One of the earliest discoveries made by the adventurer who dares to penetrate into the land of Common Sense is that in that land mere wishing does not accomplish very much. Sundered lovers wished their hearts away for centuries, longing for the sound of the other's voice through the intervening miles of space. But all was of no avail until to that wishing was added the minute knowledge of electro-magnetism, which resulted in the invention of the telephone.
The longest road in the world is the road that lies between feeling and fact. The road can be made passable only by knowledge. Wishing is just the initial motive force designed to drive one to seek the knowledge of the way. Processions of longing, beseeching human beings through plague-stricken cities, imploring the removal of the curse, effected nothing, until their desires were converted into patient investigation of the causes and cure of plague. The processions were valuable in so far as they incited and stung the lethargic scientific mind into investigation and discovery. Wishing, looked upon as an end in itself, is barren, but it is the initial stage of all progress.
Desire, when it can be transmuted into action, is the joy of life. Desire, when it cannot immediately be transmuted into action, is the basic problem of literature, art, philosophy, and religion. What is to be done with it? Prayer is the organization of unsatisfied desire. Unless it is organized in some way it leads to ruinous consequences. Worry, nervous disorders depression, temptation, morbid mental conditions—these are the names of some of the results of unorganized, unsatisfied desires. A mother returns home on a sudden call, to find her child sick unto death. She immediately gets the best doctors and the best nurses and does all she can for his cure. At last she has done all she is able to do. Can she then put the matter from her mind and go to the movies? No, there remains, after she has done everything possible for her child, a mass of desire for that child's recovery which she has not been able to work off into action. What is she to do with? She may either go into another room and worry herself to death over the child, and thus make herself a prophet of death to the child and the whole household, or she may pray. Prayer is the control of the overflow of desire above that which can be immediately transmuted into action.
What then is her mental attitude in prayer? It has been largely represented as that of a slave asking for a favor before the throne of an oriental potentate. 'I have done many favors for Thee in the past. I have contributed to the church, and attended thy services and kept thy laws. Now I humbly ask, in return for these offerings, the life of this child!'
Or it has been supposed that here is the one exception to the otherwise inexorable principle that mere wishing does not accomplish anything. She is simply to wish and ask, as a child would wish and ask a parent for, something desirable.
Prayer in both these cases is looked upon as a triangle. The mother and the child are at the base angles; God is at the apex. The mother sends up a prayer to God, which God considers, and, if it seems good to Him, sends down the answer to the child. The conditions of effective prayer under these conditions are, as set forth in a recent hand-book on prayer, faith, humility, and submission.
There has been, however, a growing school of religious thinkers who have felt that the use of terms and figures like these must not blind us to the fact that the realm of Prayer is no exception to the general rule; that it is necessary, not only to wish, but to know how to wish; that there are laws governing the organization of unsatisfied desires which must be observed. Prayer for them is not so much a triangle as a straight line. Prayer is the organization of one's unsatisfied desires so that God may work through them for the end desired. The mother's unsatisfied desire for the life of the child may be so organized as to be the channel through which the healing power of God may reach the child. Prayer is not, then, that passive acquiescence of the Irishman, who hung the Lord's Prayer over his bed and, every night, before he jumped in, jerked his thumb in the direction of the petitions and ejaculated, 'Them's my sentiments.' Prayer is an activity of will and mind and feeling, which makes us the natural channel through which good effects flow to those for whom we pray. Psychology studies the conditions of that activity.
Religion asserts that these good effects are the result, not merely of a personal, but also of a cosmic wish.
What is the condition of mind of such a mother, which most conduces to the cure of the child? If it is true, as we have surmised, that prayer is not simply wishing but organized and directed wishing, then it is evident that, as in any other art, power in prayer will come with practice. It is necessary, as in any other art, to begin with little things and gain skill and power from the small to the great. Prayer is the personal influence, which we recognize so well in social intercourse, at its highest point of efficiency. We all recognize that personal influence is a hard attainment; power in prayer is equally open to all, but requires great effort to attain. Much as we may dislike the word, there is a technique of prayer which can be mastered. The mother must have learned to pray, in order to be of much help to her child at such a crisis. To be a healing personality is a high achievement. But let us suppose that she has been practising prayer for years. She has gained her power in the attainment of lesser ends than this very life of her child. It is, in general, almost impossible to generate in the face of a sudden emergency a hitherto unused power. Prayer ought to start with trifles—the sublimation of petty personal desires, the gaining of a rational spiritual attitude toward minor social problems in the home and school. Prayer does not generally emerge into the consciousness as a desire for the evangelization of the world in this generation; it rather begins with a desire for a new doll or the winning of a game.
Some years previously, this mother has found that her child was not getting on well at school. He began to bring home bad report-cards, he did not like the teachers, he hated the studies. The mother finds herself beginning to anticipate more trouble. She expects another bad report, more tales of being disliked by the teachers, more inability to do the work prescribed. Her very face as she meets the child at the door tells what she anticipates. Suddenly she realizes that the whole atmosphere of the home is melancholy with the sense of impending failure. Her personal influence, through the black background of her consciousness, is, in spite of anything she may say, foreboding. Then she endeavors to 'get hold of herself '; to prevent this thwarted desire for her child's happiness and success from turning sour and becoming a fixed, if almost unconscious, conviction that the child will not get on well at school.