in the way I used to. I think I was in my early twenties when I stopped praying. This was not because I didn’t want to pray or because I didn’t feel it was relevant and useful to me. It wasn’t something that simply faded away. I made a deliberate conscious decision to stop praying. I was questioning the beliefs I had grown up with. I no longer believed in the interventionist god of my childhood and I had no idea how to fill that space. It was hard. Losing my faith was very hard and I dealt with it initially by rejecting everything. I rejected god and for a time I rejected anything to do with religion or spirituality.
Over time, I’ve come to rediscover and make peace with religion and spirituality. Religion is actually a very big part of my life. But prayer has always remained tied up with my childhood view of religion. I don’t believe there is a God in the sky who will do things for me, so how can I pray?
Another poem now. This one is actually a kind of prayer. It’s called Hymnos Aumnos. An agnostic prayer that helped me to see prayer in a different light. If I say any prayer these days, it’s most likely this one.
O thou whose image in the shrine
Of human spirits dwells divine,
Which from that precinct once conveyed
To be to outer day displayed
Doth vanish, part, and leave behind
Mere blank and void of empty mind,
Which wilful fancy seeks in vain
With casual shapes to fill again—
O thou that in our bosoms’ shrine
Dost dwell because unknown divine,
I thought to speak, I thought to say
‘The light is here’, ‘behold the way’,
‘The voice was thus’, and ‘thus the word’,
And ‘thus I saw’, and ‘that I heard’,—
But from the lips but half essayed
The imperfect utterance fell unmade.
O thou in that mysterious shrine
Enthroned, as we must say, divine,
I will not frame one thought of what
Thou mayest either be or not.
I will not prate of ‘thus’ and ‘so’,
And be profane with ‘yes’ and ‘no’;
Enough that in our soul and heart
Thou, whatsoe’er thou may’st be, art.
Unseen, secure in that high shrine
Acknowledged present and divine,
I will not ask some upper air,
Some future day, to place thee there;
Nor say, nor yet deny, Such men
Or women saw thee thus and then;
Thy name was such, and there or here
To him or her thou didst appear.
Do only thou in that dim shrine
Unknown or known remain divine.
There, or if not, at least in eyes
That scan the world that round them lies.
The hand to sway, the judgement guide,
In sight and sense thyself divide:
Be thou but there,—in soul and heart
I will not ask to feel thou art
Arthur Hugh Clough
This poem resonates with me very deeply. I included the last verse in a previous blog post. It was this poem that made me appreciate how beautiful and passionate agnosticism can be.
Anthony Kenny wrote of this poem:
“Perhaps there is no way in which God dwells – even ineffably – as an object of the inner vision of the soul. Perhaps we could reconcile ourselves to the idea that God is not to be found at all by human minds. But even that does not take off all possibility of prayer. The soul reconciled to the truth that there can be no analogue of seeing or feeling God, that nothing can be meaningfully said about him, can yet – if Clough is right – address him and pray to be illuminated by his power and be the instrument of this action. To this day there has been no more eloquent attempt to be faithful to a critical agnosticism and yet draw support from the consolations of theism. For the rest of his life Clough retained, with regard to religion, this stance of an agnosticism that made room for prayer. There is nothing incoherent in such a position: an agnostic’s prayer to a God whose existence he doubts is no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean or on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard.”
As I mentioned before, the Carol Ann Duffy poem describes what you could call a natural human inclination towards prayer. Actually I have no idea if everyone feels this inclination, all I can say is that I certainly seem to, even without belief.
Nowadays, I have a spiritual practice which involves prayer-like activities. I meditate, I reflect, sometimes I feel I am guided by something, other times I don’t. Like most things to do with spiritually for me, it’s fluid, never fixed. All I do know, is that I have a need in my life for something; something which you might call prayer.