To past generations prayer meant primarily the process of petition to God by which He was induced to do otherwise than He would have done if prayer had not been used. Fasting and sacrifice and prayer were the great magical triad by which men endeavored to secure favor from God. The Bible and Church History supply countless examples of the importance of this triad. They also illustrate the way in which fasting and sacrifice have gradually come to lose their importance.
But prayer meant also, or rather took with it, the sense of communion with God, not as the Supreme Governor who controls the universe, but as the Father who advises, comforts, strengthens, and forgives his children in answer to their cry of need, who enables them to bear the temptations of success and failure, and lightens their darkness when the clouds hang heavy overhead. The language in which this sense of communion has been expressed, has often changed, and will no doubt change again, but the experience which it expresses is permanent.
Moreover, because conversation is the best means of clarifying thought, prayer has been always the means whereby men have become conscious of their own aspirations, have seen glimpses of a better world, and have sought henceforward to make the life which they must live on the plain approach more closely to the vision which they have seen on the mount. The vision has always gone with them, and as the inevitable day of weakness has drawn near, when they have known that Mt. Pisgah and not the Land of Promise was the farthest that they would reach, it has been to the vision that they have turned to find in it the true Reality. To errors of intellect and to the weakness of human nature they may have succumbed, for sinners as well as saints, ignorant as well as learned, foolish as well as wise have been among their number; but they have never wholly forgotten the vision, and those who have come after them have perceived that these were men who were pilgrims and sojourners here because they belonged to the city which ‘hath foundations.’
Finally, confession or self-examination is a constant element in all the classic examples of prayer. It does not perhaps necessarily mean the recognition of error, though it often does so; but it is essentially a spiritual ‘stocktaking,’ revealing to him who prays what is the true nature of his life, strengthening the good, and condemning the evil in it. For this reason it perhaps plays a smaller part in public prayer than in private. Nevertheless there are certain causes for failure which are common to the race, and can be recognized and confessed in common prayer— the pride of life, the lust of the eye, and the desire for revenge. These are the simplest and most powerful enemies of good, and they are met openly though not always by name, in all the great examples of prayer. It is impossible to pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ and, at the same moment, be infected by the pride of life or the lust of the eye; or to say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ and lightly to harbor schemes of revenge. To pray thus is to make confession and to seek amendment, and will remain the refuge of sinful humanity long after it has abandoned all belief in the magical power of petition to the Almighty.
Thus prayer means petition, communion, aspiration, and confession. In the public worship of the churches petition has always been put in the first place, and naturally so, for it is historically the most prominent. Nevertheless probably few educated men believe in its efficacy. The laws of life — which is the Will of God — are not changed in their working by prayer, sacrifice, or fasting.
The most striking example of this fact is the crudest and simplest. In my boyhood, it was still customary to pray for fine weather, or, in the rarer occasions when the English climate demanded it, for rain. The custom is now, I fancy, almost dead. It has not been killed by any atrophy of religion, but by increased knowledge of meteorology. If you teach the public in the newspaper every week-day that the weather is fixed through complicated laws, that if the barometer is rising fair weather is probable, while rain may be expected if it is falling, you cannot expect them to believe on Sunday that the humidity of the atmosphere will be affected by prayer.
Nor is the question very different with regard to prayer in time of sickness, though the issue is often obscured by pious people who cling to the custom, and do not analyze their belief. Opinion on this subject probably ranges itself into three groups. There are those who still think that prayer will cure disease; the belief of innumerable generations supports them, but not the evidence of medical experts. Secondly, there are those who, frankly admitting that prayer cannot change the course of disease, advocate it as a consolation to the sufferer and to his friends. This is no doubt often true: it is a sound and charitable reason for praying; but it is likely to lose its efficacy when its motive is perceived. Finally, there are those who think that in some mysterious way they can by prayer divert a stream of energy to a sick person, and so make him better. Conceivably this is true, though personally I doubt it. But why should this stream of energy be most effectual when put into the form of petition to God? It seems to me that if there be any truth in this theory it is not so much that prayer diverts a stream of healing energy as that it serves as a ‘suggestion,’ focusing all the powers of resistance and recuperation which the sick may possess but be unable to ‘will’ to use. That this may be valuable, should be practised and studied, I do not doubt; but is it prayer? In any case it is not the same thing as the strictly supplicating prayer of our ancestors, which was a petition to God who might be persuaded to do what He might otherwise not have done.
My own attention was once called somewhat painfully to the unconscious change of thought which has affected almost everyone in this matter. I was taking charge of a church for a friend who was going away for a fortnight. ‘You will have,’ he said, ‘nothing much to do. But poor Mr. Smith is very ill, and Dr. Brown has promised to let you know if it becomes hopeless, so that you can put him into the prayers.’ I was very young at the time, and it was somewhat of a shock to me to realize that ‘praying for’ someone in the church, by the customary device of dropping to a lower note the voice which had hitherto monotoned the service on G, and announcing that ‘The prayers of the congregation are desired for M, who is seriously ill,’had become a means of preparing friends for bad news, under the pretense of asking the Almighty for help. The shock to young minds when they discover such changes as this alienates more of them from the churches than any direct attack could ever do. The tragedy is that the churches do not know it, for the young do not say much about it; they merely stop going to church. The death of churches is not likely to be violent or spectacular, for controversy implies life. The deadly sequence of symptoms is when one generation goes to church, supports it financially and prevents all change in the customs of the forefathers; the second generation continues the support, but otherwise leaves it alone; the third generation abandons it altogether.
That the religion of to-morrow will have prayer I do not doubt, unless the churches should be so foolish as to insist that Prayer must include Petition, in which case they will keep the word, and another name will be given to the reality. For I do not believe that the religion of to-morrow will have any more place for petition than it will have for any other form of magic. But how are the churches going to deal with the question? It is a matter which especially affects the non-liturgical churches, strange as it may seem. In a liturgical church the prayers are frequently unintelligible to the congregation. In the Catholic Church they are in Latin, in the English Church and Protestant Episcopal Church of America they are in an archaic idiom which diverts attention from the strangeness of its meaning by the beauty of its sound. Converts and strangers may criticize the doctrine of these prayers, but we, who neglect it because. we have been born in the church, perhaps do more justice to their significance. Members of non-liturgical churches seem rarely to understand that it is the dramatic, not the theological side of the service which makes itself felt, that many members of the congregation are purified and inspired by the service as a whole, without ever stopping to think about its meaning; indeed, if they did they would probably cease to be inspired. In any case, petitions written five hundred or fifteen hundred years ago cease to be regarded as petitions in the same way as those which at least pretend to be the fervent supplication of a minister for the special congregation.
Obviously the non-liturgical Protestant churches are in a very different position. Every Sunday the minister is responsible for the Tong prayer’ as it is usually called. He is supposed to make it apply to the needs of his congregation; it is — at least in form — an extempore performance marked by fervor and unction. If it be not sincere the salt has lost its savor. It is traditionally always in the idiom of petition, but it is significant how many Liberal ministers endeavor to quiet their conscience, which dislikes that idiom, by passing — if I may somewhat abuse the grammarian’s language — through the optative mood to an oratio obliqua intended to express the aspirat ions of the congregation. I cannot resist the conviction that this can be but a temporary expedient, and I believe that this question of petition in prayer is the most difficult problem which the non-liturgical churches have to face. It is to them what the question of the creeds is to the liturgical churches.
To see this is not difficult, but merely to abandon the custom of prayer because we no longer believe in the efficacy of petition would be to throw away the grain in an effort to be rid of the chaff.
Prayer, it was said above, is not only petition, but also communion and aspiration. What will the religion of to-morrow say about communion and aspiration?
If the religious life of the future contains ‘public worship’ as an integral part of its manifestation, it will be because many men feel that not in solitude but in the company of others who have a like necessity do they most feel the communion of a higher power, do they cleanse their souls from impurities and littlenesses, and light the flame of aspiration which illumines their path through the darkness of daily life.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that to stimulate and quicken communion and aspiration — whatever explanation may be adopted of the experience covered by these words — is likely to be the main purpose of the services of the church of to-morrow, though this will be a serious breach with the tradition of the past; for in the Catholic Church the services are means of salvation, and in the Protestant Church have been hitherto largely, if not chiefly, means of instruction. Nevertheless, Protestants of the Liberal wing have to a large extent accepted the change indicated. The services of the church are held to have a ‘spiritual’ rather than an intellectual value, which seems to mean subjective rather than objective. Catholics while of course asserting the spiritual value of the service would maintain that this value is objective — it is in the service not in the frame of mind of the congregation. Nevertheless, the paradoxical truth is that the Catholic service is more successful than the Protestant in giving the subjective value. The Catholic goes to Mass, believing in the objective supernatural value of the service, and for him it does not depend at all on the presence of a congregation to be ‘valid’; for he accepts what to the historian is a myth connected with the sacrament. He gains spiritual help. Moreover others, not Catholic, often feel the value of the service. The Protestant goes to his service, believing in the subjective value of the service, and that its importance is entirely in the effect which it has on the congregation. He hopes that the sermon of the minister, supported by some slight musical introduction, and a few hymns, will somehow do him good. He is often disappointed, he goes less frequently, and his children are ceasing to go at all. The danger to the Catholic Church is that it will fail to satisfy the intellect, which will reject the Church’s interpretation of the Mass; to the Protestant that it will not satisfy the soul, which is not nourished by the service. The religion of to-morrow will doubtless devise a method which will satisfy both intellect and soul. If neither Catholics nor Protestants can mend their ways, both will perish, but Religion will survive.
Just as to stimulate and develop this sense of communion and aspiration is the work of the churches, so to analyze and explain it is the task of the psychologists, and it is not certain as yet what their answer wall be. The problem is this: granted that there is a consciousness of communion, which appears to be with some external power, is that appearance correct, or is the communion really with some part of the man’s own nature which is ordinarily submerged? Only the professional psychologist is really competent to discuss this question properly, but anyone can see that it is not an idle one, and that any answer gives rise to others.
It is common experience that whereas our words and actions are usually the result of conscious rational thoughts, there are moments when we are — so it seems both to ourselves and to others — in the clutch of a higher power, sometimes inspiring us to good, sometimes to evil deeds and words. God and the Devil are the explanation which theologians have given to this duplex phenomenon.
The psychology of to-day has questioned this explanation. It seems to many who have most deeply studied the question, that our conscious life of reason has a deep penumbra of which we are not habitually conscious. It makes itself felt only when emotion or some other cause calls it up into action. It contains all the instincts, ethics, and thoughts of the past generations, whose history is latent in every individual. If this side of it be called into action by some momentary collapse of our usual psychical balance, anyone of us may relapse for a time into the condition of primitive man, with primary instincts, and animistic thoughts. But some at least would hold that it contains also the germ of all the achievements and triumphs which will make life better and fuller for our descendants. If by the splendor of art or the inspiration of religion this side of us be roused into life, we become capable of rising for the moment to the heights which only our remote descendants will fully master, and we become living prophecies of a new world. For the Devil is the ghost of primitive man, and God is the unborn life of the world that is yet to be.