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9780618773602: Prayer: A History
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This landmark work presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. In a thorough and fascinating look at this spiritual practice, two of today’s most versatile and admired authorities on religion probe the language and fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future. With a focus on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Prayer: A History promises to be the standard on the subject for readers of all faiths.

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Chapter 1 The Foundations of Prayer

The story of prayer is the story of the impossible: of how we creatures of flesh and blood lay siege to heaven, speak to the Maker of all things, and await, with confidence or hopeful skepticism, a response. The story of prayer, like that of all treasure sought through the centuries, is rich in myth and dream, revelation and tragedy, secret maps and elusive clues. Here the absurd and the sublime sit side by side, while the fantastic and the banal merge. Consider the following: A dear friend of ours, a native Tibetan, returned last month from a visit to his homeland in the high plateau region of Gelok, far east of Lhasa. Dechen arrived in Massachusetts haggard but smiling, red Tibetan mud still clinging to his yellow Gore-Tex jacket, bearing with him harrowing tales of vicious customs officials, of torrential rains and deadly mudslides, of uncharted mountain passes and hidden valleys thick with wildflowers. At a welcome-home dinner, he and his wife set up a projector, and we spent the next few hours poring over his slides. Everyone marveled at the herds of Tibetan yaks, their shaggy coats and gracile horns so reminiscent of the prehistoric beasts in the Lascaux caves; at the crowds of Buddhist monks lighting bonfires or blowing impossibly long horns, looking for all the world like Lascaux shepherds transported to a Himalayan castle in the clouds. This was the Tibet of legend, far from the tourist hotels of Dharamsala, an area until recently forbidden to outsiders and still unvisited by television, pollution, and indoor plumbing. Bringing out an atlas, we asked Dechen to trace his journey. His finger landed on a bare white area as large as Massachusetts, a true terra incognita at the dawn of the third millennium. It reminded us of Victorian maps of sub-Saharan Africa, of ancient mariners sailing off the edge of the world. No one goes there,” Dechen said. Too difficult. Too far.” No one, that is, except a handful of Chinese soldiers and bureaucrats, who have done their best over the past quarter of a century to suppress one of the world’s great religions. Only in the past few years have the monasteries been rebuilt in a curious Sino-Tibetan architectural idiom whose bright pastels and wedding-cake façades threaten to create a new form of Buddhist kitsch.
One photograph in particular caught our fancy, for it seemed to capture best the spirit of these eastern Tibetans. It depicted a wooden framework, looming above the tallest monk (and the Tibetans are a tall people), and consisting of two massive uprights of rough-hewn lumber supporting four long crossbars. Upon each crossbar stood nine or ten prayer wheels, each containing a bit of paper inscribed with the traditional Buddhist prayer om mani padme hūm (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus). As the wind blows down the mountainside, each wheel spins madly, and the mantra is flung into the universe like a message in a bottle, drifting on celestial currents until it reaches its heavenly destination. Of what, we asked, were these glistening wheels made? At a glance they seemed carved from crystal or jade, or were they globes of delicate blown glass? Oh, no,” Dechen explained, refocusing the slide projector for a better look: the wheels were nothing more than cast-off plastic Pepsi-Cola bottles.
This Tibetan fantasia is a portal into a number of truths about the world of prayer: that wherever one finds humans, one finds humans at prayer; that in times of persecution, prayer goes underground, where it continues to wend its course into the depths of the soul; and that any and all objects Pepsi-Cola bottles as surely as enameled statues, jeweled rosaries, or silvered icons can be a means of prayer. These jerry-built praying devices demonstrate, too, that technology and prayer that is to say, applied science and applied religion need not war with one another. The same evening, Dechen’s wife brought out for our inspection an array of homemade prayer wheels: one turned by hand, a second by wind, and a third a particularly cunning device in the form of a lampshade spun in convection currents emitted by the heat of a hundred- watt light bulb. The Dalai Lama is on record as approving an even more technically advanced method for making a prayer wheel: download the om mani padme hūm mantra to your computer’s hard drive, where it will spin at a rate of some fifty-four hundred rotations per minute, calling forth the blessings of Avaloki teśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, as effectively as do the older technologies of prayer.
Dechen’s videotapes, which we watched after the slides, demonstrated a yet larger truth about prayer: that it alterss the face of the world, revealing unnoticed harmonies and symmetries and knitting together the natural and social dimensions of ouur existence.... As the souvenir footage unreeled, we saw prayer wheels spinning in the sun, bees looping and swirling around those wheels, the sun melting into night as the monks’ voices faded into the mountains, all seemingly one motion, one symphony, one grand universal gesture of prayer. Viewed from a perspective that we may call religious but that in truth seems synonymous with human consciousness, it appeared, for just a moment, as if the entire world was collaborating in prayer.
There is, as Dechen’s adventure suggests, nothing strange about prayer erupting in the oddest of circumstances. We might even say that it thrives on paradox. Consider this: that prayer deals in eternal truth and yet has its fads and fashions: a hundred years ago, revival tents sprang up from coast to coast to house the inspired preaching of Christian witnesses who passed the torch of the Second Great Awakening to twentieth-century evangelicalism; fifty years ago, FDR led the nation in prayer through the static-charged speakers of a million Sylvania radios; twenty-five years ago, school days often began with a silent meditation; now, at the beginning of the third millennium, football fields and corporate boardrooms have been favored arenas of prayer. Or this: that we pray for worldly goods but also pray for freedom from the desire for worldly goods. Or this: that we seldom pray for prayer itself. Who but a saint prays for better prayer or, God forbid, for more time to pray?
What, then, is this paradoxical action that we call prayer? Ask a team of scholars that question and expect a confusion of tongues in response. You may even hear a curse, for what is God damn it!” but a perverse petition to the Almighty? But sooner or later our learned company will arrive at something like this: prayer is action that communicates between human and divine realms.
That is to say: Prayer is speech, but much richer than speech alone. It is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being. Much of the time, prayer seems to be nothing but talk: praising, cajoling, or pleading with God; sending messages to guardian angels or tutelary spirits; appealing to benevolent cosmic powers. But to pray is also to act. Think of what happens when a child recites her nighttime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This prayer constitutes more than a sweet set of words. It sets events in motion; it puts God and the angels on alert. It affects the child, too, body and soul; anyone who has recited bedtime prayers as a child knows their value as a guarantor of a night’s sound sleep.
Prayer is at once spiritual and visceral: it stems from heart and gut as well as head. Prayer is a state of being when we pray, we are in prayer,” and when we communicate with spiritual beings, we are in communion” with them but prayer is also emphatically a state of becoming, a dynamic movement, an incursion into spiritual realms: in the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s words, a raid on the unspeakable.” Prayer has been compared to a siege, a storm, a conflagration, a nosegay, a picnic in paradise. We may also liken it to an athletic event, such as the hurling of a javelin: a shaft of praise, petition, or penance aimed at a higher power. Like the javelin thrower, those who pray must be fit: Whoso will pray, he must fast and be clean / And fat his soul, and make his body lean” (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Somnour’s Tale”). And those who pray must try their hardest, so that prayer can make them fit: That prayer has great power which a person makes with all his might. It makes a sour heart sweet, a sad heart merry, a poor heart rich, a foolish heart wise, a timid heart brave, a sick heart well, a blind heart full of sight, a cold heart ardent” (Mechtild of Magdeburg, Revelations).1 Conventional wisdom divides prayer into a number of categories: petition, confession, adoration, sacrifice, intercession, contemplation, thanksgiving, vows, and so on. But these classifications disguise the complexity of the world of prayer. Consider an archetypal prayer of petition, one so commonplace that it has been lampooned in countless cartoons and comic strips: a plea to God to change the weather. What could be more simple and straightforward? But let us examine the evidence: Among the Papago (Tohono O’odham) of the American Southwest, rainmaking lies at the heart of ritual life. These Indians inhabit a landscape of sagebrush and lava rock, dry mesas and desert valleys; without the downpours of the rainy season, crops would wither and famine ensue. To ensure an annual harvest, each year the people gather to sing down the rain. ”Much of what scholars know about this seemingly quixotic practice comes from Ruth Murray Underhill (1884 1984), an anthropologist from Columbia University who lived among the Papago in the 1930s and later wrote a number of classic studies of American Indians, including Papago Woman, the first published life of a Southwestern Indian woman. Underhill was a special kind of researcher, more passionate participant than dispassionate observer: I met these hard-working but poetic Papagos,” she writes, and fell permanently in love with them.”2 Her description of the Papago as poetic is more than anthropological romanticism; poetry for these Indians is a matter of life or death because through their verse they bring down the rain. Each year in an act of communal supplication they sing:

Come together!

You shall see this thing which we have always done And what must truly happen.
Because we have planned it thus and thus have done.
Right soon, indeed, it will happen.
It will rain.
The fields will be watered.
Therein we shall drop the seed.
Seed which bears corn of all colors; Seed which grows big.
Thus we shall do.
Thereby we shall feed ourselves; Thereby our stomachs shall grow big; Thereby we shall live.3

Such prayer songs bring the Papago into union with I’itoi, First Brother, who prepared the world for people at the beginning of time and who is instrumental in bringing the rain. But chant alone is insufficient. Each year Papago women also collect the red, pear-shaped fruit of the giant cactus Cereus giganteus and ferment it into a jellylike wine (Underhill says that it tastes like spoiled raspberry jam”), which is consumed in a community tahiwua k-ii (Sit-and- drink) that along with singing ensures the coming of the rain. This is action by analogy: as the people are filled with liquor, so will the earth fill with rain. An elder calls:

Hurry! Hither bring, each of you, his syrup.
Soon we shall make liquor!
Soon it will ferment, Soon we shall drink, Soon it will rain.4

The people sing:

Now here you have assembled; Now thus we shall do!
With our singing we shall pull down the rain.5

Sure enough: within a few days of the Sit-and-drink witnessed by Underhill, the skies opened and the drenching rains of July descended. The clouds come because we call them,” explained a Papago, and we call them with the drinking.” The rainmaking ritual ensures not only the watering of crops but also the stability of the world. Ofelia Zepeda, a Papago linguist, recalls her mother’s belief that if the ceremony were to be neglected or the prayers forgotten, the world will ruin itself.” Alas, in these amnesiac times aspects of the rite have been discarded or lost, but the prayers, at least for the moment, remain. As a result,” Zepeda comments dryly, the world is somewhat intact today.”6 Let us contrast this example of traditional rainmaking with a more urbane tale of weather manipulation set in the waning months of World War II. It is December 1944: the U.S. Third Army surges toward the Rhine. But General George S. Patton Jr. is troubled, for a drenching rain, with no sign of letup, threatens his brilliant advance. On December 14, he summons to his office deputy chief of staff Colonel Paul D. Hawkins and Chaplain O’Neill of the Third Army. The following conversation ensues:

General Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather. I’m tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as Germans. See if we can’t get God to work on our side.

Chaplain O’Neill: Sir, it’s going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.

General Patton: I don’t care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.

Chaplain O’Neill: Yes, sir. May I say, General, that it usually isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men.

General Patton: Chaplain, are you teaching me theology or are you the Chaplain of the Third Army? I want a prayer.

Chaplain O’Neill: Yes, sir.7

According to Hawkins, who annotated Patton’s blustery 1947 memoir, War as I Knew It, the general got his wish. The following prayer was printed and distributed to every soldier in the U.S. Third Army:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.8

The skies cleared within twenty-four hours. A week of perfect weather ensued, allowing the Allies to advance toward the Rhine. Patton was ecstatic. Summoning Hawkins to his office, he declared, God damn! Look at the weather. That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” The next day, the somewhat abashed Chaplain O’Neill received the Bronze Star.9 Both Patton and the Papago prayed to change the weather, but there the similarities end. Patton made his prayer to the biblical God, while the Papago, in Underhill’s words, call upon the powers of Nature.” Patton’s prayer was composed on the spot by a harassed army chaplain, whereas Papago prayers originate with I’itoi, a supernatural being. Patton’s was a prayer for victory and thus indirectly for death to the opposition ( to crush the . . . wickedness of our enemies”), whereas the Papago sing for the life of the corn and thus of the people. Most important, Papago prayer unfolds within a traditional culture steeped in daily intercourse between natural and supernatural realms, one that affirms, beyond any doubt, that singing down the rain” accomplishes just what it claims to do. Patton, by contrast, issued his prayer amidst the crumbling monuments of Christendom. His petition swims with irony. The general was a devout Christian, and there seems no reason to doubt that he believed God could and perhaps would stop the rain. He was, however, also a canny man, surely aware that in modern times the notion of altering the weather through prayer ...

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  • PublisherHarperOne
  • Publication date2006
  • ISBN 10 0618773606
  • ISBN 13 9780618773602
  • BindingPaperback
  • Number of pages416
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