Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him.-Jesus.
Prayer purifies. it is a self-preached sermon.-Richter.
God helps them that help themselves.-Franklin.
We have long since abandoned hope of finding all good persons ranged on one side of any question whose solution depends upon logic. With the exception of a few self-evident truths, the multitude is divided into classes, one of which affirms, the other denies almost every proposition that is made. The only thing demanded is that all persons gain as much information upon the given subject as possible and then form their conclusion and base their actions upon it. It is well, in every discussion, to remember that, even when information and sincerity are equal in those on opposing sides, such things as heredity and surroundings and, perhaps, most of all, temperament, have great influence in shaping belief and conduct. Burns says that if we could see ourselves as others see us we should be spared many a blunder and foolish notion. So, if we could look upon things as our opponents do, we might not, indeed, wholly agree with them, but we should be much more considerate.
At our last meeting it was intimated that changed views of the creation and government of the world, made necessary by an advancing science, are gradually displacing inherited theories concerning prayers and their answer. It was not expected that the conclusions then reached would find universal approval. But one of the best things in this church is that, as utterance of conviction is free, so protest against what is uttered is equally free. It is truth, not a victory for personal opinions, we most desire; and, in searching for it, affirmation and protest are both needed. As it is by the meeting of force and resistance a rhythmic movement prevails throughout the universe, so in thought, when statement is met and modified by counterstatement, the noble harmony called truth is produced. Except in so far as they are reasonable, no one should wish his conclusions to be accepted by others. Paul’s advice is worthy of being taken : “Prove all things ; and hold fast that which is good.”
Periods of rapid change in thought are necessary, but they are perplexing. It was not from choice that our lives fall within such a period. It would have been much more comfortable if, without questioning, we could have accepted our early religious teaching as infallible. This being impossible, the task for us is that of interpreting the meaning of life ; of adjusting ourselves to it ; and of doing what we can so to shape and guide the intellectual and moral forces of the age that the greatest possible good may be attained. Many things are afloat once thought to be secure.
“Every age has another sieve for religious tradition and will sift it out again. Something is continually lost by this treatment which posterity cannot recover.”
Thus wrote Varnhagen Von Ense nearly four-score years ago. Since that time the sifting has been very active. Of course some things have been lost in this process and we must get along without them.
But it is pleasing to know that, for every loss, there is some gain. If loaves and fishes are consumed the multitude is strengthened by so much; and there always is a wise and provident Soul standing near, commanding the fragments to be collected, that nothing be wasted. Thus, in religion, all change is not loss. That which disappears, reappears in another form. Creeds, opinions, forms go, but that which originally made them stays. Phenomena change ; being is constant. It is like God; it is God, for though heaven and earth pass away it abideth yesterday, to-day, and forever the same. When we speak of Law it is indifferent whether we are thinking of the world or of human history. Falling rain-drops or falling stars, leaves arranged in circles around a stem or planets arranged in circles around a sun, all are manifestations of one force and order. But not more so than are rising and falling empires, and coming and going of theologies and litanies. Piety of Enoch, faith of Abraham, burning message of Isaiah, spiritual fervor of Jesus, zeal of Paul, ecstasy of St. Francis, hymns of St. Bernard and prayers of all devout souls are different manifestations of an original, necessary and indestructible quality of humanity.
When glass or amber has been rubbed with silk, it attracts particles of dust, to-day, just as it did twenty-four hundred years ago when Thales made that discovery in electricity. But the dust atoms are only passing incidents in the case. If those which are first attracted be swept off, others take their place. Thus while they are temporary, the law of attraction is eternal.
It is not otherwise in religion. Forms of worship pass away; the principle of worship endures. Variations of expression only serve to verify the constancy of the sentiment lying beneath them. If existing religions were swept away today, tomorrow others would come. Anarchy is short-lived. Out of revolutions and direst confusions some form of government would soon emerge. So, absolute skepticism is impossible. Up from spiritual confusion some form of faith would rise which, in time, would create new altars, new hymns, new prayers, as we are told, by some power, not itself, out of chaos earth was sphered and, clothed with oceans and continents, with plains and forests, rolled onward in its marvelous career. A Frenchman said: “If there were no Deity, man would have to in-vent one.” This apparent irreverence conceals a pro-found truth. August Compte and his followers abolished the God of the church, but they found it necessary to fill the vacancy. They assumed a “Grand Being” existing in collective humanity to which they consecrated themselves. Until man has penetrated every part of the universe, and has laid bare its last secret, he will not cease to wonder; and, so long as he wonders, so long he will worship.
Thus the basis for prayer is found in the relation of the soul to the mystery of existence. It is a state of mind with reference to the Power that envelopes us like an atmosphere. Prayers are an overflow of the soul in exalted expression when there is consciousness of relation to this Power, that, away from it, we cannot live, and with it, we cannot die. It is unavoidable recognition of something better than has yet been attained by us. This conscious imperfection and the discontent attending it and the desire to rise to greater moral heights is a prayer and, when coupled with an act of will, it is a prayer that never fails of its answer. Against it science can do nothing. Although each generation may need some critics of the way in which this spiritual instinct manifests itself in popular usage, as when it becomes stereotyped in an organized ritual, conformity to which is made a test of orthodoxy, and, constructively, of social standing and respectability, nevertheless, no criticism of the sentiment out of which prayer arises will be needed.
The thing to be guarded against is the fatal tendency of prayer to become established and formal. There is now no form of worshipPagan, Catholic, Protestant, to many now so perfunctory, so spiritless-that was not once full of meaning. As free, exuberant expression of a soul, when overtaken by admiration or awe, it was eloquent and significant ; but repeated too often, by those who only pretend that they are inspired by a similar awe or admiration, its original meaning is lost and it is unreal and spectacular. It resembles religion only as a theater resembles life. In both cases there is imitation instead of reality.
In a accustomed poem, yielding to an inner impulse, a musician is represented as striking notes which, combined, formed a wonderful chord.
“It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.
It linked all perplexed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence,
As if it were loth to cease.
It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.”
But, try however long and patiently he would, the musician could never find that chord again. Striking the same keys did not bring the same result,not because the original sounds were not produced,but because the original mood could not be called back. Not the organ, but the soul, had lost the chord.
Which may serve to illustrate the lack of value in forced and formal prayers. That which springs freely and spontaneously from the heart in certain depressed or exalted moods ; when life seems enshrouded in gloom or embosomed in beauty ; a cry of the lonely for companionship or a shout of joy when discovery is made that God is in all things and the laws of the world are his friendly will toward man,against this nothing can be said. It is as natural and as necessary and as beautiful as the fragrance of flowers and the song of birds. Not so when the heart, in obedience to the command of custom, at fixed seasons, pretends that it is filled with longing or delight and must needs make or borrow words to carry its artifice to the sky. For that musician to have kept on sounding the chord long after the inspired mood had passed away and the notes had lost their power to convey the “touch of an infinite calm” and had become only a noise, would have been, not only useless, but offensive. It would have been a profanation of holy things. Thus prayers, which when first uttered were eloquent with meaning, because they were expressions of a heart newly awakened to the reality of spiritual existence, when spoken by hearts sunken in spiritual lethargy, are meaningless phrases. They are not only useless, but they are wicked. Here, too, is sacrilege, a desecration of sacred things.
But abuse is not a valid argument against use. Therefore, after all objections are exhausted, the fact of prayer remains uninjured. As it is in the nature of earth to push to its surface all the many forms of plant and tree, so it seems to be in the nature of the soul to express its adoration for the Creator. In obedience to this instinct all the liturgies of all times have appeared. But as earth is ever giving new forms of use and beauty, moves one harvest or one forest to make room for another, so should an expanding and refining humanity give larger and finer expressions of its admiration and gratitude. He who has confidence in the method of Providence, appearing alike in nature and history, can make light of custom and permit change of form without regret or misgiving. Change is not destruction. As booths gave way to tabernacles, tabernacles to temples, temples to cathedrals, and cathedrals to churches, and each had its peculiar forms, so if modern churches and customs should pass away, on their foundations new altars of praise and prayer would arise. Revelation is never finished. Inspiration is never withdrawn. Grass by the Mississippi, no less than by the Jordan, bends and rustles in the passing wind, and let us be sure that the spirits of those, in present and future times, can feel the breath of heaven sweeping through them as well as those of ancient days. Fire always seems to ascend toward the sun, its primeval home, and the soul instinctively rises toward the heights whence, as its dream has always been, it originally came. Prayers that demand a miracle for their answer, which ask that water may burn, a dead branch bear fruit, that a part be as much as all, and two and two make five,may pass away; but prayers of adoration, of aspiration, of sacred resolution, the divine in man seeking communion with the Divine in the universe, will remain.
But with pathos or petulance, as the temper of the questioners may be, it is sometimes asked : “Then of what use is prayer?” If it cannot avert famine, or stay pestilence, or feed the hungry, or arrest the course of a river, or save from earthquake and tempest, or make amends in kind for some definite loss, why should we pray? The answer must be that if they cannot themselves see a reason for prayer unaffected by their question, it is not probable that any one can point it out to them. They are to be classed with those who say that if they were sure there is no hell they would devote themselves to having a “good time” in this life, by which they usually mean unlimited indulgence of baser desires. If the prevalent habit of life is selfish, expectation of gratification of every personal wish for some benefit in the concrete, there is no use in prayer. Neither is there if worship is degraded into a bargain with heaven and is regarded as a means of getting quick and easy returns on an investment of faith in Providence. Is it not possible to do- right because it is right and find felicity in that without caring for concrete material reward? In a dream St. Louis saw an angel with one hand pouring water to put out the fires of hell and in the other holding a censer whose ascending vapors concealed the glories of heaven. The saint interpreted the vision as an ad-monition that he must do his duty without regard to pay or penalty. Prayer is not a barter with heaven for material prosperity, nor a substitute for toil. The crude, but sound little poem says :
“Don’t expect too much of God;
It wouldn’t be quite fair
If for everything you wanted
You could only swap a prayer.
If all things came so easy,
They’d have but little worth ;
And some one with a gift of prayer
Would maybe own the earth.
It’s the toil you give to get a thing,
The sweat and blood and trouble
We reckon byand every tear
Will make its value double.”
Unless one has found the use of prayer in his own experience, it cannot be explained to him. What is the use of looking at the mountains or the sea or at pictures or listening to music or reading poetry? It does not raise the price of stocks or wheat or corn or cot-ton, or buy coal, or pay house-rent, or bring back the dead. What is use? Is it confined entirely to material things? Do not think so; and remember that even material things have a meaning for the soul no less than for the body.
“All things have something more than barren use ;
There is a secret upon the brier,
A tremulous splendor in the autumn dew;
Cold morns are fringed with fire,
The clodded earth goes up in sweet-breathed flowers,
In music dies poor human speech,
And into beauty blow these hearts of ours When love is born in each.”
There are personal experiences concerning which a certain reticence is most becoming. But there are those who might report that there are times in which they seem to be in an exalted state ; something bordering on ecstasy ; a dawning consciousness of alliance with the source of truth and goodness and beauty. Things, hitherto concealed, are revealed. It is known what the ancient saint meant when he spoke of being caught up into the third heaven ; known what John saw on Patmos, Francis saw at Assissi, Madame Guion and Bunyan saw in prison. Then is beheld the secret of lasting joy, refuge of tempted virtue, strength of self-abnegation, motive of all martyrdoms. Then is known the meaning of that scripture : Though He slay me, yet will I trust him. Then is made manifest the purpose and fatal necessity of that sad, grand scene under the olives of Gethsemane when the Prince of spiritual humankind poured out his soul unto death and surrendered his will to the far-reaching plan of the Most High. There are times in which every event of history and every atom of the universe seem instinct with meaning and purpose to further which every tissue and blood drop of body and every thought and feeling of soul are gladly subservient; times when individual being seems to dilate and refine and ascend and is on the way to
“That perfect disenthralment which is God.”
Concerning all this a decorous reserve must be maintained. But whoso has had such experience can never forget it, nor will he ever ask : Of what use is prayer? Its use is in itself.
But, to be more explicit, prayer gives clearer sight of duties and furnishes energy to perform them. That for which we most wish, we most toil. Resolution to work for their fulfillment is already an answer to our petitions. The efficacy of Stonewall Jackson’s prayers at Chancellorsville and Washington’s prayers at Valley Forge consisted in the fact that the wise and earnest man makes his endeavors press hard after his desires. Prayer is a high and solemn resolution to do one’s best. It does not dictate terms to God, but accepts those already offered. A man came to President Lincoln, asking him to appoint a day of prayer, giving as reason that it was very essential to have Deity take side with the North in the impending contest. What wisdom, what piety was shown when the great man replied that he was more concerned about being on the side of God than of having God on his side. If prayer fails to bring a gift in the concrete it often confers something more valuable,patience and strength to be happy without the gift. “Thrice I prayed that it might be removed from me,” Paul says, and the only answer was : “My grace shall be sufficient for thee.” Three times Jesus prayed that his life might be spared and heaven was deaf to his cry. But when, having seen that the sweep of destiny was resistless, unreservedly he cast himself upon the turbulent current, saying, “Thy will be done,” angels of courage and peace ministered to him. Speaking theoretically, Menecrates is made to say to Pompey:
“We, ignorant of ourselves,
Beg often our own harms, which the wise Powers
Deny us for our good; so find we profit
By losing our prayers.”
Speaking from personal experience, Jean Ingelow says : “I have lived to thank God that many of my prayers have not been answered.” May we not all make the same confession?
Think of where we find ourselves ! Amid what surroundings ! How vast, how mysterious they are! What tasks and duties confront us! What a sense of ignorance and weakness sometimes oppresses us ! What need of reliance upon something wiser and mightier than ourselves ! Therefore, how can we avoid the outreaching of our souls for help in the trying, or their involuntary outflowing in the glad hours of existence? In the story Job Leigh says :
“It is not often I pray regular, though I often speak a word to God when I’m either very sorry or very happy. I’ve caught myself thinking of Him at odd hours when I’ve found a rare insect or had a fine day for an outing; but I can’t help it no more than I can talking to a friend.”
Awaking from a horrible dream of a God-forsaken world, and finding the sun shining, birds singing, wheat rustling in the field, and all nature’s order undisturbed, one of Richter’s characters says :
“My soul wept for joy that I could still pray to God; and the joy and the weeping and my faith in Him were my prayer.”
A valued friend who, in the popular meaning of the term, would not be regarded as religious, in a moment of confidence and unusual self-revelation told that no good ever came to him, however common,a meal’ when he was hungry, the firelight of his home, a book, a bright morning, strength to do a good day’s work, rest when the work was done,that, without any formal expression of it, there was not a profound feeling of gratitude to the unseen Power. Here was recognition of the Infinite by the finite, which is the essence of all true prayer. If when thinking of life, in its relation to duty or to the great Creator, the emotions which arise find outlet in words, it is well. But if, afterward, they appear in acts of kindness, or in a more faithful performance of duty, or in a new contentment, or increased power of forgiveness, or a braver endurance, it is equally well, for it is true prayer and has been answered.
Those of you who have patiently listened to these two crude sketches do not need to be told that their motive is not one of hostility to worship. Although so reported, neither expressly nor covertly is their intention to “scoff” at prayer. On the contrary, their purpose is to suggest that while, as touching many doctrines, we are living in unsettled and skeptical days, the sentiment underlying all religious beliefs and customs is indestructible ; it is a constant fact in human experience. They were prepared, not to weaken, but with the sole intent of confirming faith in the wisdom and sovereignty of the Creator; to intimate that more wonderful than any miracle is the marvelous fact of a universe so formed and so administered that no miracle is needed ; that there is a faith that would not dare presume to change the mind of Deity or wish to meddle with the divine ordering of events ; that prayer and answer are in perfect accord with those natural and spiritual laws which are ordained alike to guide planets and souls in their orbits ; and that, in the midst of changing circumstances and vanishing forms, through whatever scenes we are passing or may be called to pass, our highest, our most religious attitude is that of cheerful reliance upon the Divine Providence, never doubting that what is best in the end will come to us.
“Ask and receive : ’tis sweetly said ;
But what to ask for I know not ;
For wish is worsted, hope o’ersped
And aye to thanks returns my thought.
If I would pray, I’ve nought to say
But this, that God may be God still ;
For Him to live is still to give
And, sweeter than my wish, His will.”