by Serge Soulié
tranlation Louise Thunin
When someone has a serious health problem, it’s not unusual for that person to ask you to pray for him or her. Unbelievers may even go so far as to make such a request, all the more so if they know you to be a Christian. Their request may seem ironic. It may happen also that through their irony, they are expressing exactly what they deny themselves, shut in, as they are, in what they believe to be their religion : non-belief. Anxiety always wins out. A protestant hospital chaplain pointed out that in fhe face of such a request, he would ask the patient to pray with him. In the case of a refusal, he would then state clearly that he would not pray. In this way, he hoped to avoid God’s being taken for a magician, acting according to his own good pleasure and on command.
In the face of serious illness, sometimes relatives and friends tell you that they will pray for you. In general, and unless you are obtuse or superstitious, such words are comforting. They witness to the friendship these people have for you. If you share the faith of those who make this offer, then you feel in communion with them. Extraordinary strength is communicated to you though this communion. The first function of prayer here is to establish deep and sincere relations with others, those others without whom it is hard to live happily, especially when you are suffering or when you feel threatened by death.
However, can we feel satisfied by a prayer whose only function is to maintain or reinforce a brotherly relationship ? Moreover, can we pray to ask God to intervene according to our wish ?
Concerning the role of prayer in maintaining communion or friendship among believers, there is nothing more to add. Blessed is the one supported by the prayers of many brothers and friends. The form of this prayer matters little. Intention is enough.
Prayer can be a factor of peace and reconciliation among those who pray. But be careful ! We must insist that from God’s point of view, a prayer will not have a better chance of being answered due to the fact that there are many praying, that they are very motivated or represent the clergy of some religion or church. That would be unjust and contrary to what we can understand of God in Scripture as in his creation. It would be contrary to the notion, ˝by grace alone.˝ And finally, it would mean we believe that humans possess the power to receive answers to prayers when they address God directly or his intermediaries, such as Mary, the saints, or the Church. In any case, we would be relapsing into the errors denounced by the Reformation. The place of Jesus Christ, usually considered as an intermediary between God and man, is different. It is difficult to define. For two thousand years now it has nourished theological debate, brought on heresy and schisms. We’ll speak of this later.
We now have two questions to consider, if we are to explore the role of prayer when it is more than the connection of friendship or a question of encouragement. First of all, what is this God it is addressed to, and what ways does he have to answer prayer ? Finally, what type of answer can we expect ?
Prayer puts mankind back in its proper place within the harmony of the world
In general, a person who prays (and his friends along with him) is asking to be freed from what hinders him, be it illness or a difficult situation. He is expecting divine intervention which can only be miraculous, because, if he speaks to God so insistently, it is because the situation is desperate from the standpoint of human possibilities. It is desperate, because man can do nothing.
He is not responsible for a tsunami, cancer or multiple sclerosis. At the most, he is the awkward or ill-intentioned perpetrator of an irreversible situation about which he can do nothing. Thus divine intervention can only be a break in a natural chain of events. God is being asked to break the chain of active causality in the physical world that we know, and that science tries its best to comprehend. So God is considered to be beyond his creation, external to it and able to intervene as he wishes, in order to modify the course of events. Creation then would not contain within itself its own evolution, as Darwin demonstrates. From a medical standpoint, the human body would no longer be subject to its finite condition, revealed by the weakening of body parts, which can manifest at all ages. God would be the master of all-there-is by dint of his sheer will and would be outside of things, pressing remote control buttons.
This view of God and his creation is totally inadequate, considering what we can observe today, given the advancement of scientific discovery. Nature harbors within itself the evolution that characterizes it. This evolution may be imperceptible, since it stretches out over millions of years. It can also be violent, as earthquakes can be, or any other form of upheaval. God is defined here as the˝ soul of the world˝ to which he is linked. He accompanies the world as the soul of each person accompanies that person. We cannot see it, but it is there. God has no representations, but he is present. This presenece, called Shechina in Jewish Kabbalah, acts like a nourishing matrix and not by decision. We cannot solicit it. It acts of itself, all the while espousing the movement of nature. The main thing is to be inside this matrix, in other words, to place oneself in a relationship with all of nature. In that way, we can understand the role played by prayer ; it leads one into the matrix that is a divine field and that we call God. Its goal is to put a person confronting difficulties back in the heart of all-there-is, whereas he is tempted to isolate himself. It helps him find his place in the normal course of events. Finally, it invites him to seize that which God’s presence has already given.
The miracles of Jesus point to a God linked to his creation, present everywhere in the world, without a special place just for him, neither the Temple in Jerusalem nor Mount Garizim, as he says to the Samaritan woman. Jesus does not transgress the laws of nature. He refuses to change stones into bread. He transgresses religious laws that fly in the face of what is natural. This is why he encourages his disciples to pluck stalks of wheat on a Sabbath when they are hungry. He heals the sick even on the Sabbath. He resurrects Lazarus and the son of the widow from Naïm, who nonetheless will not be exempted from their mortality, since they will die when the time comes. There too, nature is respected.
In fact, we may wonder whether these two resurrections are not the activation of an out-of-body presence in the consciousness of their dear ones. In the same manner, Jesus will appear bodily to his disciples, Thomas and other friends. Miracles are not supernatural. On the contrary, Jesus gives to those concerned that which nature was no longer giving them. He allows each person to recover his original nature : a blind man sees, a paralytic walks, a crowd is fed. It is illness that is is supernatural. A miracle harmonizes all the givens of life and puts individuals back into the heart of the universe, so that the latter can harmonize itself with them.
Prayer does not call for supernatural divine intervention
The question of answered prayer remains. A sick person awaits and hopes for healing. Every human being who feels lost asks God to save him. Each one wants God to intervene so that his projects will succeed. All this is obvious and has existed ever since Man invented divinities. He places them at his service and asks them to respond to his prayer. We find these divinities in the Bible. The Asian world, as well as Greek and Roman antiquity, Egypt and Africa, teem with these gods to whom people pray and offer sacrifices, to elicit their favor at critical times. We can ask ourselves if, today, we have not made of God, the one of the Old Testament called Jehovah or Adonaï and that Jesus called Father, one of these gods responsible for granting all our wishes. He would be characterized by the powers that paganism distributed to several gods. Thus, monotheism would then be a mere grouping together, a concentration of these powers. In no case is there a new perception of God such as we find in the New Testament, when Jesus says that God is Spirit or when he calls God ˝ Father. ˝ God remains a human projection, responsible for accomplishing everything that Mankind cannot do. In other words, Gop is perceived as a pagan god. If, earlier, we prayed Aeolus for favorable winds, today we ask God to send rain or sun according to our needs. Masses and pilgrimages are organized for this. We ask God to cure incurable illness. We expect supernatural interventions on his part.
We forget too easily that Jesus did not accomplish any miracles contrary to nature. He did not change the direction of rivers, move mountains or stop the sun from shining. In his miracles, he simply returns people to the situation where they would be, if everything were working properly. The God of Jesus does not contradict nature. He is not opposed to it. The creation that Darwin discoverd as alive, active, evolutive and transformative, continues. As for the healing of the sick, including resurrections, they allow nature to continue its evolution.
To pray is not to expect a supernatural intervention. It is to put each one of us back in the right line of nature, from which illness and difficulties have distanced us. To pray is to make connections. It is to live in God. In his home. In his atmosphere.
To pray God or Jesus ?
In general, a Christian makes no distinction between God and Jesus Christ. If you ask a Christian who has just been praying if he was talking to God or to Christ, frequently he’ll tell you he has no idea and that for him, it’s all one and the same. The word ˝ Lord, ˝ for example, means the father and the son. Only the word Father seems to refer to God himself. Lumping together the father and the son betrays a lack of clarity about these two entities and suggests that both are Gods. The place and function of each are mixed together. Mary, in the Catholic Church, is called ˝Mother of God.˝ This term is not used in Protestant churches. How could a woman, however holy, be the mother of a god ? As concerns the Reformers, they do not affirm that Christ is God. The God of the Old Testament and the father of Jesus Christ cannot fit in a human body, since God is infinite and intangible. A lazy faith seems to be at the origin of this non-distinction between God and Jesus Christ. It does not fulfill its teaching role.
To come as close as possible to the thinking of the Reformation, it would be wise to distinguish, even in prayer, between God and Jesus Christ. Of course it is possible to speak to either, since Christ lives, resurrected. He can visit us. Each of us can meet him as did the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. But the prayer we send up to God cannot be the same that we send up to Christ. He is the way, the truth and the light that lead us to discover the divine. He is not God. Jesus himself, in his acts, calls on the Father and withdraws to pray. God is the ˝active Principle˝ who acts in the world in which we live the way a womb acts upon an embryo. God does not act by decision and will. He acts by nature. It cannot be otherwise. If he loves, it is not because he wants to and has decided to, but because he is love, the way my desk is wood, pine or oak, no matter. If I get rid of the wood, I get rid of the table. If I get rid of love, I get rid of God. To pray is to manifest the desire to remain attached to God. Jesus acts like a model human being, filled with the spirit of God. The goal of his action is to lead us to God, to reintroduce us in God. He gives us to understand who God is. To conclude the narrative on love, I would say that Jesus suggests loving words and acts. They can be debated. We cannot avoid them, if we want to be in God.
Prayer addressed to God is a form of meditation. It is a surrender, a letting-go, comparable to that of a psychoanalysis patient, who, lying on the divan, gives free rein to whatever thoughts come to mind. He doesn’t withhold. He doesn’t imagine, doesn’t elaborate. He speaks of himself. In this sort of prayer, one seeks communion with nature (we could say with the cosmsos), with the divine that upholds it. It expresses a desire to participate in the order and harmony of the world. In this way, prayer is worship and silence. I remember a young woman drug addict ; we’ll call her Julie. She wanted to quit drugs. I was her therapist when she had to leave France to accompany her partner. I suggested that she commit regularly to sessions on the divan, and that she speak of herself, letting her words come as they would if someone, close or far, was there to listen to her. After about ten sessions with me, she had become accustomed to this exercise, and so she agreed to my idea. Two years later, she came to see me to tell me she was free of her addiction and was on a spiritual path. Divine presence had revealed itself to her outside of any institutionalized religious structure. She had found peace and felt connected to the world and to God, both of which seemed inseparable from her.
Pierre had spent three months in a treatment center for alcoholics. As the director, I was forced by the authorities, who accused me of seeking converts, to give up our ˝morning spiritual moment, ˝ during which we read and commented on a Bible passage, sang and prayed. Therefore, I decided to speak to the patients three times a week in the form of half-hour lectures. Rather than invoke action on God’s part with a view to their healing, I tried to show them that everything that exists – therefore they too — is inhabited by an effort, an intention, a will to self-actualize, something they had not managed to do up until then. They had taken refuge in alcohol. I told them that as long as they thought that giving up alcohol is an effort of the will, they wouldn’t succeed. To do so, they had to transfer their desire onto another object. I didn’t say that God could be this object. They had to discover it for themselves. I was referring to Spinoza’s conatus, which we find under the name of entelechy in Aristotle, of élan vital (vital dynamic force) in Bergson, of the will for power in Nietzsche or libido in Freud. Conatus is inner force, the appetite which leads each of us to become who we are. A year later, Pierre sent me a letter saying he had been freed of his alcohol addiction. He was surprised to have discovered God in the treatment center, whereas ˝ we never spoke about God.˝ Since then, he had been going from time to time to Mass in his village without finding the same joy he had known while listening to the lectures. Like our young drug addict, Pierre had experienced the presence of God as he listened to these lectures, which invited him to give free rein to the élan vital within him. His prayer was not one of a request for outside intervention. He let himself surrender to the force he felt rising within him each day. Here, we are far from prayers that are nothing more than supplications, murmurs, praise, repentance or intercession.
Prayer addressed to Jesus is addressed to the man closest to God. This man is also the first link of humanity. Scripture speaks of Adam or of an elder brother. Praying to him turns into dialogue, since Jesus has been through the joys and the trials that we too must experience. We cannot understand God. We can understand Jesus Christ. The better we understand him, the closer we are led to God. It is in this sense that he saves us. There is no use calling on the debatable theology that says it is through the blood he shed. To follow in Christ’s footsteps is to commit to discovering divine love. Of course, this is not the only path leading to God. Let’s say that it is the one Christians have chosen, because Jesus is not only a prophet (someone who speaks for God) or a messiah (an exemplary king who has come to solve political and social problems). He is the one who experiences God in the depths of his being. Christ not only commincates with God via words and images but from spirit to spirit. He perceived that which has been revealed thanks to his intelligence. He and God come together, all the while remaining distinct. He embodies the divine as others embody wisdom.
Prayer addressed to no one in particular
Let’s speak again of Julie and Pierre. It will be difficult for most believers to consider their attitude as prayer. Indeed, in most religions, Christianity included, praying consists in expressing requests from the created to the creator, from son to father. The relationship between Jesus and his father is considered the perfect model, as given in the Lord’s Prayer. By solliciting her creator, the created one imagines that an obvious dependency will render God favorable to the protection of her interests and the likelihood that her prayers will be granted. God is perceived as a supreme, all-powerful being. There is nothing of that in our young addicts. They are part of a generation brought up without religious references. They haven’t had the time to imagine this deus ex machina, this god whose intervention can, in an impromptu manner, undo a desperate situation. Their prayer consists in staying open and available in the present. Thus, Julie could speak without worrying about the personality of whomever was listening to her. Pierre surrendered until his vital life force awakened. And they found themsleves in a relationship with something greater than themsleves that they had never even imagined. Nothing came to hinder the desire we all had to see them give up the addictive product that held them captive. That desire became their own. Lacan’s saying that ˝desire is the desire of the other person˝ worked perfectly. They were able to seize the divine will inscribed in the depths of each thing and of each being, a life-oriented will, a perseverance of Being, to borrow Spinoza’s expression.
Many people have attended rehab programs such as Pierre’s. Few have made the same effort to stay present in the moment. They awaited their healing like a miracle from elsewhere ; from God for some of them, from medicine or a therapist for others. Those were their idols. They depended on them. They were incapable of self-examination and commitment. However, as we know, an idol lets us believe and hope. It prevents us from participating in our own destiny. It prevents the construction of our Self. God defined by a definite role quickly becomes an idol. He becomes the object of prayers and supplications, never of seeking or surprises. That was not Julie’s and Pierre’s God. Their prayer was, in a way, spoken to no one in particular. Their God was undefined.
And yet prayer cannot be limited to what it is for Julie and Pierre, even if God cannot be perceived as a character, as we tend to think, stuck in doctrines, dogma and specific places to the point of becoming an idol. Man needs to cry out to God in both suffering and joy, as does the psalmist. He speaks to God in his own words, with his intelligence, his reasoning and his fears. Momentarily, he makes of God another version of himself. Once the prayer is finished, this representation must cease, as must any request for external intervention. The art of prayer then will be to distinguish between man’s expectations, his lack of health, of luck, of wealth, of esteem, and the the reality of God, who is not here to fulfill a lack but who is the Life Force always becoming. The community can play an important role here by helping us to imagine God without making of him a rigidly defined being. God is becoming along with all of creation, as it emanates from him.
In the nineties, we happened to meet a community of about ten people. They were Parisians, indifferent to their comfortable social position and frustrated at not living in the heart of nature. They had retired to one of those areas that city-dwellers dream about. They called themselves Messianic Jews. They recognized Jesus as the Messiah but refused the idea that Father and Son are of the same nature. We were interested in the organization of their community’s spiritual life. How surprised we were to discover that their time was not punctuated by moments of prayer and meditation ! They studied the Bible the same way they worked on the farm, where they raised goats and tilled the soil in traditional fashion. God blended in with nature and with activity.They prayed and thought about God while carrying out their occupations. They insisted on a God present in all places and at all times. Everything was in God. God was in everything. According to them, Jesus did not care for religion but for nature, where they found the freedom to breathe in God as we breathe air. No need to solicit the divine, because it gives of itself. God was the breath of all the natural elements in which they had chosen to live, simply and ascetically. Such a concept modified habitual religious behavior. God seemed to be under their skin and in nature, not by joining, as in a mystical relationship, where personality melts and is lost in God, but, on the contrary, thanks to an affirmation of Self, thanks to the presence of God. As if the divine will, incessantly renewed, quickened each being so that it might exist intensely and freely.
Our Concept of God and the Tone of our Prayer
To conclude, we will say that the tone of our prayer depends on our concept of God. If God is perceived with human attributes and moreover masculine ones, he will correspond to what man desires in the way of power, but without the capacity to acquire it. He will be a super-character, exterior to the world, acting according to his own good pleasure. Prayer then becomes beseeching. It keeps those who pray in an expectation of supernatural intervention, since only such a God can bring about what is asked of him. If God is perceived as ˝the soul of the world,˝ ˝universal intelligence,˝ or, to quote Jesus, as ˝Spirit,˝ connected to creation, then prayer will be a special moment of communion with the divine, in other words, with all of creation. The one who prays will feel the divine tenderness. He will experience the certainty of being held in God’s arms. The 23rd Psalm is a good illustration. Prayer here expands the space of relationship and extends to the infinite. It bears the imprint of passivity so that we can experience the presence of God. It is a surrender of self-control. It can be ritual in nature if the rite encourages this surrender and if it does not replace daily activity. Prayer is restful. It is a factor of personal wholeness. Here, we can speak of healing.
Prayer addressed to Jesus Christ is a dialogue with one who knows and has experienced the human condition. It leads us into the field of the divine until we meet there a Father God. It has a teaching role ; it structures our thoughts, prepares us for experience, opens our eyes to reality, sets us on new paths leading to the discovery of new horizons. It favors the spiritual development of the believer. It leads to a process of greater self-confidence. When illumined by Gospel passages, a prayer-dialogue addressed to Jesus Christ invites us to break away from acquired principles and dogma that subject us to conformity. It tears us away from religion and thrusts us into life, as Jesus was thrust.
Prayer can be addressed to God or to Jesus Christ. Each one has a role to play for our greater peace.