We Americans are once again in a full-throated struggle over the viability of our republican institutions of constitutional government. The would-be despot our founders feared has indeed seized administrative control of our national government while the party he commandeered knuckles under and his political opponents suffer in retreat. In the midst of this, I am thinking about poetry and public prayer. I invite you to reflect with me as I struggle with this matter.
The first hurdle is to stake out an understanding of this often murky and sentimentalized human activity. I understand prayer as the attempt to affirm the dialogical character of the universe in the face of its seemingly mute determinism or caprice. Prayer is speaking to an Other where there seems to be no other. In that sense it creates the beginning of a drama in the midst of mindless necessity or mute incoherence. As an entry into a dialogue, it trusts that the core of reality is not only dialogical but in my theological perspective is the relationship we call love. Prayer, then, is the act of entrusting ourselves into the underlying powers of love constituting the universe. It is an attunement to the underlying dialogue of creation. As an overture to relationship it is an affirmation of the underlying covenantal character of creation. The web of trust, promise, and reconciliation that is known in covenant-making is the expression of the unyielding fidelity of love known in prayer.
Praying is an action in words, even in our thoughts. Sometimes it escapes into sound, whether of one person alone or in a small group. When it emerges as an act of a whole group we call it public prayer. There it arises in the bond between an enduring group and what I would call its leading partner in time. This kind of prayer is not the colloquial speech of an individual to a friend, but words and phrases burnished with memory and common use across generations. As with the mihrab in a mosque, it is a door into the way ahead that bridges our origins with a possible future.
This form of prayer undergirds the language of an enduring public. Indeed, it constitutes the core of a public’s life. The peculiar public we call the church, the ecclesia, lifts this dynamic up in an obvious way. But the work of prayer in its many obvious and derivative forms binds any vital public into a history of promises, gratitude, brokenness, healing, and hope. It makes of this particular people a “person” in a cosmic drama. When such a public loses this possibility of dialogue with the transcendent power beneath its life, it begins to dissipate into the aimless wandering and warfare of individuals without a past or future. Because prayer affirms the underlying dialogical character of reality, it can form us into the citizens who engage in the public work of dialogue that seeks to nurture the common world entrusted to us by the Creator. That’s why I’m thinking about it today.
But then we come to the challenges. At the same time we have to recognize the terrible distortions that can arise from this peculiar power of public prayer. The powerful in any society can seek to use it not to open a pubic up to a transcendent dialogue but to mask their own venality, greed, or inhumanity. In a frantic search to reclaim the promise of public prayer, some of us Americans want to impose old Christian forms upon the conversation of the wider republic. Others cling to the quasi-religious shards of national anthems and pledges of allegiance redolent of slavery, jingoism, and self-delusion. This tendency to corruption is why genuinely public-forming prayer must be kept separate from the grasp of governments and those who would lead them.
What we should be struggling for apart from the power politics of the moment is deep publics of prayer within our religious and cultural traditions that offer language, poetry, song, and aspiration to feed the poetry and prayer of the wider public. We need to re-mine what Robert Bellah and others have called our civil religion to recover the way toward a care for the land, for the stranger, and for each other, weak and strong, old and young. In that prayer we affirm that we are part of a larger drama framed in a transcendence that inspires, judges and humbles us.
The second challenge we face is in our image of the One with whom we are in prayer. While prayer is the nuclear power within a public assembly, not all prayer fits the building of a true republic built upon the conversation of a people. Much of our inherited prayer was formed around relationships between a despot and his (almost always “his”) subjects. It was not the dialogue of citizens, but the petition of a vassal to a lord. (Our very word “prayer” comes from the Latin word for entreaty or petition.) This is the kind of prayer that has returned to haunt this republic now in the grip of a despotic personality who cannot engage a conversation, much less a negotiation, among equals.
But the alternative to this entreaty of vassalage is not the folksy familiarity of much of popular Christianity. Chatting with Jesus in the garden does not contest the truncated despotism of traditional prayer, it only hides from it. To constitute a genuine public rooted in circles of conversation, debate, negotiation, and agreement, we need genuine public prayer committed to a republic that honors the dignity of each participant. To do that, we need to feed once again on the poetry and song that lifts us into the dialogue constituting all creation—the power and fidelity of love.
In this pursuit truly public prayer has a loftiness in which the words lift off the page of personal idiosyncracy and familiarity. It has a cadence that enlists the beating of the heart, a flow that calls the legs to dance, a visionary image that lets the eye behold a larger world. This is the bond between a truly public prayer and poetry. In poetry the words soar beyond a simple utility to seek a wider realm beyond the everyday of neat connections lodged within our grasp. This is why good poetry is prayer and public prayer most properly is poetry.
Poetic public prayer may be a truly subversive act in the face of the bullying torrent of crudities that assails our republic from the despot who now seeks to tyrannize over it. In the beauty of truly public prayer we can enter into the public whose president is God and whose constitution is God’s covenant of love with all creation. It is a prayer no government can or should control but in the end a true republic needs the graceful frame of this transcendent dialogue.
As always, your own reflections would be most appreciated.
[The long silence since my last post was due to the hacking of my subscriber list and program. I hope the repairs and introduction of a new subscriber program will prevent future problems. Thanks for your patience!]
You capture at once a transcendence and a depth of prayer that stills my soul. It reflects what in some way I have always thought prayer might be. That its dialogue is so woven into the public sphere of covenant makes it all the more striking in this time of social and presidential fracture.
Bill, this is an excellent piece. I appreciate it especially because, as Chaplain at Curry College, I always delivered prayers (at Commencement and other events) in poetic form. I never fully thought out why I was doing this–it just seemed appropriate for a public occasion. I think I sensed something like what you said about cadence, and what you say about it having subversive potential squares very well with what Itried to do. ABOUT THE HACKING: I think this shows that you must be high on the Russians’ list of people they need to discredit. Congratulations! And since I’m on your list, maybe I can share some of the glory/persecution…
I pray the democrats, liberals and progressives cease to demonize and hate monger what they fear. I pray that those who fear may choose to love their enemies and do good instead if fearing and hating. Please have hope in Christ and rise above the politcal fears.
Bill, your post/essay reflects the core wisdom I’ve learned from you over the years. I delight in the nuances and distinctions that point toward a way of being and relating that aren’t hierarchical and idolatrous, on the one hand, and irrelevant and innocuous on the other. I’m grateful.