In Silence: Why We Pray

In Silence: Why We Pray

by Donald Spoto

View All Available Formats & Editions

The literature of prayer has an old and rich tradition, but Donald Spoto's extraordinarynew work of scholarship and devotion may be the first book to explore not only what prayer says about God but what it reveals about us and the universal experiences that have moved us to call on God throughout the ages.

Drawing on the words of religious thinkers of both East

See more details below


The literature of prayer has an old and rich tradition, but Donald Spoto's extraordinarynew work of scholarship and devotion may be the first book to explore not only what prayer says about God but what it reveals about us and the universal experiences that have moved us to call on God throughout the ages.

Drawing on the words of religious thinkers of both East and West, from the author of Psalms to Rumi and from Teresa of Ávila to Chögyam Trungpa, In Silence explores the nature, quality, history, and effects of prayer: as petition, as forgiveness, as cry of suffering, as abandonment, as serenity, as loving, as silence.

Erudite, beautifully written, and filled with wonder, this is a ringing celebration of our most precious habit of being.

Author Biography: Donald Spoto earned his Ph.D. in theology at Fordham University. He is the author of nineteen books, including The Hidden Jesus: A New Life and Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Explaining his decision to add to the innumerable books on the subject of individual prayer, Spoto asserts that the most worthwhile subjects humans can write about and mull over are those they can never fully grasp. The author of 19 celebrity biographies, Spoto brings a tempered passion and scholarly competence to the broad topic of prayer in human experience. Included in the volume are chapters on prayer as dialogue, petition, forgiveness, suffering, abandonment, serenity, loving, transformation and silence. Although he frequently refers to the spiritual traditions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Spoto, a practicing Catholic, seems better versed in the Hebrew prophets and in Christian spirituality, anchoring his book in frequent references to Christian mystics and theologians. Spoto is also an advocate for linking personal piety with moral practice: "To love God, then, means to want what is good-to seek the benefit of others in this world." An interesting blend of devotional manual and scholarly treatise, Spoto's book may appeal to prayer practitioners who, like him, find themselves fascinated by the subject of why, across cultures and continents, human beings continue to seek this profoundly personal connection to God. (Oct. 7) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.56(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.08(d)

Related Subjects

Meet the Author

Read an Excerpt


�Faith itself is the soul�s true country, and prayer is its native language.�

With those words I concluded a chapter of an earlier work, The Hidden Jesus: A New Life. That book considered certain specific questions about the ancient Hebrew notion of the mystery of God, and about the earliest Christian assertions concerning God�s continuing activity in Jesus of Nazareth. The questions and the assertions, taken collectively, comprise the basis for Judeo-Christian faith.

Faith, I suggested in The Hidden Jesus, is primarily an attitude about reality�a refusal to admit that life has no meaning and that everything is doomed to extinction; faith then involves a willingness to wonder, to ask questions rather than simply to deny what the senses do not immediately validate. Faith goes further and more deeply than belief; I hope to make this the subject of a future book.


The apparent problem of the hiddenness and silence of God runs like a motif through the entire range of the Jewish-Christian Scriptures; they very much concerned me in The Hidden Jesus. Hiddenness and silence do not imply nonexistence, absence or a sort of divine detachment. On the contrary: people have become aware, however dimly, of the reality of God, and have realized a relationship with Him, only in silence. Hiddenness and silence are not nothing, nor are they to be taken for God�s remoteness; they are in fact the condition of our meeting with God in time, amid the chaos of the world.

If the silence and hiddenness of God are signs of His presence and the key to understanding the deepest meaning of our lives, then we may indeed listen for God, hear Him in His silence, and find Him as the ultimately real Reality precisely in that silence and hiddenness. In other words, communication with God may be not only possible but also necessary; indeed, it may be actual long before we realize it is as so. Hence the book you are now holding�an inquiry into the meaning, nature, history, quality, types and effects of prayer in human experience.


If one wishes to approach prayer as an intellectual construct, it can be studied as a psychological phenomenon, a theme in the history of world religions, a subject for academic theological discourse or simply in its most familiar form as written or spoken entreaties or formulas directed to a higher being. In this book I have chosen to examine the subject from a different perspective. My aim is not to present yet another history of religion, nor an analysis of the sociological aspects of certain forms of institutional religious life or formal worship. Likewise, I do not offer a history of mysticism: the rarefied language of many mystics is too idiosyncratic to be adequately treated in this book. But some mystics are more accessible than others, and because sometimes they have cogent and powerful things to say about prayer, their writings will be considered here.

I have elected to treat prayer as an expression of an individual�s inner life as it develops within the contexts of several dimensions of human experience. Dialogue is one mode of discovery about oneself and others, and prayer may be spoken of as a profound sort of dialogue. Asking, needing and desiring in some ways characterize every life in its ordinariness, and this implicit sense of one�s contingency relates directly to our sense of a relationship with God. Suffering often makes people turn to God, or at least wonder about His presence or absence, and a cry amid suffering is among the commonest kinds of prayers. Love, too, in all its guises and categories, makes us somehow aware of the inevitability of connection with another and others: this human experience cannot be separated from a sense of the divine. Reflection on our experience, on what we do or feel or endure or receive, forms what we call our inner life. That reflection is the first and basic kind of prayer.

The primal awareness of the Beyond is sketched in the first chapter, which offers selected moments in the spiritual history of humankind, but only insofar as they illuminate the interior mystery of prayer. In the chapters that follow, then, I try to trace our inclination to pray out of certain basic universal experiences, for I believe that it is in dialogue, petition, forgiveness, suffering, abandonment, serenity and loving that we not only act and endure but also reach the depths of being truly alive. Transformation�not just of our outlook but of our very selves�then occurs inevitably. At the level of everyday, common hu- man experiences and in our very particularity, we meet the living God.

In a way, I am attempting a new understanding of the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of a universal language that we are, as individuals and as a species, always just beginning to fathom. Among the central motifs of this book is the notion that it may well be impossible to consider prayer apart from life as a whole. We are as we pray, and our prayer is always in a state of becoming. Prayer parallels and enriches the process by which we discover the depth and breadth of what it means to be human.


Any attempt to speak of prayer in the 21st century is likely to lead to a confrontation with a cluster of objections�the two most notable being that prayer is irrelevant in a sophisticated age of science and technology; and that prayer is primarily a solipsistic dialogue with the self. Both rest on a belief that prayer is by its nature psychologically suspect. But its critics, if they are intellectually honest, ought to ask themselves whether they can dismiss or deny profound interior experiences claimed by others merely because they themselves are strangers to those experiences.

We should not lose sight of the fact that psychology itself is a remarkably fluid and mysterious discipline, one that deals with all manner of highly variable conjectures and subjective interpretations. Various schools of analysis have emerged, and partisans often apply their own fixed systems as templates for interpreting each and every human life or dilemma. This methodology, however, tends to reduce the unique human person to a standard issue that can be �treated� by certain established principles. But good science does not proceed in so reductive a fashion.

Just so, it is helpful to recall that no less a figure than Albert Einstein observed that human awareness of the divine could not be summarily discounted, and that in fact (as he wrote) �science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.� Since Einstein�s death a half-century ago, most scientists would agree that what we call �laws of nature� are best regarded as a series of probabilities in a universe that remains mysterious and open.

The idea that there are fixed laws of nature is in fact useful only as a way of assessing the current state of what is known about the material world: in other words, these so-called laws enable us to understand certain phenomena as they appear to us now, at our current stage of interpreting the world.

On the other hand, the realms of creative thought and art, the worlds of aesthetic and interior spiritual life, gain little from being subjected to a priori principles. In this regard, we can consider that when Aristotle contemplated the universe, when Mozart composed, when Monet painted and when Mendel experimented with plants and seeds, they were engaged in interior activities that were not ultimately comprehensible through merely rational methods.

Still, for some people prayer is fundamentally incompatible with a modern scientific worldview. What good is it, they ask, to pray for rain in the midst of a drought? After all, tomorrow�s weather is determined by today�s conditions�more accurately, it was determined by yesterday�s. A similar argument might be made about the course of an illness. What use is it to pray once all the medical remedies have been applied? Nature, they conclude, has taken and will take its course, either in response to scientific protocols or despite them.

Two replies come to mind. First, we constantly alter the course of �nature� by expressions of our will and in light of evolving knowledge. We seed the clouds; we build breakwaters and construct complex irrigation equipment; we discover that a rare herb just might treat a grave illness. It is ridiculous to suggest that we can always know the circumstances under which a desired end might be accomplished. The second response is more abstract and yet more to the point. Scientists receptive to a mysterious and often unpredictable universe can, as we have seen, admit that the laws of nature have more to do with a current sense of probability than with anything like certainty.

As regards the criticism that prayer is an isolating and self-absorbed exercise, are we in fact merely deluding ourselves and avoiding life�s demands when we pray? Ought we not to arise from our knees and take our place within social, political and economic institutions, the better to effect the improvement of life for ourselves and others, instead of indulging inner fancies? Escapism is, of course, always a danger in prayer, and no less an authority than the 16th-century Spanish religious reformer, Teresa of �vila, warns against seeking prayerful solitude merely to avoid the tensions, disturbances and obligations of life. She was a sharp-eyed woman and a gifted psychologist, centuries before psychology became a unique discipline�and she never relied on theories to substantiate her observations on human nature or the interior life.

Today, the objection of escapism often rests on a false assumption�namely, that prayer necessarily avoids or is opposed to the requirements of serious life in the world. On the contrary, as we shall see, genuine prayer has everything to do with real life. Politics, economics, science and technology and even the laudable achievements of humanitarians are never permanent solutions for the problems of the world, if for no other reason than the fact that it is the accomplishments themselves that always reveal what more remains to be done on humankind�s behalf. There is an arrogance in those who protest otherwise, for humility demands that we recognize that our efforts and attainments must always remain incomplete.

It is precisely the necessity of a serious and caring life in the world that exercised the Spanish philosopher and literary critic Miguel de Unamuno in the first third of the 20th century. Speaking for many in his time, he finally found himself forced to acknowledge that the very nature of involvement in the commonweal led to a consideration that we may not be alone in the universe; from there, it was a short route to reflect on the notion of God. Unamuno was not especially at home with the classical idea of existential causality, but he was struck by the truth of a universe that nurtured human personality, which must logically possess the hidden resources to account for that personality�in other words, the ground and basis of the universe itself cannot be impersonal. Unamuno leaned heavily toward the affirmation of an ultimately personal Reality, and he was, at the last, deeply uncomfortable with a rank denial of meaning and, finally, of God.

The German philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich did more than lean in the direction of affirmation. Denied the right to teach in Germany under Nazism, Tillich found a welcome in American universities, where, until his death in 1965, he wrote and taught with a sharp focus on the renewal of religion and modern culture. The depth and ground of all being is God, Tillich asserted. If the word �God� was off-putting for some, he recommended that one reflect on the depths of life, on one�s ultimate concerns, on what one takes seriously without any reservation. �He who knows about depth,� said Tillich, �knows about God.�


But as Tillich and others have warned, there is a danger of infusing prayer with a self-centered, magical spirit that has nothing to do with the search for God; no one who believes in prayer is immune to the subtle contagion of this spirit of magic. Many well-meaning people pray in an effort to learn something about themselves or even to raise their self-esteem. Unfortunately, contemporary culture, perhaps taking its cue from some ideal of physical perfection, tends to see everything, prayer included, in terms of its value for self-improvement. As soon as prayer becomes a means to that end, the sense of transcendence vanishes, and with it the longing for God and the openness to His presence. Authentic prayer does not aim to become a comforting form of self-expression; it is about reaching within and beyond the imagined self to a greater purpose and power.

What of the objection that prayer is mere wish fulfillment or indulgence in narcissistic fantasies and daydreams? Anyone who seriously attempted to pray or who has known even a fleeting or rudimentary experience of a Beyond-in-the-midst can testify that this experience is inevitably characterized by a conviction of otherness�it is about response and contingency. However unclear or problematic the awareness may at times be, prayer is a consciousness that one has first of all been addressed. And for the most part, such encounters offer few immediate or facile emotional satisfactions.

The English scholar and mystic Evelyn Underhill, who contributed richly to the literature of spirituality in the 20th century, wrote that prayer �proceeds by way of much discipline, renunciation and suffering as it moves toward a total abandonment to God�s purpose. . . . Experience of God is the greatest of the rights of man, and it should not be left to become the casual discovery of the few.�

Even people who reject religion and would classify themselves as atheists often engage in concrete and very real forms of prayer as they seek to give of themselves, to transcend their own limitations, to work on behalf of human rights and to respond to the needs of others. Their dedication, their labors and their aspirations comprise their beliefs�and they can indeed be called beliefs. Thus, in a broad but true sense, they are involved in the enterprise of prayer.


The English verb �to pray� comes to us from the Old French preier, modernized as prier; this in turn can be traced back to the Latin precari. In its original sense, it means to beseech or to beg, either of a person or God. The phrase �I pray you,� dating from the Renaissance, is a good example of how the word developed in English, when it denoted a simple appeal to someone. But to speak of prayer today�to say �I pray��implies a transcendent address.

We begin to engage in this address and to know something of God through our experience, but language is ultimately inadequate to the task of articulating that experience. It is for precisely that reason that all discourse about the divine is necessarily metaphorical and symbolic. We must take great care not to consider our poor written and spoken attempts with anything but an approximation of the Reality toward which they point. And as for concepts or hypotheses about the nature of God, that devout novelist C.S. Lewis was on the mark: �Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter.�

This statement is very much in the classic Judeo-Christian tradition, which has long claimed that we know more accurately what God is not than what He is. In the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote compellingly of Moses� �meeting� with God in the cloud atop Mount Sinai. From this image, Gregory developed a notion that came to be called apophatic theology, which holds that whatever we say about God, we must immediately qualify by adding, �But He is not at all like that.� Moses, we can state with utmost reverence, knew very well that he did not know much at all. In 14th-century England and 16th-century Spain, respectively, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and the mystic John of the Cross brought the richness and advantages of this idea of �denial� to fruition.

Despite the impossibility of �knowing� God, and despite our own intellectual limitations and spiritual poverty, we humans have consistently felt compelled to write and speak of prayer throughout history. Our experience of finding our way to God has been so powerful or transforming that it has to be articulated, however inadequately. As Saint Augustine said in a sermon, �We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.� Among the great religions and philosophies in world history, prayer has been the particular genius of the Judeo-Christian continuum for more than four thousand years. It is not exclusive to these traditions, to be sure, but the phenomenon of personal prayer as a living dialogue and continuing relationship with a personal God is found in no other tradition with the force and contemporaneity that it is in the lives and testimonies of Jews and Christians from classical times to today.

The Far East has given us the ethical genius of Confucius, the transforming meditations of Lao-tzu, the wisdom of the compassionate Buddha, the mystical techniques of the many branches of Zen and of Hinduism�all of which enrich and contribute to acts of prayer and continue to provide significant contributions to our collective spiritual life. But these do not have traditions of prayer to one personal and loving God.

That said, it should be stressed that the profound teachings of the East must not be considered abstractly. When considered in terms of direct experiences of the ineffable, it becomes clear that for all their clear differences, Eastern religions are engaged in the same human quest and struggle as those in the West. Buddhism, for example, focuses on liberation from suffering, which, in Christian faith, is the reality forever achieved in the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Both traditions stress the importance of silence; both stress the inadequacy of human comprehension and expression for matters of the spirit. The goal of Buddhism is to reach, through meditation, that genuine state that lies beyond the conscious ego; the goal of Christianity is union with God. Both traditions propose as an ideal the conversion, or ultimate transformation, of what we variously call mind, soul or heart. And in all traditions, formal or obligatory exercises, cultic laws, ritual incantations and similar customs have nourished countless millions of lives round the world, but they are ordinarily not the expression of free and spontaneous love�and that, finally, is at the heart of prayer.


AlthoughI write from the perspective of a Catholic, as one who affirms the faith of the apostles and tries each day to discern anew its meaning, I have written this book with all people of goodwill in mind, with whatever backgrounds, affirmations, doubts or denials. I ask only of readers that they bring to this book the openness with which I myself have tried to approach this subject. In Silence seeks to prove nothing, nor is it a defense for a particular religious tradition. The paths to God are as many as there are people.

Because my concern here is with private prayer, there are only a few passing references to group prayer, or to corporate or liturgical worship, which by their nature are less than personal in expression. The forms of prayer composed for worship are notable for telling us what the particular tradition of a given faith proclaims�lex orandi legem statuat credendi, runs the ancient maxim: how we pray reveals what we believe. But those collective forms are ultimately meaningless unless we bring them to life within ourselves.

In Silence has been written in the same atmosphere it hopes to encourage: one of a dark and quiet interiority. If anything has become clarified for me in my seventh decade of life, it is that there is nothing simple or blind about faith, and there is nothing easy about prayer. And whatever I have to say must be inadequate.

Meister Eckhart, a sinewy medieval philosopher and mystic, proposed that there is nothing so like God as silence. I find much of his writing nearly incomprehensible, but in this case, I think he was bracingly clear. After a half-century of studying a dizzying array of books about prayer in various religious traditions, reading about the philosophy of prayer and investigating some rarefied mental states better left to the psychologist, I am at last left with the haunting simplicity of Eckhart: there is nothing so like God as silence, and there is no greater ambiance in which to encounter Him. Silence, after all, is not nothing.


But if Eckhart was on the mark, why not keep silence? Why another book on prayer? In my defense, I would say that the most valuable subjects to think and write about are those issues we can never fully comprehend or articulate, those things with which we have never finished. Prayer, after all, is linked to faith�as we have seen, an attitude about reality that (among other things) refuses to accept the final opacity of the universe, refuses to accept that life is meaningless, that the world makes no sense. This habit of being is also the foundation of an intuition that insists that love is better than hatred, that chaos is inferior to order, that compassion and respect are superior to vengeance and malice.

The French theologian Jean Dani�lou once wrote, �To be occupied with God is the highest occupation. But this requires an apprenticeship.� That training, I believe, begins again each day for us�however we describe our search, and however we express (or do not) the primary fact that God is first and always occupied with us, long before it occurs to us to give Him a thought.

This connection, this communion that tugs at us�this hunch that in the final analysis we may not be alone�is at the heart of prayer, and prayer is the most human response to our experience of that sensibility. In this regard, another recurring theme of this book is that prayer is not so much something we do as something God does, something we experience, something unbidden and uninvited, something heard but imperfectly sensed�it is, in other words, a voice and a calling that want to be heeded, despite our lassitude and tardiness in the face of it.

Prayer is an immense, enduring connective thread in human history, as it is in each human life and destiny. It is our surest link to a Beyond in the midst, a connection to what does not vanish, to what is not subject to our mood or whim; indeed, the Reality beyond prayer never fades as, so often, religious enthusiasm and high emotion fade like watercolors exposed to the sun. The astonishing fact of history is that everyone can pray�and perhaps, somehow, everyone at least makes an effort to do so. �The beginning is the more important part,� according to Teresa of �vila. �If a person takes only one step, the step will itself contain so much power that we will not have to fear losing it, nor will we fail to be very well paid.� Many women and men who have prayed over the centuries have written compellingly of their experiences of prayer, and I occasionally refer to them in this book. Sometimes they can be more or less amiable, wise guides as we try to understand our own understanding of Reality. But their language necessarily reflects their experience, and it is always conditioned and limited by their times, cultures and personalities (as is ours). These people can inspire us, they can hint and suggest directions we might take�but the journey must ultimately be our own. We need to discover our own language and our own silence. �A lively person prays one way,� as a 4th-century desert monk said with remarkable psychological insight.

A person brought down by the weight of gloom or despair prays another way. One prays another way still when the life of the spirit is flourishing, and another way when pushed down. One prays differently, depending on whether one is seeking the gift of some grace or the removal of sin. The prayer is different again when one is sorrowing . . . or when one is fired by hope . . . when one is in need or peril, in peace or tranquility; when one is flooded by the light of heavenly mysteries, or when one is hemmed in by aridity and staleness in one�s thinking.


To speak of a �history of prayer� would be to imply that there is some sort of logical development or discernible chronology in humanity�s relationship with prayer�that we can trace it in an orderly fashion down through the ages, something like the stages of scientific thinking about the cosmos, for example. But the sort of �history� I draw upon here is more concerned with certain experiences and themes in life that are identified in the chapter titles.

Can a thematic survey of personal prayer, then�with special reference to the data of ordinary human experiences, like dialogue, suffering and love�take us beyond those ordinary experiences? I hope I have offered that possibility. Prayer derives from a conviction that God is indeed the Ultimacy toward which everything that is yearns, however imperfectly or unknowingly. This cannot be proven: it can only be experienced. And if we have not yet known it, we may still come to that unique awareness, to our everlasting surprise.

In a way, this book in fact explores our aptitude for deeper experience�a subjective inner experience, to be sure, but one that is discovered, not invented. And so In Silence also reflects on our ability to be astonished, which I take as a direct consequence of what Bernard of Clairvaux, in 12th-century France, called the universal capacity for God. That capacity is directly linked to the fact of prayer.

Persons who pray in light of that capacity, even vaguely perceived, experience what can only be called a sense of God, and they require no defense from an intellectual fortress. Indeed, the spontaneous and direct expression of an experience of the Beyond can take us�perhaps must take us�to a still, silent point where we begin to live as never before.

The �sense of God� is not a metaphor: it is a consciousness as sharp as love or pain, heat or light; it is like the homing instinct of birds, which can be neither explained nor denied. And to those who experience it, there is no doubt about its reality.


When I was a first-year college student, I spoke one evening with a professor I much respected, who was also a kind of spiritual counselor to me. I do not recall the subject of our conversation, but at one point I put some question or other to him about the meaning of prayer. What seemed a long moment of silence intervened before he answered very quietly: �What can we do�what can any of us do�but throw ourselves into the arms of God?�

This book is offered in the spirit of that quietly overwhelming question.

In Silence

chapter one

Of Time and Memory�
Some Historic Aspects of the Interior Life

Prayer as the Expression of Personal Religion

Considered independently of specific cultural forms, traditions, doctrines and rituals, religion in general may be described as the inner awareness of an ultimate Reality beyond the self and beyond the human. Once acknowledged, this perception, however dim and provisional, invites a personal response to and association with that Reality�a living and active relationship we may identify as prayer. As distinct from aesthetic or poetic feelings, which establish a link to the divine through art, prayer is essentially a relationship we have with God in this world.

When it is expressed communally or liturgically, prayer is authentic for the one who prays only when there is or has been a prior awareness of the divine presence in secret and in silence�in other words, a sense of the numinous evoked by an apprehension of what is subjectively holy or sacred.

Ideally, of course, such feelings should also be evoked by public acts of worship; that they so seldom do is one of the failures of contemporary religion, which often seems content with conveying a comfortable feeling of good fellowship or a pleasantly undemanding folksiness. A profound sense of the holy does not, of course, require grand panoply: the Quaker tradition of congregational silence can bring many participants to the threshold of profound reverence. Such a practice takes seriously the words of the biblical injunction, �Be still, and know that I am God.�

Prayer has a quite personal and empirical character; as a habit of being and of becoming oneself in this life, it goes be- yond intellectual analysis. Hence William James, the American philosopher and pioneer psychologist of religion, claimed that without prayer there can be no religious life. Found everywhere in human history, prayer expresses, with or without images or words, the experience of a mystery and of a presence beyond this world and above the human; as such, it is concerned not with thinking about God but with relating to Him.*

Prayer in Time and Memory

In his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University between 1902 and 1904, William James perhaps startled his academic audience by calmly stating, �Many reasons have been given why we should not pray, whilst others are given why we should. But in all this, very little is said of the reason why we do pray. The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.�

Prayer also occurred, as James rightly presupposed, in archaic, prehistoric cultures: this is clear from modern studies of primeval clans and tribes that survived with their traditions relatively intact and uninfluenced by the encroachments of developed society.

Even a brief consideration of ancient history reveals that wherever there was a sense of wonder or awe in the face of the unknown, there was prayer; where there was gratitude for a suc- cessful hunt or a good harvest, there was prayer; where there

*Given the status of current English (and at the risk of disappointing some readers), I refer to God pronominally in this book by the traditional masculine form�but for the sake of simplicity only, since it is axiomatic that God has no gender. And for reverence, these pronouns are rendered uppercase.

was fear for life or safety, there was prayer. One might even say that prayer was natural for those living closer to nature. In the case of Native American tribes and of the peoples of the Far East, for example, this did not mean that prayer was always directed to a specific being or invisible spirit: often the address was made vaguely, to the spirit of a tree or a river, conceived as a foreign but vital �being� who shared the universe with the perceiver.

Centuries and perhaps millennia before there was anything like the separate department of life known as religion, there was what might be called a religious sensibility�a sense of the Beyond, that seems to have been as instinctive as breathing, sleeping and eating. Conscious of their connection to that Beyond and evidently aware that a relationship could be established with it, people expressed their needs, wishes and reverence. They did not require knowledge in order to understand.

The word �religion,� as a matter of fact, never occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor is it to be found in the gospels; there are a mere five references to it elsewhere in the New Testament. The idea that matters of faith have come to comprise but one discrete aspect of life among others�competing, as it were, for our time and attention�is unfortunate, for such a notion implies that faith centers only around ritual observances or subjects that are obviously �religious� (all of which are of human development and expression in any case). To think this way, as C. S. Lewis trenchantly observed, is to substitute navigation for arrival or courtship for marriage. What is infinite, after all, can have no standing as a department: either everything in life exists in its light, or faith itself is an illusion.


The precise origins of prayer itself we may never know. But the consensus of anthropological and ethnological studies should be noted: we can find at every point of human experience some idea of transcendence and an attempt to relate to it. An intuition about life beyond the grave is a significant corollary of this: �It is certain,� wrote W. F. Albright, one of the great scholars of the ancient world, �that the belief in an after-life has a very long prehistory, going back in some form as far as the Neanderthal men of the Mousterian age. Just what physiological and psychological sources it had, we can hardly demonstrate.�

Albright�s studies in the origin of language support his insistence that what we now call primitive man (flourishing at about 5000 b.c.) was capable of abstraction: �The earliest known stages of the Egyptian, Sumerian and Semitic languages show that general qualities such as �goodness, truth, purity� could be abstracted from the related adjectives and identified as abstractions by some linguistic device.� By the 4th millennium b.c., humans had certainly developed a sense of a divine being�and they associated this being with creation and with characteristics their cultures held to be good. It is at least tenable, therefore (and probably quite correct), to say that the sense of the divine is an innate human perception�not an invented projection, but rather the acknowledgment of a primal certainty.

From Egypt to Rome

�It is difficult to imagine,� wrote Mircea Eliade, �how the human mind could function without the conviction that there is something irreducibly real in the world.� A prolific historian of religious ideas, Eliade demonstrated in more than fifty scholarly books the logic that our collective consciousness of a meaningful world is intimately connected with the discovery of the sacred: �Through experience of the sacred, the human mind has perceived the difference between what reveals itself as being real, powerful, rich and meaningful and what lacks these qualities�that is, the chaotic and dangerous flux of things.� In other words, the very idea of the sacred and our connection to it is an element in the structure of consciousness, and not merely a stage in its history. And notions about both the deity and life beyond the grave highlight the development of this �idea of the sacred� in almost every ancient culture about which we have any knowledge.

As it was in every ancient religion (including those of the Greeks, Romans and the Hebrews before the 8th century b.c.), polytheism was taken for granted in ancient Egypt, for which we have very extensive and detailed records. During the period from about 2700 to 2200 b.c., for example, the Egyptian kings themselves were worshipped as sons of the sun god. But from 2000 b.c., there is clear evidence of monotheism: Amon was regarded as the one supreme deity, and when one ruler addressed a spontaneous hymn to Amon, his prayer was set down in hieroglyphs: �Creator, Maker, Giver of breath�how manifold are your works, O sole God, whose powers no other possesses. You created the earth according to your heart.� Egyptians also offered morning and evening prayer to Amon.

Along with the tendency toward monotheism, there was a conviction about the afterlife. The Papyrus of Ani, which can be dated to about 1250 b.c., is a major extant portion of the texts now collectively known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead; it contains hymns and invocations interred with the deceased and intended to guide them safely to the beyond. A typical prayer for mercy was addressed, for example, to �My Shining One, who dwells in the Mansion of Images . . . O Preeminent One . . . may you grant me life. . . . O my father, my brother, my mother�Isis! . . . I shall cross to the Mansion of him who finds faces, the collector of souls. . . . And I will not die again in God�s do-main . . . I give you praise, O Lord of the gods.�

Perhaps nowhere are the traditions of prayerful acts discerned more clearly than in this ancient conviction that life endures beyond the grave, a conviction to which the pyramids remain a grand and silent witness. Within them all manner of provisions were made for the entombed rulers in the hereafter. The custom of sprinkling corpses with red ocher�as a substitute for blood and hence as a symbol of life�is found in Egypt and from northern Europe to as far south as Tasmania. More to the point, ancient peoples often buried their dead in a fetal position, which may indeed signify the hope of rebirth; the appearance of the dead in dreams seems also to have suggested the survival of the spirit. The 20th century discovery and translation of Egyptian invocations is precious witness to prayer in one of the most sophisticated ancient cultures.

From the 3rd millennium b.c. to the time of Jesus, forms of prayer changed little in Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. The Babylonian god Marduk was addressed by an unknown speaker in an intimate tone: �O Lord, great are my sins�do not cast your servant down, but remove my transgressions.� Another supplicant expressed confidence in his prayer for protection from enemies: �I have prayed humbly, and I have been heard by my Father, my God.� Equivalent sentiments are found in Cretan civilization of the same era.

From the Sumerians and Egyptians to the Central American natives, the terms �father� and �mother� are everywhere to be found as expressive of the affinity between the human and divine. About 2000 b.c., the Sumerians asked a Father-Mother God to �strip us of our many sins, which we wear like a garment.� In ancient Egypt, Isis was �my father, my mother, my brother,� and the Babylonians addressed Marduk, �as a father and mother, you dwell with your people.� And at the end of the 2nd century a.d., the Acts of St. Peter (a nonbiblical account of early Christian traditions concerning that apostle) placed on the lips of the dying apostle a boldly confident address to God in Jesus: �You are a father and a mother to me�a brother, a friend, a servant. You are all that is, and all that is, is in You.�

The true primitive spirit of prayer is not the expression of a savage or uncivilized nature, nor of atavistic fear or selfish desire. Nor does �primitive� connote a na�ve stage of human development; rather, it describes a basic experience of human contingency. Those we call primitives often disclose not what we have outgrown or put aside but what is fundamental to our humanity.


Attributed to Homer in the 8th century b.c., the Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, contain both poetic prayer and ceremonial prayer. The former invokes a god, tries to justify a reason for a petition to be favorably heard, and then formulates the petition. The latter type follows a pattern of ritual washing, prayer, sacrifice and libations. Greek prayer reflected the tone of its mythology and hence presumed the reality of a feisty give-and-take between gods and mortals; the heroes are always aware of their dependence on the capricious power of preternatural (but not omnipotent) beings, of whom they beg favor and protection in time of need, and to whom they offer sacrifice and honor. Do ut des, as the Romans said later in Latin, was the working principle of reciprocity: �I give to you so that you might grant to me . . .�

The Greeks also knew their gods in an almost personal way�that is, the gods were comprehensible, even sometimes predictable in their emotional responses and their particular loyalties. Existing somehow in space but not omnipresent, the gods had to be summoned in prayer, but there was never a sense of intimacy or loving union between the supplicant and the deity. (The Judeo-Christian God, contrariwise, is both beyond space and time and intimately present within it: He does not have to be summoned, it is humans who are summoned by Him and to Him.)

The Iliad and Odyssey recount many petitions and prayers for safety, as well as curses hurled like Zeus�s thunderbolts. The earliest extant prayer in Greek literature is probably that of the priest Chryses, in the Iliad, when he asks Apollo to avenge him: �I built your temple and burned sacrifice to you�so let your arrows make [my enemies] pay for my shed tears.� One of the most touching examples of a personal prayer is found in the Odyssey. Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus, has waited patiently twenty years for his return. Weary of temporizing with increasingly insistent suitors, she begs heaven to end her life: �Great goddess Artemis, let some whirlwind snatch me up and drop me into the ocean: I wish that the gods who live in heaven would hide me from mortal sight, or that you, fair Diana, might strike me. I would rather go beneath the sad earth awaiting Odysseus, without having to yield myself to a man so much less than he was.�

By the 5th century b.c. and later, Greek prayer became more refined, as can be seen in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the poems of Pindar, the histories of Xenophon and the philosophical dialogues of Plato. There was now a greater concern for the spiritual efficacy of honor and reverence for the gods, and prayers for revenge are softened to entreaties for justice.

�Without thee, no mortal shall have strength to achieve or prevail,� the Chorus prays to Zeus in Aeschylus�s Suppliants; that sense of dependence has moral consequences. Timaeus, in the eponymous dialogue by Plato, observes that �all who possess even a modicum of wisdom, everywhere and always, at the beginning of every work, important or unimportant, call upon God.� Elsewhere, Plato includes entreaties to the gods for the forgiveness of moral guilt. Xenophon and Sophocles also bear witness to the customs of daily prayer at sunrise, sunset and before meals.

It must be stressed, however, that Hellenic prayer was entirely focused on the needs of contingent mortals in this world: ecstatic or contemplative prayer�that is, the sort of prayer aimed at achieving an intimate life with a god�was unknown. Timaeus may have come closest to an intuition about mystical prayer, with its germ of a notion about humanity�s almost existential relation to the Creator-Demiurge.

While Hebrews and, later, Christians employed a variety of postures for public and private prayer (kneeling, standing, sitting, bowing, crouching), the Greeks and Romans almost invariably seem to have stood while praying, extending both arms upward and bringing their hands together with the palms open; medals struck during the Roman Empire indicate that the arms were thrown wide apart.

To this day, Jews, Christians and Muslims extend arms or lift up hands in the act of prayer, much as a needy child does toward a parent. Prostration, bending, striking one�s breast, bowing and kneeling, touching the forehead to the ground, bringing together upraised palms, folding the hands and interlacing the fingers�these are remnants of ancient gestures of greeting and petition and require no academic interpretation.

The most common form of Roman prayer, it must be noted, was to flatter or even to bribe a god�and it was critical to invoke the correct god for one�s cause: �Help me, Jupiter, because it is in your power. . . . Cure me and I�ll give you an offering. . . . Make me richer than my neighbor.� In exchange for divine favor, a person might make a votum or vow to offer a sacrifice, to build a temple or even to bind oneself to the god forever. Two millennia later, this kind of bargaining quid pro quo still characterizes some na�ve notions in just about every tradition of prayer.


The custom of offering spontaneous prayers to nature gods in the temples of Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations is well attested; here as in Egypt, religious iconography included colorful representations of the sun, and the practice of mummifying dead kings was well established. Although there is no certain record of the content of spoken prayer, the existence of Central and South American temples and of a priestly class certainly implies a tradition of public worship, which in turn presupposes formulas of prayer.

The early 6th-century-b.c. Persian prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, named the Supreme Being �Ahura Mazda.� Surviving prayers attributed to Zoroaster seem remarkably modern in their warmth and in their ethical principles; more to the point, his prayers presume a benevolent divine will that evokes a serene dependence.

With outstretched arms, open mind and my whole heart, I greet you, Ahura Mazda, in spirit. Turn your countenance toward me, dear Lord, and make my face happy and radiant. My heart yearns for you with a yearning which is never stilled. You are my most precious possession. My joy is in you, my refuge is in you. Let me live before you and with you and in your sight, I humbly pray. . . . Everything that my eyes rest upon reveals your glory. . . . Help me to cultivate the habit of prayer, to know your will, and to conform my impulses to its demands . . . I will pray to you in silence, for you hear my prayers even in my thought.

At about the same time, the Pygmy of Gabon, in Central Africa, were developing a similar prayer of simple thanksgiving, addressed to the god Waka: �You gave me this buffalo, this honey, this wine.� Their orations were as intimate as Zoroaster�s. To this day, the Ovambo tribe of Africa greets the dawn with a cry of desire, and the Bantu express their social sympathies in a language of humble gratitude and religious intercession at dawn and nightfall. In these cases, there is no evidence of syncretism�no influence, for example, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which also has an ancient practice of prayer at sunrise and sunset.

To put the matter briefly: primitive peoples had an ineradicable sense of awe, of transcendent power. Later, these feel- ings were ritualized and formalized, but originally, they seem to have been spontaneous and improvised in simple sounds like tongue-clicking, loud breathing, deep lamentation or even whistling.

North American natives still routinely withdraw into solitude to pray. The Osage, for example, seem always to have withdrawn from the community, from family and companions, for acts of morning reverence. Similar cases abound, reflecting a wide variety of impulses and motives, including expressions of awe, complaint and petition; all of these seem to have paralleled or even preceded the more developed forms of ritual and sacrifice.


�O God, you are my Lord, my father and mother, Lord of the mountains and the valleys,� prayed the Kekchi Indian. �What have I done?� asked the Khoi-Khoi, �that I am so severely punished?� The Melanesians to this day have an ancient form of supplication when they are in a storm at sea: �Save us in the deep, O dear divinity�save us from the storm and bring us to land!� The Amazalu still ask of their tribal deity, �Give us what is good and watch over us,� and the Khonds of Orissa go one step farther: �We know not what is good or for what we ought to pray. You do. Give that to us.�

The Watje of the Caribbean prayed daily, �O God, I know You not, but You know me. I need You!� And with remarkable tenderness (and theological sophistication), the North African Galla stood alone in the desert, facing the sky for an evening prayer: �In Your hand I pass the day, in Your hand I pass the night�You Who are my mother and my father.�

Similarly, the evolution of Hindu prayer, which is not doctrinally rigid, allows multiple gods to be invoked while many people have one favorite. But recently, deeper study of Hindu texts and more respectful dialogue with Hindu sages have made it clear that Hinduism ought not to be regarded as na�vely polytheistic.

Although it is true to say there are as many approaches to Hinduism as there are Hindus, Hinduism may be regarded as essentially monotheistic: in this light, all its gods are aspects of a single universal Reality which is the only Reality; the world itself, for the Hindu, is the Unreal. In this regard, Ramakrishna, Gandhi, Tagore and Aurobindo�all of them profoundly mystical Hindus�prayed to God in terms no Jew or Christian would have to reject. At the heart of their prayer is a conviction that informs all Asian prayer and the best of Western prayer: we are one with God and we are not one with God. Real prayer does not reject the language of paradox but embraces it.

In Hindu private prayer, great stress is placed on proper sounds and chants, and the repeated mantras are credited with almost magical power. Purification of the mind and inner transformation not only realize the deepest inclinations of the self but also bring one closer to one�s God.


In China, remarkable contributions were made not to the concept or practice of prayer or matters of religion as commonly understood, but to the notion and nature of ethics. Confucius, who was probably born in 551 b.c. and died about 479 b.c., had no interest in what we call God or the gods, nor was he concerned about an afterlife. �Why do you ask me about death when you do not know how to live?� he was reputed to have asked. Orphaned and poverty-stricken, he became a self-educated public servant, urging the reform of oppressive taxes that were ruining the lives of countless Chinese.

A living embodiment of the most worthy social ideals and an advocate for just government, he was unsuccessful as a politician but brilliant as a teacher. Confucius insisted that the truly superior man is benevolent and that a moral existence lived in harmony with the universe is the highest achievement. The realization of that goal was to be found in a government that existed only for the benefit of all the people.

Eventually, the ideals of Confucius (preserved only in fragmentary documents) were absorbed into a variety of popular religions, some of which, as they evolved, made room for various kinds of deities. One especially noteworthy outgrowth of these became known as Taoism, which can be traced to the writings of the mysterious Lao-tzu, who lived sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries b.c.

In the Tao-te Ching (The Book of the Way and Its Virtue), attributed to Lao-tzu, there is mention of an infinite mystery that can be neither named nor described in human language. Lao-tzu claimed that �the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.� He spoke of moving beyond thinking and encouraged entrance into a dark emptiness that was not nothingness but a state beyond multiplicity, and he understood that what we call the truth is nothing like an absolute.

There may be no analogue in Chinese thought for the idea of a Creator as we often use that word in the West, but a potential symbiosis should be appreciated. The Eastern intuition about the power of natural forces in the universe and the Eastern insistence on ethical responsibility are two notions consistent with the invitation extended to Adam by God, Who invites us to collaborate with Him in the management of this mysterious, created world, and to live and act in solidarity with others.

This is one of the astonishing, unique characteristics of Hebrew faith: that the world is the setting for God�s continuing and effective dialogue with humanity. But how is it possible to speak of a dialogue with God?

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >