Is There Anything in Prayer?

"There is a technique of prayer which can be mastered." In 1921 J. Edgar Park attempted to explain how prayer works

By J. Edgar Park

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.

She begins to pray. She invokes another conviction, that the good Spirit of the universe has no such intention for her child. She recalls some of the great passages of religious inspiration, the words of the saints who have been sure of a power outside ourselves, as well as in ourselves, making for righteousness. Thus gaining the prayer mood, she then reminds herself that she must be the channel for bringing this good-will into the life of her child. She replaces the picture of failure, which threatens to become fixed in her mind, with a more vivid and living picture of success. With all the love and sympathy and imaginative fire she possesses, she pictures to herself her petition being granted—the new attitude on the part of her child, his awakened interest in his studies, his liking for his teachers, his expectation of success. She prays intensely, with all her desire, through and in this mental picture.

This act is exceedingly difficult; but, if done, it changes the whole atmosphere of the home. The very face of the mother as she meets the child is magnetic of success for the child instead of being prophetic of failure. In the thousand ways, known and unknown, in which the mother's mind touches the mind of the child, encouragement, expectation of achievement, faith in his powers now flow in upon the will of the child. In petitions of this nature, the whole personality is stirred; desire, intellect, and imagination are at their highest point of efficiency, that she may become a conductor of God's good-will. She concludes her prayer with thanks-giving to God that the prayer has been granted, a supreme act of faith.

There is all the difference in the world between the man who says, 'I am going to give up my bad habit,' and the man who says, 'I have given up my bad habit.' So there is between feeling that God may answer the prayer and that God has answered it. The latter is the act of faith that the answer will be hindered only by the defect of the channel. The answer is granted; the flood of happiness and success is forcing its way through the narrow and obstructed channel of the mother's personal influence upon the child. Prayer has substituted such an influence for the previous, almost unconscious, suggestions of failure. There is no dogmatism in such prayer as to the method of the of the answer—that is left to the infinite possibilities of actual experience. The claim is simply made on the universe for the happiness of the child, and in the making of the claim the psychological machinery is set in motion for its being honored by the universe. And this effort to organize unsatisfied desire not only has its influence upon those for whom we pray, but tends to purify and enlighten the desire itself, so that, when the petition is granted, it may be on a much higher plane than when it was first offered. Yet it is the same prayer. The desire is always satisfied. But it often is sublimated in the process of satisfaction.

In the face of the impending death of her child, a mother who has so practised prayer on lesser matters has great powers. Her very face in the sick-room as the child dimly sees it, is on the side of health and life. And who can tell in what numberless ways the minds of those who love touch one another, all unseen even by the argus eyes of science. Miracles occur, and the tide of life returns into sluggish veins, when the desire of life is kindled through the touch of kindred minds.

Many objections will occur to one who reads for the first time this theory of prayer. Does not this explanation of prayer, it will be asked, run counter to the practice of One who said in his prayer, 'Not My will but Thine be done'? This phrase has been greatly misused. It has been misused so as almost to justify the Irishman's type of prayer, before mentioned. Rousseau best expressed a prevailing interpretation of it thus: 'I bless God, but I pray not. Why should I ask of Him that He would change for me the course of things, do miracles in my favor? I, who ought to love, above all, the order established by his wisdom and maintained by his providence—shall I wish that order to be dissolved on my account? As little do I ask of Him the power to do well. Why ask what He has already given?'

But God's highest will is carried out only through human wills working at white heat. Prayer is not asking God to change the course of things, but asking Him to help me to be a part of that course of things. I become so, not in spite of my will, but through my will. The Master used this phrase, not before He had exerted his own will, but after the great drops of the sweat of desire were falling from his brow to the ground. The phrase is no idle excuse for listless praying; in it we see the sublimation of desire taking place. Idle prayers, which place this phrase, misused, in the forefront, will ever excuse injustice and sickness and unhappiness as the will of God. Justice, happiness, health, surely these are the will of God for all; as to the detailed method of their coming, our desires in prayer are ever being enlarged and enlightened by the inflow upon us of the cosmic desires of God.

Again, it will be asked if this theory will not lend itself to the idea that, if you want a purse of money, you must imagine it very vividly lying on the pavement outside your house, and then go out and find it. A father heard his little girl praying for the red doll in the window of the corner store, and told her she ought not to pray for things like that; she ought to pray to be a good girl, or for the heathen. The fact was that she did not want specially to be a good girl in the father's meaning of that phrase, and she did not care about the heathen, but she did want the red doll. Why make a hypocrite of her at the start? So it is with money. If that is what you really want, pray for it. If you pray sincerely, you will receive an answer which will satisfy you. Possibly not the pocket-book, but an ability to get up earlier in the morning, or to keep awake between meals, or to reduce your expenditures. The answer always comes and abundantly satisfies anyone who dares persistently to carry out the art of praying. But prayer always initiates effort.

Prayer is a hard task without the mystic sense of the personality of God. In all the lesser problems of life it is easy enough to look upon it as the simple demonstration of a natural law. But when the storms are out and the floods let loose, when one has done all one can by action and has done all one can by prayer, then life is hard and cruel, indeed, unless one can feel, behind all the laws and beneath all the principles, in higher reaches of spiritual communion, a love that understands and forgives.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1921/10/is-there-anything-in-prayer/306488/