Continue in prayer.-Paul.
Prayer is a study of truth ; a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite.-Emerson.
Let every man study his prayers, and read his duty in his petitions.-Jeremy Taylor.
A German writer calls man the “endless cause-seeker.” This designation contains much truth, for no sooner is an object or event presented than the mind begins a search for the reason of its coming. The word “why” stands at the door of everything. Why does rain fall? Why does the sun seem to go away in the autumn and return in the spring? Why do oxygen and hydrogen form water and oxygen and nitrogen form air? Why will oil and water, an acid and an alkali not combine? The answer to these, and a thou-sand other similar questions, has produced natural science. Why is the process of thought in some way bound up with the brain? Why does mind form a concept of every object, and whence came its power to hold or recall this image when the original object is absent? Why do some scenes awaken thought, some, memory, some hope, some laughter, and some tears? The answer to these questions is philosophy. What is the Force back of all visible and audible and tangible things ? In what relation does man stand to this Force? Why does he dread or reverence or love this unseen Power? Why does he try to shape his conduct in harmony with some universal principle of right and is happy when he succeeds, unhappy when he fails? The answer to these questions is theology. Thus, for all things, a reason is sought. In the Testament parable, the house went down before tempest and flood, because it was not founded on a rock. In science or philosophy or theology the same law holds. An irrational foundation insures destruction.
Inquiry into the reasons underlying a religious custom cannot, in itself, be wrong. Legitimate and valuable elsewhere, it ought to be here. Yet he who attempts it incurs the risk of being misunderstood and blamed. Often seeking to preserve religion, he is accused of wishing to destroy it. It is very pleasant to possess the good-will of all people. But no one can do this if he utters his own convictions clearly. Nevertheless, at whatever risk of blame and misunderstanding of motives, one must absolve him-self to himself by saying the thing given him to say. One may be sincere and yet mistaken, but to be sincere is not a mistake. Harm may come from uttering convictions, but not so much as from concealing them. If one has ceased to believe in a thing, why not frankly say so? A confession of faith, made with much mental reservation, however venerable it may be, cannot be very valuable. Frank skepticism is less damaging than equivocal faith.
“The doubt that saps the life
Is doubt half crushed ; the lip assent
Which finds no echo in the heart of hearts.”
If irreligion should ensue, if any of the sacred meaning of life should be lost, if moral ideals should be dragged down from their exalted place, as a result of rationalizing theology, there might be some reason for preserving its inherited forms. A defective philosophy is not so bad as defective practice. Better a good man, who believes that the world is flat, than a bad man, who believes it is round. But better still is it to have neither a bad belief or a bad practice. A rational theory is a help to rational conduct.
These reflections come as introduction to a study of the origin and meaning and value of prayer. Perhaps the results of this study will ask for two Sunday morning half-hours for their expression.
It may be assumed, at the outset, that prayer is a natural act of the soul, and, hence, its validity is clearly established. If it springs, spontaneously, out of the human spirit at every stage of its development,may be seen far back in the history of the race and has kept steady and equal pace with it in all its progress, it has fully established its right to existence. When nature has adopted a thing into her universal order and set her indelible stamp upon it, it needs no further endorsement. No amount of opposition can banish it. In what follows, this statement should be remembered. But this admission does not forbid a study of the varying form and meaning prayer may have taken in the development of the religious consciousness and practices of humanity, nor foreclose criticism concerning prevalent notions entertained at any time concerning it. We ought to be permitted to distinguish between a natural principle and an artificial custom ; between a universal law and a partial opinion.
It is well to recall that, when our inherited views of the meaning and efficacy of prayer were formed, very different explanations of the creation and government of the world were made and accepted from those now given and entertained. It was thought that all things were created in six days ; that earth, being the most prominent world of the universe, was the principal object of divine solicitude; and being under the immediate supervision of an all-powerful, personal Will, its usual order could be interrupted without any difficulty. Now these views are rarely entertained. Nearly all instructed persons believe that the universe gradually assumed form through many ages. Earth enjoys no more divine favor than does the farthest star of the measureless galaxy. There are no indications that the orderly process of nature is interrupted for a single moment. Everywhere, from the corolla of a flower to the rings of Saturn, is beheld the resist-less sweep and majesty of unvarying law.
With all earnest minds, the problem is, how to make these changed scientific views harmonize with their religious practices. They wish to be devout, but also reasonable. An eastern Sage said: “Two things I abhor, the learned at his infidelities and the fool at his devotions.” There are those who would like to escape this abhorrence. They would like to have some learning, without becoming infidels, and some reverence, without becoming fools. It is rumored that Faraday said : “When I go into the laboratory I leave my religious, and when I go into the church I leave my scientific views at the door.” That is an easy, but not the best way to solve the problem. The mental and devotional attitude of Coleridge seems better, when he says : “I may rise from my knees after prayer and then discuss the Trinity as I would a mathematical problem.” There are those who willingly accept all philosophical and scientific truths, as fast as they are discovered, with the conviction that between them and their religious sentiments there can be no enmity. There are those who think it no more irreligious to change their opinion about God than to change it about man ; to revise their views concerning a formula of worship than concerning a formula of chemistry. Much of that which has been misconstrued into hostility to religion was rather a friendship for it. The effort was to restate its indestructible principles and show that they can survive all changing and perishing forms.
Some of you will remember that when Tyndall submitted his famous “Prayer Guage” he was denounced as a blasphemer. Yet all he wished to do was test the theory of prayer almost universally held by English church people at that time. He wished, if -possible, to find a philosophy of prayer which might be held by instructed persons and would be valuable to the moral and spiritual upbuilding of mankind. It was not prayer, but the popular prayers to which he objected. He said:
“It is not my habit of mind to think otherwise than solemnly of the feeling which prompts prayer. It is a power I should like to see guided, not extinguished ; devoted to practical ends, instead of wasted upon air. In some form or another it may be necessary to man’s highest culture.”
We have all learned that religion shares the limitations of all human sentiments and creations. Like art, like government, like the family, it changes as humanity changes. It has more tints than a rainbow. The color and form of a river show the kind of country through which it flows, but no more than does worship reveal the character of the age in which it is found. When a young Brahman, lighting his fire in the dawn, says : “So may the Sun of suns illumine our minds,” he prays. But so does the African Bushman pray when he brings an offering of rice and rum and bribes the demon of the rocks to hear and preserve him. The 109th Psalm, with its terrible imprecations, calling down swift destruction upon all enemies, is a prayer. So are the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” a prayer ; but what unmapped spaces lie between the prayers !
In its earlier and cruder forms prayer assumed that Deity was changeable and fickle and could be persuaded to do certain things He had not intended to do. Petitions were either for some material and temporal gifts or for deliverance from penalties following wrong doing. Sometimes they were made for the purpose of persuading or bribing one god to interrupt and thwart the malicious designs of another and rival god. Suppliants always wished to have the strongest deity on their side. As late as the time when the Hebrews appeared in history, the essential motive of prayer was the supposed willingness of their God to change His mind and grant special favors, if sufficient inducement were offered. Jacob made a vow of loyalty to Jehovah on condition that in return he should receive food and clothing. The whole plan of sacrifice, so elaborately wrought out in the history of the Jews, was a colossal scheme to purchase the good will of their national God. To gain this, nothing was too precious to be offered as sacrifice. At first, fruits of earth were offered; but, after a time, these gifts were not thought to be costly enough. In the story of Cain and Abel, Jehovah was more pleased with the offering of Abel than that of Cain, because Abel’s required the shedding of blood. Through the growth of the nation the idea of sacrifice to appease justice unfolded in awful pro-portions. Every day blood flowed. At the dedication of the temple twenty-two thousand cattle and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep were slaughtered to purchase the favor of Jehovah. The scheme reached its most monstrous form when, in the so-called evangelical plan of redemption, Jesus was represented as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and so appease the wrath of Jehovah as to make him willing to save a small part of the race from endless misery. There will come a time, not far off, when it will be as impossible to find a sane person who believes that doctrine as it is now to find a sane person who believes that it could be a meritorious act of worship to sacrifice a human life to please God to-day. The doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus is a survival of the savage rite of human sacrifice. A civilized race should civilize its theology.
It is needless to spend any time proving that the old conception of a changeable God has almost entirely disappeared. The only question is whether intelligent people will make their worship harmonize with their new conceptions. If the world has a regular order and is controlled by law, then, in worship, we should not act as if we believed it is ruled by accident or caprice.
Stating the case frankly, has any one of us ever seen the order of nature suspended or changed as a result of human petition? Despite all our wishes, how steadily, how unweariedly the huge world moves on in its established grooves ! Has any one of us been present when a miracle was performed? There are rumors that such things have occurred elsewhere and at other times; but, in our age and land, has any sea opened in behalf of the oppressed? Has rain fallen out of its time? Have sun and moon halted in their course that any cause, however righteous, might gain a final victory? Within the circle of our knowledge and experience, has famine been stayed, has pestilence been expelled, has life been restored in answer to prayer? If ever such things were accomplished in this way, then the conditions under which they were performed must have been very different from those among which we live. The kind of prayer that produced such results must be numbered among the “Lost Arts.”
Advocates of supernatural answers to prayer adduce instances in which, upon their surface, there seems to be some relation between the petition and its results. But often a coincidence is mistaken for cause and effect. Thunder and rain are often related in time, but neither is cause of the other. For many years George Muller’s orphan asylum depended upon contributions which, it was said, came in answer to prayer; but, the truth is, that no institution in England was any better advertised than this same charity. Thus all prayers for material aid, if they are answered, it is because kind hearted people have overheard them. If, in answer to prayer, heaven sends blessings to the needy by way of some human heart, it is because the prayer went to heaven by way of the same human heart. When a city has been overtaken by earthquake or fire or pestilence, prayers to God are supplemented by telegrams to men. In all reported prayer cures imagination and an attitude of expectant attention on the part of the patient are the remedies. It is a recognized principle of physiology that any state of the body earnestly expected is likely to ensue. This forms the efficacy of relics in the cure of disease, An anecdote from the past is to the effect that many ill persons were cured by touching the bones of a reputed saint. When an anatomist discovered and told that they were the bones of a donkey the cures ceased. In Germany there is an institution in which patients are treated by prayer and many recover, but in addition to prayer patients have plenty of fresh air, exercise, out of door life and pleas-ant surroundings. Voltaire said:
“It is beyond all question that magic words and ceremonies destroy flocks of sheep if the words and ceremonies are accompanied by arsenic.”
So it may be that prayers sometimes cure when they are accompanied by all the conditions of health. If a cure is effected, it is not by changing the mind of God, but by changing the mind of the patient. In an ancient temple, sailors who had been saved from wreck hung votive offerings as tokens that their prayers had been answered. This was thought a conclusive proof that God heard the prayers of the sailors in distress until some stranger asked where was record of those who prayed when their ship was wrecked and were not saved. The fact is, praying saints have been untimely drowned and swearing pirates have escaped. Better is the attitude of that mariner who said in the tempest :
“O Neptune thou canst save or thou canst destroy, but I will hold my rudder true.”
Difficult to find many who believe that natural law is ever suspended and extraordinary causes are projected into the regular order of things, yet prayers are made as if such miracles were still wrought. In times of great public calamity, days of prayer are appointed. Governors of Western States, not many years since, appointed days of prayer to relieve them from drought and drive away the grasshoppers. When President Garfield was hovering between life and death, a day of prayer was set apart for his recovery. Once, just prior to a transit of Venus, request was made to ministers to unite in praying for clear weather while the planet was crossing the face of the sun. The request must have been based on a belief that God would change his mind in deference to the preachers, so that if he had intended to have a cloudy, he would reconsider and give a clear day instead. Some one suggested a provisionary clause in the prayers to the effect that, if the Deity’s arrangements had gone so far it would be impossible to furnish a clear sky on that particular day, perhaps he might postpone the transit until such time as favorable weather could be assured. Thus stated, the absurdity of the request appears. But one is quite as sensible as the other. Prayers of all the preachers in the land could no more sweep a single ribbon of cloud from the sky than could they cause sun and stars to halt in their never ceasing march.
What shall be said concerning those performances called prayers, but are not? It is not surprising that so many objections are raised against them. They are not only unscientific, but they are irreligious. They are not an expression of the soul’s reverence or thank-fulness. Often they are a meaningless flow of words, mere phrases to fill up the hour and piece out the programme of a spiritless routine. The Thibetan praying machine could do the work better. Many devout persons who believe in prayer object to these formal prayers.
“For though not recreant to their father’s faith
Its forms to them are weariness, and most
That drony vacuum of compulsory prayers,
Still pumping phrases for the Ineffable,
Though all the valves of memory gasp and wheeze.”
It is no wonder that many think that silence would be infinitely better. What shall be said of those voluable and rhetorical and turgid addresses to the throne of grace, on public occasions, in which Deity is in-formed of the object of the meeting in all its details and is asked, with endless repetition, to lend His sanction and influence to it and he who makes the prayer has the glib confidence of a “promoter” rather than the subdued awe of a worshiper? It is not strange that, having listened to such a performance, a reporter wrote for his paper that it was “the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” What charity can pardon the egotisms, the vanities, the hurrahs for our side of partisan prayers? A few years since, when the Republican State Convention met at Kalamazoo, a local minister offered a prayer which so resembled a political stump speech that at its close the audience broke out in applause. What shall be said of those personal prayers, made in public, when God is informed of all the virtues or vices of the one for whom prayer is made, giving him who prays opportunity to flatter or slander as his private wish may be, and thus dragging down that which should be a high and sacred conference with a Holy Spirit to the low level of neighborhood gossip? What irreverent accustomedities, what profanations, what intrusions of self, what attitudinizing, and evident effort to make an impression are indulged under the form of public prayers ! How shall we regard those prayers which, in the way of custom alone, are demanded and delivered at banquets where there is, sometimes, not so much “a feast of reason and flow of soul” as feast and flow of some-thing very different from reason and soul ;the prayer followed by inordinate eating, sometimes by inordinate drinking, and eating and drinking followed by speeches of questionable ethics illustrated by anecdotes of questionable decency? Considering all this, it is not strange that there are many who, while they welcome all worship that exalts and refines, repel whatever is merely formal and professional and absent themselves from all public worship.
But, passing from the critical mood, let us have more affirmation and, before we separate, attain to higher ground. As there is a difference between humanity and actual human beings, so there is a difference between Prayer and prayers. A high privilege should not be confused with its abuse. Whatever may become of speculative beliefs concerning it, and how-ever it may descend in practice, prayer is not likely to depart from humankind. In its spiritual meaning it is an expression of the soul’s affection for whatsoever is deemed sacred and aspiration toward the highest good it can conceive. It is a reaching out for the unattained. We all have hours that are much too great for our logic to explain ; beckonings to rise above routine; experiences that cannot be stated in prose. Therefore, whether it be a highly endowed and sensitive soul looking upon a scene of nature, grand like sea or mountain, beautiful like sunset or a blossoming orchard; a reader coming upon a sentence that is in-spired and inspires him ; a man of science who sees the results of infinite Force all arranged in unvarying or-der; a mother thinking of her absent child; a man bearing many scars of defeat, but resolving to battle, yet, again; any mortal suddenly conscious of his own littleness and weakness in presence of the vast universe or called to set forth on a journey toward the “undiscovered country,” not in coherent phrases and set forms it may be, but in some vague or clearly defined feeling of gladness or trust or outreaching for help, at some time and in some way, all will pray.
Although we see no miracle wrought in answer to our desires, let us not stifle our devout instincts nor cease communing with the Blessed Powers from which daily a thousand benefits descend. Acquiescence in the Divine Order forever working for final good is itself an act of worship. Work well done is a message to Heaven. Patience is prayer; resignation is prayer; de-light in the true and good and beautiful is prayer; the consecration and going out of energy to noble aims is prayer. Spoken or unspoken, prayer is recognition that
“The whole round world is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”