Prayer: A History

Prayer: A History

by Philip Zaleski, Carol Zaleski

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This landmark book presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. Focusing on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Philip and Carol Zaleski map the vast world of prayer from the sacred pipe to the rosary, from Paleolithic cave art to… See more details below


This landmark book presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. Focusing on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Philip and Carol Zaleski map the vast world of prayer from the sacred pipe to the rosary, from Paleolithic cave art to Pentecostal revivals. They reveal the fascinating experiences of such great and sometimes surprising figures as Emily Dickinson, Bill W., Teresa of Avila, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Samuel Johnson, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Subtitle notwithstanding, this ambitious volume is not exactly a history of prayer. It is rather an examination of how certain people and certain communities have practiced prayer. In the most satisfying section, the Zaleskis (both teach at Smith College; Philip Zaleski is the editor of the popular Best Spiritual Writing series) sketch four archetypes of prayer. There is the refugee, who clings to God with prayers of petition (the first example given of this type of prayer is the recently popular Jabez); the devotee (such as the Sufi who strives for unceasing prayer); the ecstatic, like Sri Ramakrishna or Teresa of Avila; and the contemplative, who "tastes ultimate reality," like ThErEse of Lisieux. The discussion of prayer's intersection with culture-the role of prayer in modern art, the place of prayer in civic spaces, and so forth-is not wholly successful, but each of the individual musings is interesting enough; indeed, some of the vignettes, such as abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi's reverence for the prayerful icon makers he watched as a child, are delightful. Although some chapters feel arbitrary and the book tends to meander, even the most astute student of prayer will be challenged, surprised or inspired by it. (Nov. 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This new book by Zaleski (The Recollected Heart) and wife Carol (coauthor, The Book of Heaven), a lecturer and professor of religion at Smith College, respectively, provides a finely written, accessible, and informative thematic history of prayer as it has evolved through time and across Christian, non-Christian, and pagan traditions. There are four sections-"God's Breath," "Heart in Pilgrimage," "The Land of Spices," and "Something Happened"-and 13 chapters that address different aspects of prayer (e.g., its efficacy, its mystery) as well as prayer types ( "The Devotee," "The Ecstatic") and the various relationships prayer has to individual cultures (e.g., as practiced in traditional societies or expressed through modern arts). Each chapter contains a plethora of useful and illustrative examples of its main theme that are culled from works of literature, art, history, and archaeology. Because of the book's discussion of prayer as related to traditions across the globe, it is suitable for a broad general audience. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/05.]-Charles Murray, Southern New Hampshire Univ., Manchester Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
What do the Jewish blessing over cheese, the Islamic dhikr and the Japanese tea ceremony have in common? In each, the human meets the divine in prayer. The Zaleskis, who have individually and jointly edited several anthologies with spiritual themes (The Book of Heaven, 2000, etc.), begin this rich study by examining the "prehistory" of prayer. They suggest that its origins lie somewhere in human impulses toward magic and sacrifice. Most prayer, they find, falls into four categories: petitionary, liturgical, ecstatic or contemplative. Because they believe it's impossible to understand prayer if you discuss it "in the abstract . . . as a generic category," the authors feature a "portrait gallery" of expert pray-ers, from Teresa of Avila to AA founder Bill W., and examine prayer's place in pop culture and politics. The chapter on "Prayer and the Public Square" is especially relevant in our current political clime. Americans, write the authors, are unsure when, if ever, it's legitimate to pray in public; though our feelings about it may be reshaped by forces as divergent as international migration and the Internet, our ambivalence about, say, prayer in school, is likely to continue. Throughout, the authors are careful to offer a cross-cultural survey: Along with Christian prayer there is discussion of Hasidic prayer, Islamic salat and even Buddhist haiku. But their eagerness to be all-encompassing can feel forced. Emphasizing commonalities and almost never remarking on the differences among traditions results in a certain superficiality. The Zaleskis may have bitten off more than they can chew. Still, at their best, they rival Karen Armstrong in their lucid prose and expansive vision.
From the Publisher
"A fabulous, very readable, immensely informative, and (I would even say) 'inspirational' volume."—Harvey Cox, author of When Jesus Came to Harvard and The Secular City

"A lovely, interesting new book . . . Philip and Carol Zaleski explore this most personal of religious practices in an ecumenical spirit." The New York Times Book Review

"Unusually probing and thoughtful." Christian Science Monitor

"This is the most stunning book on prayer that I have ever read. It will become the benchmark for every other work on the subject, present or future."—Phyllis Tickle, author of The Divine Hours

"An essential resource for living in our multifaith world." Spirituality & Health Magazine

"The Zaleskis are impressive in their knowledge, and they share what they know in an entertaining way."—National Catholic Reporter

"A significant achievement. The authors' learning and generosity of spirit will lead their readers into unfamiliar territory and reveal new depths in the familiar."—First Things

"A wonderful read . . . Any serious student of prayer will learn a good deal from this book."—America

"This religious practice has rarely received the sort of careful cultural analysis the Zaleskis offer . . . This sweeping cultural history illuminates the abiding influence of prayer in shaping human thought and behavior." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

"Intelligent, informed, generous, ecumenical observations." The New York Times Book Review

"A grand and human compendium, fascinating on every page. It's witty, moving, and full of interesting facts and funny stories."—Annie Dillard

"Thought-provoking and soul-uplifting . . . There's an engaging ease to the Zaleskis' prose, and humor pops through regularly." Los Angeles Times

"A wonderful book—intelligent, beautifully written, important, inclusive, and completely useful."—Thomas Moore

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 The Foundations of Prayer

The story of prayer is the story of the impossible: of how we creatures of flesh and blood lay siege to heaven, speak to the Maker of all things, and await, with confidence or hopeful skepticism, a response. The story of prayer, like that of all treasure sought through the centuries, is rich in myth and dream, revelation and tragedy, secret maps and elusive clues. Here the absurd and the sublime sit side by side, while the fantastic and the banal merge. Consider the following: A dear friend of ours, a native Tibetan, returned last month from a visit to his homeland in the high plateau region of Gelok, far east of Lhasa. Dechen arrived in Massachusetts haggard but smiling, red Tibetan mud still clinging to his yellow Gore-Tex jacket, bearing with him harrowing tales of vicious customs officials, of torrential rains and deadly mudslides, of uncharted mountain passes and hidden valleys thick with wildflowers. At a welcome-home dinner, he and his wife set up a projector, and we spent the next few hours poring over his slides. Everyone marveled at the herds of Tibetan yaks, their shaggy coats and gracile horns so reminiscent of the prehistoric beasts in the Lascaux caves; at the crowds of Buddhist monks lighting bonfires or blowing impossibly long horns, looking for all the world like Lascaux shepherds transported to a Himalayan castle in the clouds. This was the Tibet of legend, far from the tourist hotels of Dharamsala, an area until recently forbidden to outsiders and still unvisited by television, pollution, and indoor plumbing. Bringing out an atlas, we asked Dechen to trace his journey. His finger landed on a bare white area as large as Massachusetts, a true terra incognita at the dawn of the third millennium. It reminded us of Victorian maps of sub-Saharan Africa, of ancient mariners sailing off the edge of the world. “No one goes there,” Dechen said. “Too difficult. Too far.” No one, that is, except a handful of Chinese soldiers and bureaucrats, who have done their best over the past quarter of a century to suppress one of the world’s great religions. Only in the past few years have the monasteries been rebuilt in a curious Sino-Tibetan architectural idiom whose bright pastels and wedding-cake façades threaten to create a new form of Buddhist kitsch.
One photograph in particular caught our fancy, for it seemed to capture best the spirit of these eastern Tibetans. It depicted a wooden framework, looming above the tallest monk (and the Tibetans are a tall people), and consisting of two massive uprights of rough-hewn lumber supporting four long crossbars. Upon each crossbar stood nine or ten prayer wheels, each containing a bit of paper inscribed with the traditional Buddhist prayer om mani padme hūm (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus). As the wind blows down the mountainside, each wheel spins madly, and the mantra is flung into the universe like a message in a bottle, drifting on celestial currents until it reaches its heavenly destination. Of what, we asked, were these glistening wheels made? At a glance they seemed carved from crystal or jade, or were they globes of delicate blown glass? “Oh, no,” Dechen explained, refocusing the slide projector for a better look: the wheels were nothing more than cast-off plastic Pepsi-Cola bottles.
This Tibetan fantasia is a portal into a number of truths about the world of prayer: that wherever one finds humans, one finds humans at prayer; that in times of persecution, prayer goes underground, where it continues to wend its course into the depths of the soul; and that any and all objects—Pepsi-Cola bottles as surely as enameled statues, jeweled rosaries, or silvered icons—can be a means of prayer. These jerry-built praying devices demonstrate, too, that technology and prayer—that is to say, applied science and applied religion—need not war with one another. The same evening, Dechen’s wife brought out for our inspection an array of homemade prayer wheels: one turned by hand, a second by wind, and a third—a particularly cunning device in the form of a lampshade—spun in convection currents emitted by the heat of a hundred- watt light bulb. The Dalai Lama is on record as approving an even more technically advanced method for making a prayer wheel: download the om mani padme hūm mantra to your computer’s hard drive, where it will spin at a rate of some fifty-four hundred rotations per minute, calling forth the blessings of Avaloki teśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, as effectively as do the older technologies of prayer.
Dechen’s videotapes, which we watched after the slides, demonstrated a yet larger truth about prayer: that it alterss the face of the world, revealing unnoticed harmonies and symmetries and knitting together the natural and social dimensions of ouur existence.... As the souvenir footage unreeled, we saw prayer wheels spinning in the sun, bees looping and swirling around those wheels, the sun melting into night as the monks’ voices faded into the mountains, all seemingly one motion, one symphony, one grand universal gesture of prayer. Viewed from a perspective that we may call religious but that in truth seems synonymous with human consciousness, it appeared, for just a moment, as if the entire world was collaborating in prayer.
There is, as Dechen’s adventure suggests, nothing strange about prayer erupting in the oddest of circumstances. We might even say that it thrives on paradox. Consider this: that prayer deals in eternal truth and yet has its fads and fashions: a hundred years ago, revival tents sprang up from coast to coast to house the inspired preaching of Christian witnesses who passed the torch of the Second Great Awakening to twentieth-century evangelicalism; fifty years ago, FDR led the nation in prayer through the static-charged speakers of a million Sylvania radios; twenty-five years ago, school days often began with a silent meditation; now, at the beginning of the third millennium, football fields and corporate boardrooms have been favored arenas of prayer. Or this: that we pray for worldly goods but also pray for freedom from the desire for worldly goods. Or this: that we seldom pray for prayer itself. Who but a saint prays for better prayer or, God forbid, for more time to pray?
What, then, is this paradoxical action that we call prayer? Ask a team of scholars that question and expect a confusion of tongues in response. You may even hear a curse, for what is “God damn it!” but a perverse petition to the Almighty? But sooner or later our learned company will arrive at something like this: prayer is action that communicates between human and divine realms.
That is to say: Prayer is speech, but much richer than speech alone. It is a peculiar kind of speech that acts, and a peculiar kind of action that speaks to the depths and heights of being. Much of the time, prayer seems to be nothing but talk: praising, cajoling, or pleading with God; sending messages to guardian angels or tutelary spirits; appealing to benevolent cosmic powers. But to pray is also to act. Think of what happens when a child recites her nighttime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This prayer constitutes more than a sweet set of words. It sets events in motion; it puts God and the angels on alert. It affects the child, too, body and soul; anyone who has recited bedtime prayers as a child knows their value as a guarantor of a night’s sound sleep.
Prayer is at once spiritual and visceral: it stems from heart and gut as well as head. Prayer is a state of being—when we pray, we are “in prayer,” and when we communicate with spiritual beings, we are “in communion” with them—but prayer is also emphatically a state of becoming, a dynamic movement, an incursion into spiritual realms: in the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s words, “a raid on the unspeakable.” Prayer has been compared to a siege, a storm, a conflagration, a nosegay, a picnic in paradise. We may also liken it to an athletic event, such as the hurling of a javelin: a shaft of praise, petition, or penance aimed at a higher power. Like the javelin thrower, those who pray must be fit: “Whoso will pray, he must fast and be clean / And fat his soul, and make his body lean” (Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Somnour’s Tale”). And those who pray must try their hardest, so that prayer can make them fit: “That prayer has great power which a person makes with all his might. It makes a sour heart sweet, a sad heart merry, a poor heart rich, a foolish heart wise, a timid heart brave, a sick heart well, a blind heart full of sight, a cold heart ardent” (Mechtild of Magdeburg, Revelations).1 Conventional wisdom divides prayer into a number of categories: petition, confession, adoration, sacrifice, intercession, contemplation, thanksgiving, vows, and so on. But these classifications disguise the complexity of the world of prayer. Consider an archetypal prayer of petition, one so commonplace that it has been lampooned in countless cartoons and comic strips: a plea to God to change the weather. What could be more simple and straightforward? But let us examine the evidence: Among the Papago (Tohono O’odham) of the American Southwest, rainmaking lies at the heart of ritual life. These Indians inhabit a landscape of sagebrush and lava rock, dry mesas and desert valleys; without the downpours of the rainy season, crops would wither and famine ensue. To ensure an annual harvest, each year the people gather to “sing down the rain. ”Much of what scholars know about this seemingly quixotic practice comes from Ruth Murray Underhill (1884–1984), an anthropologist from Columbia University who lived among the Papago in the 1930s and later wrote a number of classic studies of American Indians, including Papago Woman, the first published life of a Southwestern Indian woman. Underhill was a special kind of researcher, more passionate participant than dispassionate observer: “I met these hard-working but poetic Papagos,” she writes, “and fell permanently in love with them.”2 Her description of the Papago as poetic is more than anthropological romanticism; poetry for these Indians is a matter of life or death because through their verse they bring down the rain. Each year in an act of communal supplication they sing:

Come together!

You shall see this thing which we have always done And what must truly happen.
Because we have planned it thus and thus have done.
Right soon, indeed, it will happen.
It will rain.
The fields will be watered.
Therein we shall drop the seed.
Seed which bears corn of all colors; Seed which grows big.
Thus we shall do.
Thereby we shall feed ourselves; Thereby our stomachs shall grow big; Thereby we shall live.3

Such prayer songs bring the Papago into union with I’itoi, First Brother, who prepared the world for people at the beginning of time and who is instrumental in bringing the rain. But chant alone is insufficient. Each year Papago women also collect the red, pear-shaped fruit of the giant cactus Cereus giganteus and ferment it into a jellylike wine (Underhill says that it tastes “like spoiled raspberry jam”), which is consumed in a community tahiwua k-ii (Sit-and- drink) that along with singing ensures the coming of the rain. This is action by analogy: as the people are filled with liquor, so will the earth fill with rain. An elder calls:

Hurry! Hither bring, each of you, his syrup.
Soon we shall make liquor!
Soon it will ferment, Soon we shall drink, Soon it will rain.4

The people sing:

Now here you have assembled; Now thus we shall do!
With our singing we shall pull down the rain.5

Sure enough: within a few days of the Sit-and-drink witnessed by Underhill, the skies opened and the drenching rains of July descended. “The clouds come because we call them,” explained a Papago, “and we call them with the drinking.” The rainmaking ritual ensures not only the watering of crops but also the stability of the world. Ofelia Zepeda, a Papago linguist, recalls her mother’s belief that if the ceremony were to be neglected or the prayers forgotten, the world “will ruin itself.” Alas, in these amnesiac times aspects of the rite have been discarded or lost, but the prayers, at least for the moment, remain. “As a result,” Zepeda comments dryly, “the world is somewhat intact today.”6 Let us contrast this example of traditional rainmaking with a more urbane tale of weather manipulation set in the waning months of World War II. It is December 1944: the U.S. Third Army surges toward the Rhine. But General George S. Patton Jr. is troubled, for a drenching rain, with no sign of letup, threatens his brilliant advance. On December 14, he summons to his office deputy chief of staff Colonel Paul D. Hawkins and Chaplain O’Neill of the Third Army. The following conversation ensues:

General Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather. I’m tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as Germans. See if we can’t get God to work on our side.

Chaplain O’Neill: Sir, it’s going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.

General Patton: I don’t care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.

Chaplain O’Neill: Yes, sir. May I say, General, that it usually isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men.

General Patton: Chaplain, are you teaching me theology or are you the Chaplain of the Third Army? I want a prayer.

Chaplain O’Neill: Yes, sir.7

According to Hawkins, who annotated Patton’s blustery 1947 memoir, War as I Knew It, the general got his wish. The following prayer was printed and distributed to every soldier in the U.S. Third Army:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.8

The skies cleared within twenty-four hours. A week of perfect weather ensued, allowing the Allies to advance toward the Rhine. Patton was ecstatic. Summoning Hawkins to his office, he declared, “God damn! Look at the weather. That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” The next day, the somewhat abashed Chaplain O’Neill received the Bronze Star.9 Both Patton and the Papago prayed to change the weather, but there the similarities end. Patton made his prayer to the biblical God, while the Papago, in Underhill’s words, “call upon the powers of Nature.” Patton’s prayer was composed on the spot by a harassed army chaplain, whereas Papago prayers originate with I’itoi, a supernatural being. Patton’s was a prayer for victory and thus indirectly for death to the opposition (“to crush the . . . wickedness of our enemies”), whereas the Papago sing for the life of the corn and thus of the people. Most important, Papago prayer unfolds within a traditional culture steeped in daily intercourse between natural and supernatural realms, one that affirms, beyond any doubt, that “singing down the rain” accomplishes just what it claims to do. Patton, by contrast, issued his prayer amidst the crumbling monuments of Christendom. His petition swims with irony. The general was a devout Christian, and there seems no reason to doubt that he believed God could and perhaps would stop the rain. He was, however, also a canny man, surely aware that in modern times the notion of altering the weather through prayer has about it a touch of the absurd. One suspects that Patton relished this chance to prove his cultural recidivism; this tension between his action and the prevailing skepticism of the age gives the anecdote its humor. Hawkins confesses as much, writing of Patton’s spiritual coup that “whether it was the help of the Divine guidance asked for in the prayer or just the normal course of human events, we never knew.”10 Nor do the complexities of weather making cease here. For while the Papago know beyond all doubt that their prayers work, this knowledge may be rather more subtle than it at first seems. Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough that “I read . . . of a rain-king in Africa to whom the people appeal for rain when the rainy season comes. But surely this means that they do not actually think he can make rain, otherwise they would do it in the dry periods when the land is ‘a parched and arid desert.’”11 In light of this observation, it is instructive to ponder the following conversation reported by Underhill:

“My kinsmen, the wine has fermented,” the makai said. “Go home. Prepare the feast, for in four days the rain will come.” I asked later about that prophecy and whether it was always fulfilled.
“Oh yes, yes,” was the usual answer and Old Salt made me understand: “The medicine man, he is wise. Maybe the rain come soon and he says, ‘yes, but I counted from when the wagons arrived,’ or it come late and then, ‘I meant four days after the wine had fermented.’”12

As the above meteorological invocations suggest, prayer entails a multitude of forms and a multiplicity of aims. A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichol Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the world of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer.
Prayer craves ritual expression, and ritual practice virtually always includes prayer; for ritual is the sacred theater in which unfold crucial events, such as blessing of the harvest and initiation into new stages of life from birth to death, whose successful outcome depends on an appeal to divine powers. If prayer is, as the nineteenth-century Russian mystic John of Cronstadt puts it, “the breath of the soul, our spiritual food and drink,” then it is ritual that provides the body language and sets the table for the feast. Even the psalmist’s spontaneous cri de coeur “Out of the depths, I cry to thee, O Lord” (Psalm 130:1, KJV) avails itself of formulaic words and ritualistic gestures such as kneeling, prostration, and beating of the breast. This intimate kinship between prayer and ritual leads to the inevitable chicken-and-egg question, “Which came first?” Did humans discover prayer and then develop ritual as a means to tame its energies, creating well-worn furrows for the masses to follow? Or did ritual come first and give birth to prayer, in the way that speech gives birth to thought? We have no final answer to these conundrums, although throughout this book we describe various ways in which people have tried to resolve them. This much is clear: to participate in ritual is to enter the world of prayer, and to make a habit of prayer is to open the door to ritual.
Prayer encompasses heaven and earth; it tangles angels, paramecia, and humans in its cosmic web. Prayer can be brief—“short prayers penetrate heaven,” says the anonymous author of the mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing, who recommends the one-syllable exclamation “God!” as the ideal prayer. Or prayers can be long, stretching for months on end, interrupted only by essential needs of the body, as in the lives of some religious ascetics. Prayer can take place alone or in a vast fellowship, on the deathbed, or in the wedding chamber. Prayer’s scope extends from the private ceremonies of the morning toilet to the public arenas of politics and war. Prayer can be a matter of high aesthetics, as in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, or of low humor, as in Apuleius’s brayings in The Golden Ass. Prayer can also be a matter of spiritual surrender, as French philosopher Simone Weil reveals in one of her letters to Father Perrin: “In 1937 I had two marvelous days at Assisi. There, alone in the little twelfth- century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”13 One may be seized by prayer, as happened to the apostles on Pentecost, or one may lust after prayer, like some of the Vīraśaiva saints of medieval India, or one may resist prayer with all one’s might and yet pray nonetheless with all one’s might, as famously happens to the atheist in the foxhole. Prayer may lead one to God, or it may convince one of God’s absence. Prayer can bless or prayer can bite (“When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers,” says Oscar Wilde). Prayer may help one to quit alcohol, stay off drugs, or become a better parent. Prayer may cure an incurable illness or save an unsalvageable marriage. Prayer works miracles, not least in the one who prays (Srren Kierkegaard: “Prayer does not change God but it changes him who prays”). For those who have contemplated the subject, prayer is a cosmos whose center is everywhere, in every human heart, and whose circumference is nowhere, in the infinity of God. Something of the limitless universe of prayer shines brightly through a Christian lens in the following celebrated poem by George Herbert (1593– 1633):

Prayer Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.

Banquet, age, breath, soul, plummet, engine, thunder, spear, world, tune, manna, heaven, man, milky way, bird of Paradise, church-bells, blood, land of spices: this torrent of concrete nouns reveals prayer’s depth and breadth. Herbert’s litany contains images of feasting, warfare, art, religion, agriculture, and industry, which leads to another important truth about our subject: prayer lies at the heart of culture. In traditional societies, every significant action begins with prayer. A devout Muslim says bismillāh (“In the Name of Allāh”), or more completely, bismi-Llāhi-r- Rahmāni-r-Rahīm (“In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” the opening words of the Qur’ān), before baking bread, negotiating a contract, or starting out on a journey. A Christian may cross himself before eating, swimming, or retiring for the night. In parts of Europe, the Angelus bell still rings from church towers at dawn, noon, and dusk, punctuating the day as decisively as the call of the muezzin in any Muslim village, and the faithful stop in their tracks to recite the angel’s greeting to the Virgin Mary and echo her glad response.
The world’s oldest urban cultures grew up around buildings that were essentially cultic centers dedicated to sacrifice, propitiation, and prayer: thus Uruk, the ancient city of Gilgamesh, whose brick ramparts were built for the goddess Ishtar and whose center was her sanctuary; Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java, sites of colossal Buddhist stupas that were hubs of temporal and spiritual power; and Jerusalem, whose Temple once seemed the very navel of the earth and whose destruction was the exile of God. Look at any major ancient ruin, and you will see the remains of a people at prayer and the signs of an economy that traded in prayer. All art was originally sacred art—in effect, visual prayer; all drama was originally sacred drama, telling the deeds of the gods in order to win their assistance. Much of the productive work of the world has been instigated and hallowed by prayer. Even today, prayers may accompany as well as initiate our labors: thus the workers’ chants given a secular gloss in the “Heigh Ho” of Walt Disney’s seven dwarves but still sung in more authentic manner in India, as historian of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith reported in a national radio talk on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1962:

I remember a scene in India some years ago when my wife and I were one summer at a mountain resort in the Himalayas, and were out for a hike in the hills; we came upon a work-gang busy in the construction of a rude mountain road. It was, of course, all hand labor; they had crushed the stones with hammers, and were now rolling them with a large and very heavy roller. Rather in the fashion of sailors working to a sea shanty, they were rhythmically pulling this heavy roller in spurts of concerted effort: the foreman would sing out La ilaha illa ‘llah [There is no God but God], and the rest of the gang, then, would put their shoulders to the ropes and with a heave would respond Muhammadur rasulu ‘llah [Muhammad is the Prophet of God]. This went on and on, as they continued to work, with a will and with good strong heaves. La ilaha illa ‘llah he would chant; Muhammadur rasulu ‘llah would come the vigorous response. Such a scene represents, of course, a kind of living in which a split into religious and secular had not come—or had not yet come—to segment life.14 If prayer lies at the heart of culture, then it stands to reason that the dominant prayers of a society will reveal to us its preeminent values. Consider, for example, the way that the ethos of Zen meditation permeates Japanese culture, giving rise to characteristic forms of architecture, landscape, interior design, poetry, calligraphy, martial arts, and rules of social etiquette.
Old pond A frog leaps in Plash!

With these three lines, the seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Bashō created a new style of haiku, indeed a complete aesthetic, that cannot be understood without an appreciation of Buddhist meditative prayer. The special genius of Bashō ’s verse lies in its ability to fuse Buddhist teachings on transience and “suchness” with the indigenous Japanese love of nature, finding material for prayerful contemplation in the leap of a frog, the fall of a cherry blossom, or the sound of a horse urinating against a rock.
We can detect similarly rich cultural meaning in the ritual prayer (salāt) of Islam. Five times a day, all Muslims are expected to turn their faces in prayer toward the shrine of the holy Ka‘bah in Mecca. What better way to express the belief that the only secure foundation for human community is reverent submission to the oneness of God? When prayer is performed congregationally in the mosque, the sense of unanimity in adoration is palpable, as worshipers line up to perform the intricately choreographed series of rạk‘ahs (prostrations and Qur’ānic recitations) under the direction of the Imām. In the context of the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, the centripetal force of this prayer can be overpowering. So Malcolm X discovered when he made his first pilgrimage to Mecca, as he testifies in this letter to his followers back in Harlem:

Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.
I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca, I have made my seven circuits around the Ka‘ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammed, I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam, I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug—while praying to the same God—with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. . . .We were truly all the same (brothers)—because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.15

Prayers have this diagnostic value: they present in microcosm the longings, beliefs, ideals, and assumptions that drive the inner life of individuals and the corporate life of human cultures. In prayer, the dreams of a civilization take lucid and articulate form. The evidence cannot tell us whether there is an instinct to pray inscribed in our biological nature, but there are grounds for suspecting that prayer is as universal as language and as old as any other cultural artifact. To investigate this possibility, let us trace prayer to its prehistoric roots.

Copyright © 2005 by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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