I HAVE been reading again Dr. Kirsopp Lake’s beautiful, sad essay on Prayer, in the August Atlantic, and as I set the paper down I looked out and watched the beautiful, sad autumn-leaves, fluttering to earth, and wondered whether they were a timely symbol of the Church’s decadent faith.
For one must listen, and respectfully, to Dr. Lake: not only because he is a master in scholarship and insight, but because he is a master no less in that difficult art or rare endowment of nature — religious charm.
Yet surely there is something wrong somewhere. He analyzes prayer thus: ‘ Prayer,’ he says, ‘ means petition, communion, aspiration, and confession.’ But surely — I have it! He has left out thanksgiving! And, leaving that out, he has given us a picture of the future of worship which is very subtly drawn and is colored by the loveliness of pathos, but which is simply not true.
For lying behind his paper is after all the utilitarian idea: ‘If prayer in some of its aspects demonstrably does us no good, come, let us be scientific, or at least determined, and abandon that aspect.’ But thanksgiving is one aspect of prayer which cannot be thus abandoned; for not only does it not depend for its validity on result, but within it is folded the justification for all the other aspects of prayer.
I say, ‘ Thanksgiving is not dependent for its validity upon result.’ Supposing
I could prove that the efficacy of prayer is a myth, I am not thereby released from the obligation of thanksgiving. The gifts I daily enjoy came from somewhere; science cannot tell me anything about their ultimate Source, cannot utter a single predicate about that Source. Well, that leaves me unreleased. The Source may be conscious of me or may not be — Science cannot tell. My business is to realize that my life is derivative and to behave accordingly. Derivative? It hangs as a matter of fact by a thread — a thread I cannot thicken or reënforce.
Thanksgiving may be totally ‘intransitive’; nevertheless it is my plain duty — and it is plain common-sense and, if you like, plain good-manners as well — to recognize the position and offer the sacrifice of praise. If I have enjoyed a man’s hospitality it is sheer decency to send him a bread-and-butter letter of thanks, even though I may not know and might not approve of his character in other relations. If I have enjoyed the hospitality of the Host of this universe, Who daily spreads a table in my sight, surely I cannot do less than acknowledge my dependence. The effect on me or on anybody else is not the point — even though it be true that it always pays to be mannerly.
And, if I were more careful to recognize in thanksgiving that I have nothing which I have not received, perhaps the other aspects of prayer — even the petitionary — might begin to seem more reasonable. The Source Whom I hypothesize when I give thanks might conceivably draw near and, as my sense of debt widened, might take moral outline and reveal Himself as ‘most blessed, most holy, and most free’ — especially the last; and I might find it more rational to count on that freedom, and without restraint pour out my heart before Him.
Anyway, you can’t build religion or a rationale of it on thanklessness. I don’t wonder Saint Paul laid the evils of paganism at the door of ingratitude! ‘They glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.’ I think if a man came to me saying his personal religion was in ruins I should advise him to begin the work of reconstruction by trying not to eat food without some expression of gratitude. You smile at the idea of grace before meat being a gateway to the religious life? Is the principle really different from that which it is said the late Dwight L. Moody once applied to the case of a lady in religious distress? ‘You say, madam, that you believe all that God has done for you in Christ?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Then have you thanked Him for it?’ Surely this is the idea of Schleiermacher in the simplest form: Religion is essentially the feeling of conscious dependence. No man can comprehend things like communion and confession who is not first bathed in an atmosphere of conscious grateful debtorship.
By the way, why does nobody take seriously the growing thanklessness of the population of our great cities? Dean Inge complains that our townspeople, because of their growing ignorance of history, are become déraciné; is it not true of their relation to that which is behind all history — the Source of the good they live upon? Not only do hosts of people, who in a sweeter civilization would have eaten their food in the privacy of home and given God thanks for it, now eat in godless gulps in noisy public restaurants, where even a simple gesture of devotion would be sneered at; but their food is often sold to them in a prepared form which emphasizes to the utmost human ingenuity and veils to the utmost the Ultimate Source of it all. If you were to tell a little New York street gamin that we live ultimately upon sunshine, which we can neither buy nor store nor explain, he would probably say, ‘Aw, quit yer kiddin”; for he lives mainly upon delicatessen, which for the most part hide from the sunshine, and for which anyway it is honestly hard sometimes to give anybody thanks.
We had a shrewd mayor once in New York who, when someone suggested opening certain art-galleries on Sundays to the children, said, ‘Pooh! What the children of New York need is to see a cow and a calf, a sow and a litter of pigs, of a Sunday stalled before the City Hall, that the children may learn where their food comes from.’
Well! The good mayor was so far right — it would have taken the children one little step nearer religion; and incidentally would have given them new thoughts about the animals, without which it is questionable whether religion is possible among us snobbish humans. For what animals — not counting a few birds and a squirrel or two in the Park — do the children of our streets ever see, except nervous dogs and laboring horses and the gloomy prisoners of the Zoo, dying of infinite ennui?
All this means that while the way to the God of the churches may be through ‘petition, communion, aspiration, and confession,’ the way to the real God — of nature and history, as well as of the Spirit — is first and foremost through beginning with facts as they are: with thanksgiving valid so far as it goes, whatever the further side of Deity may be; thanksgiving becoming ever more comprehensive, more self-emptying, more astonished, more awestruck, till what began as simple recognition of fact and as decent manners may end as the prostration of the whole being before a Heavenly Father, in that attitude of confidence in which without clamor we ‘make our requests known’ to Him, and in a submission which is the culmination of religion and the answer of all prayers — in the ‘Peace of God.’
I wish I could take Dr. Lake with me in spirit back to my native Scottish Highlands. I was brought up about the feet of people who could pray. Yet when I look back I do not seem to recall these prayers as riots of petition in the sense of that insistent and illicit importunity which Jesus condemned and which apparently He gave us the Lord’s Prayer to counteract. I remember these prayers mainly as chaunts of grace, the utterances of men very sensible of being the recipients of undeserved bounties and anxious, as such, to lay their whole case, without feverishness, before the Source of their boons; and for the rest I recall these prayers mainly as lyric expressions of awed but contented souls resting, in a holy domestication, on the shoulder of God.
In devotion like this all aspects of prayer combine: ‘petition, communion, aspiration, confession,’ adoration, intercession; but they blend into the white light of thanksgiving.
I see still the far look in the eyes of venerable men as my Highland father thus gave out the sonorous call to worship on the Sabbath day: ‘Let us resume the public worship of God, singing to His praise the Hundredth Psalm: —
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him, and rejoice.
Without our aid He did us make;
We are His flock, He doth us feed,
And for His sheep He doth us take.
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood
And shall from age to age endure.’
That surely is homage that carries its own validity in its heart. And if the Church ceases to be able to pray freely within such praise as this, then the beautiful, sad autumn-leaves of the Church’s faith will be really beginning to shudder and shrivel into the chill winter of Death.