By Christopher West
Frustration, we might say, is part of the human condition; it is one aspect of our experience that never truly goes away—a rather frustrating fact(!)—but lingers on into the present. Several years ago, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was quick to point this out, while delivering his homily during the eucharistic celebration of the Church of England Synod. He wryly observed that, when several people are together in a room, the topic of conversation quickly turns to what they find frustrating (and hence what their deepest desires are, too; for frustration concerns what we hope might eventually change).
Philip Pullman, the writer of fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, is well-known for his frustrations with the Church.[i] He recently gave an interesting interview with New Scientist magazine in which he appears to appreciate the questions associated with the Christian faith, but not the framework that allows us to explore the ways we might inhabit some of the possible answers.[ii] His books, and the television adaptation by extension, provide important critiques of the Church (institutionally): there is a suspicion of dogmatism (understandably), a strong anticlericalism, and an understanding of the capacity institutions have for behaving as oppressive forces in our society.
But for now, I want to consider not the recent television adaptation of His Dark Materials (although it really is a fantastic adaptation, and I trust someone else will have this conversation), but the most recent (and sadly, final) series of popular Canadian sitcom, Schitt’s Creek. There is a scene, in one of the last episodes of the series, which deals with prayer. One of the areas of Christian experience particularly known for causing frustration is prayer. One of the few times—indeed, perhaps the only time in the Gospels—Jesus seems to give his disciples a direct answer to their questions is when one of them approaches him with the request, “Lord, teach us to pray”.[iii] His willingness to provide an answer to their question—he gives them what the Christian family now love, and commonly recite, as “The Lord’s Prayer”—underscores our struggle with prayer; it is as if, in giving his disciples this template for prayer, he is saying, “You are finally asking the right question; I know this is tough for you.”
In the scene from Schitt’s Creek, Moira Rose worries her family have not “sent” her husband, Johnny, enough “positive energy” before an important interview—the results of which will influence all their lives; so, she encourages them to kneel, while holding hands. At this point, David, her son, quips, “Are we praying?”—a question which she immediately rejects (“Don’t be ridiculous!”), before she proceeds, “To whom it may concern…”
Considering how frequently prayer is a source of frustration for Christians, perhaps we would do well to consider what we might call her “proto-prayer” in some detail. What, if anything, can we learn from her? How does her “proto-prayer” illuminate our own experience?
The first thing to note is that, for Moira, this “proto-prayer” sends “positive energy” to her husband. One of the insights we might derive from recently published works in the realm of popular science is that human beings are primarily constituted by energy. We are embodied persons, animated by energy. Energy, when considered in the abstract, is a strange and complex concept, not unlike how time is a strange and complex concept. We cannot see time passing but can merely observe its effects: the movement of clock hands, the aging process, and so on. Influential theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it this way: “If by ‘time’ we mean nothing more than happening, then everything is time. There is onlythat which exists in time.”[iv]
Like time—“happening”—we are not necessarily aware of energy, of its existence or presence in our lives, although some ancient parts of the Christian family (especially some of the Eastern traditions) have always insisted that human beings are best understood as energetic persons. For instance, Isaac of Nineveh (c.613-700) regularly expounded such a perspective in his spiritual homilies, and in his later works on Christian ascetism.[v] A similar understanding of energy has recently been retrieved and translated into the categories of western theology and science by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)[vi]; and even more recently, its implications for eucharistic and liturgical contexts have been discussed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.[vii] Slowly, although not without controversy, the scientific concept of “energy” is being inserted into Christian theology in the West.
But what does this mean for Moira? What is she doing when she is praying for her husband? If we are to think about human beings as energetic persons, perhaps we might say that, when she is praying for her husband, what she is actually doing is gathering up the energy of her intentions, and offering it up for God to use whatever way God wills.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) might well prove a helpful conversation partner for this aspect of our discussion; he talks about what constitutes a human being in terms of intellect, will, and heart, three aspects which form, as Wendell Berry recently put it, “a single mystery”.[viii] For Aquinas, thoughts are expressions of the intellect, intentions are expressions of the will, and desires are expressions of the heart; and each one possesses a true end, an inbuilt telos, explicitly: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, respectively. Prayer, according to his assessment, is an act of the will; hence our understanding of prayer might be framed in terms of our “intentions”. Prayer, then, is about our re-orientation towards Goodness. God is, of course, the source of all goodness; and so, it is about metanoia—daily repentance; the slow, steady work of our wills being redirected toward their true end, God.
At the heart of prayer is the eucharist (that Great Thanksgiving of the Church), where the disillusioned, desperate, and disparate prayers, the energetic intentions, of the whole community are gathered up, offered to almighty God, and left with God. Of central importance to our eucharistic celebrations is the conviction that in Christ, the crucified and raised one, God gathers up all the brokenness of the world and holds it together in love.
This first aspect of our discussion enables us to draw three tentative conclusions about prayer. First, wanting to pray is at the heart of prayer (wanting to pray is, in fact, a prayer), given that prayer is an act of the will. Second, prayer and action are inseparable, as prayer concerns our re-orientation towards Goodness. We must not only pray but strive to become the answer to our prayers. Third, prayer is less about something we do to or for God than it is about something God does in and through us; hence the apostle Paul talks about God’s “Spirit interced[ing] with sighs too deep for words” within us.[ix] The re-orientation of our wills is not something we achieve for ourselves; for which of us can honestly say we have mastery over—or even that we fully know—ourselves? “[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought,” says Paul, but “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”.
The next thing to consider is Moira’s body language. In this scene, Moira kneels, encouraging her family to do the same while holding hands (a symbol of unity of mind, heart, and will). This either expresses her unconscious beliefs about prayer or is an act of somatic memory, a posture her body instinctively adopts.
From this point, we can draw two further conclusions. First, in prayer, form and content are inseparable, the two sides of the one coin. Our embodied expressions are not superfluous to prayer but are a vital part of it. Second, our bodies are not only our means of expressing our interior life, but our interior life is shaped by the movement of our bodies. There is some evidence, for example, that stooping is associated with negative moods.[x] Alexis, Moira’s daughter, and David are initially reluctant to join Moira, but they draw alongside her and soon appear fully engaged.
Moreover, this is not an individualist or private activity for Moira; she understands herself to be linked not only with Alexis and David, but also with Johnny, in the bonds of love. This is important to note for two reasons. First, in prayer, we are one important and unique voice in a chorus of others; and we must never underestimate the cumulative effects of prayer. “Our prayer could be the feather which tips the scale,” as one priest put it.
Second, prayer is never a private enterprise, but is carried out in union with Christians across the globe, and in the presence of angels, saints, and the whole company of heaven. This is part of what is meant when congregations affirm belief, using the words of the Creed, in the “communion of saints”. The prayers of those on earth are united with the prayers of the faithful departed (those who have died in God’s faith and fear, including those whose faith was known only by God), and the whole Church in heaven. This is what John Chrysostom (c.347-407) means when he describes prayer as “entering into a palace”: in one of his homilies on prayer, he says that “here you are being joined by choirs of angels” and “in communion with archangels and singing with the seraphim”, so “when you are praying, mingle with these voices”.[xi] Strong senses of solidarity and belonging can be experienced in prayer.
The final thing to consider is the content of Moira’s “proto-prayer”. She begins with a form of address, one that is somewhat reminiscent of the altar to the unknown god Saint Paul encounters while in Athens, “To whom it may concern”.[xii] This manner of address is formal and impersonal. In the Acts of the Apostles, before addressing the Athenians on the Areopagus, Paul gets to know his context well, and then begins with what his listeners already know—or, in this case, who they do not know: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
We do not know whether he is referring to a specific altar, dedicated to an unknown god, or perhaps to several altars, dedicated to several unknown gods, as these would not have been unusual in Athens. He might be cleverly adapting what he discovers in the local situation (altars to unknown gods) to better fit with monotheism (an altar to an unknown god). Whatever the case may be, Paul relates what he has found without initially making a value judgement, although he does later tackle the theme of idolatry (enjoying that which God has designed only to be used, to explain it in Augustinian terms). His opening focus is not so much on their veneration, but their ignorance: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
From this, we can draw two further conclusions about prayer. First, who we think God is shapes and drives all that we think, say, and do—and this includes our prayer life; so, doctrine should always lead to deeper devotion. Moira’s form of address is formal and impersonal, whereas, through Christ, we have “received a spirit of adoption” and can cry, “Abba! Father!”[xiii] Second, and intricately connected with this first point, is our need for revelation. As Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) puts it, “we understand, then, the Unknown, by the divine grace and by the Word alone that proceeds from him”.[xiv] Third, there is a word of encouragement to be found here: the key to beginning in prayer is simply to begin praying; start where you are, and find what works for you.
By now, it will be clear that calling Moira’s words and actions a “proto-prayer”—as helpful and self-explanatory this neologism might initially seem—it has the potential to be incredibly misleading; in light of our discussion, and alongside the great Christian spiritual writers throughout the centuries, we must stress that the desire to pray, whether or not we identify it as such, is, in fact, a prayer. So, in response to David’s question, “Are we praying?”, we might disagree with Moira’s self-assessment, answering with an unequivocal, “Yes!”
Christopher West is a postgraduate student, currently completing his Master’s degree in Theological Studies with Trinity College Dublin, which provides the training pathway for ministerial formation in the Church of Ireland, a province of the Anglican Communion. He is currently serving an intern year as a deacon, having been admitted to Holy Orders in September 2019, and he hopes to be ordained priest in September 2020.
[i] Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (London: Scholastic, 2018).
[ii] Rowan Hooper, “Philip Pullman: ‘A Story Will Help Us Make Sense of Anything’,” New Scientist, 3282 (2020).
[iii] This refers to the version in Luke 11.1-4.
[iv] See Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (London: Penguin, 2018), Ch. 6.
[v] For an introduction to some of the key aspects of his thought, see Patrik Hagman, The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[vi] For a detailed discussion of his ascetic tracts, see James F. Salmon and John Farina, The Legacy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2011).
[vii] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 28-9.
[viii] For an introduction to Aquinas, see Fergus Kerr, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). This term is borrowed from Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2002), 313.
[x] Both themes are central to Tara M. Owens, Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2015).
[xi] John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 19.3.