There are any number of angles one could take in trying to think or talk about prayer. How does God hear prayers? How does God respond to them? When and for what should we pray? What are the mechanisms that make prayer potentially efficacious? I’d like to discuss prayer from a perspective that brackets these questions of efficacy or the effects our praying has on God, focusing instead on one particular aspect of prayer, perhaps most memorably described by C. S. Lewis who famously argued that the most important consequence of prayer was not its effect on God but rather its effect on the person who prays.
My analysis here, drawn both from my own experience as someone who prays as well as on my training in a discipline which focuses the central and foundational role language use plays in organizing meaningful human experience and social reality, begins with a single observation: whatever else one wishes to say about it, prayer is, at its core, a linguistic act.
Since I’m going to argue that this is quite significant, I should clarify a bit about what I mean by this perhaps obvious, commonplace observation. In the first place, and notwithstanding the importance of meditation for spiritual growth as well as the potentially fruitful relationship between the two acts, prayer is not meditation, either in the technical sense of emptying one’s mind of positive content (non-thinking) or the more idiomatic sense of rigorous contemplation, pondering, etc. Though undoubtedly the mental discipline borne of serious meditation and the insights drawn from intense contemplation are important complements which can add dimension and richness to prayer, prayer is not meditation, not rigorous concentration, not spiritually focused thinking. It is a spoken act, defined and constrained by the imperatives of language use. The actual substantive content of prayer is organized by the rules—grammatical, lexical, syntactic—which govern the production of meaning and coherence in communication. We pray with words and sentences. We make requests, not merely by thinking intently or longingly about the desired object or outcome, but by deploying the verbs and syntactic structure of making requests, however defined by the language in which we speak. Even silent prayers consist primarily of subvocalized linguistic units—words, phrases, sentences. And, perhaps more significant than any other of the obvious linguistic features of prayer, our prayers address someone.
Before presenting my argument about how the pragmatic effects of this addressivity take shape in the context of prayer, permit me to make a few points about how we, as bearers of that uniquely human faculty of symbolic language, use this ability more generally, in everyday contexts.
Though it is obvious to us all on some level, it is nevertheless difficult to overstate the significance of the fact that we use language to do much, much more than refer to things. It is not merely a code, a set of learned associations between words and the objects they denote, and sets of rules for how those words can be combined and recombined to form larger meaningful units (phrases, sentences, novels, etc.). Language is, of course, these things, but it is also a dynamic and powerful tool through which we actively and creatively shape our social reality and the relationships which define it. Language is a force for constructing a meaningful world—a world of shared meanings and values—out of the raw material of our natural experience.
Like the structured rules of phonemic combination and grammatical order, we demonstrate a fluency in the principles which underlie this potent and creative para-referential facet of language use—things like meta-language, prosidy, gesture, as well as the use of words and other signs which draw their referential power from the specific context in which they are used—without actually being conscious of how we are doing it. We acquire all of the complexities of grammatical and syntactic rules of our native languages without ever formally learning them as rules. We know the rules for combining words to make the mean, in sentence form, what we want them to mean. We know the rules, even without consciously knowing we know them. We know them so well and so intuitively that we can creatively construct sentences we’ve never before heard, without having to consciously consider the rules for doing so, and we can do this quite effectively years before we begin to formally learn grammar in school. Similarly, we continuously and with varying degrees of effectiveness make use of the social grammars of using language in socially creative and productive ways, even without being formally trained rhetoricians or linguistic anthropologists.
I’ll limit my analysis here to one specific dimension of the socially creative and constructive use of language, before applying it to a discussion of prayer: the inescapable fact that we are all inveterate, non-stop liars.
Not liars in the sense that we are regularly deliberately deceiving our interlocutors, trying to manipulate them into believing things which we know to be untrue or not completely true in order to pursue self-referentially nefarious goals, but rather liars in the sense that we are regularly deliberately deceiving our interlocutors, trying to manipulate them into believing things which we know to be untrue or not completely true in order to achieve ends which we consider reasonable and not-at-all nefarious. That was a bit tongue in cheek, but only a bit. We do manipulate our interlocutors with our every word. We attempt to consciously control channels of understanding, we conceal as much as we reveal, we attempt to shape others’ views of us and of our relationships to the things we describe, even as we describe them, in the very way we describe them. The micropolitics of all conversations involve countless such choices, concealments, evasions, subtle misdirections, spinnings, smoothing-overs, massagings.
And, by the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, at least not in itself. All such tiny acts of manipulation and/or gentle influence can be used for good or ill, and everything in between. We acknowledge this all the time in our talk about talk, our descriptions of the complexities of conversational proprieties. We talk of politeness, of white lies, and, most particularly, of filters. We recognize the need to be careful about what we say, depending on the situation and on who our interlocutors are, and about how we say what we say. We all have fine tuned filters for managing the conversations we have, particularly with people who are important to us. We never, ever tell the whole, complete, and absolutely unvarnished truth, if for no other reason than even in those moments when we believe that’s exactly what we’re doing, we still attempt to tell it in a manner that will likely portray us in a certain light to those we address. We use varying grades and forms of what is technically deception (though, I would argue, deception sapped of its morally evaluative, negative overtones) to influence, manipulate, and control the channels of inference, meaning, and understanding of those with whom we communicate. We even use the language of coercion to describe these effects when we witness or participate in them. We all know what it feels like to control or dominate a conversation, and we all know what it feels like to have someone else do the controlling or dominating.
Theory of Mind is the philosophical term denoting the ability of an intelligent being to attribute mental states to other beings she encounters. We assume that the beings with whom we interact have minds and mental capacities—beliefs, desires, intentions, perceptional limitations, deceivability, gullability, deceptiveness, etc.—essentially and functionally the same as our own. Your ability to manipulate the understanding of your interlocutor is grounded in your awareness that her mind functions the same way yours does, with the same aptitudes and limitations, and the actual modes of manipulation depend on the specific features which we share (and which we know we share). It seems so obvious that it shouldn’t require mentioning, and yet it lies at the very heart of the process I’m describing, but the most fundamental shared feature which orders the dynamics of cross-conversational mircopolitics is the inability to read minds. I cannot read your mind, and I know that you cannot read mine. A simple way of illustrating the centrality of this lacking ability in our interactions is to imagine the following:
You are about to get into a serious conversation with your spouse. It is a serious conversation because it is on a serious subject, a subject about which you two have spoken countless times, a difficult subject, one in which you tread extremely carefully and cautiously, where you know the specific triggers and pressure points of your spouse, when to and not to push them, etc. This is a practiced, but nevertheless thorny and difficult conversation, you’re about to have it, and suddenly, somehow, you come to the terrifying realization that your spouse has just acquired the superpower of mindreading.
Your every thought is now on display, nothing to hide or minimize. How does this new knowledge affect your perception of the conversation, your desire to participate in it, your very ability to actively participate in it? This thought experiment underscores not just the significance of the inability to read minds but a number of other points from the above discussion. We don’t just deceive for nefarious purposes. Quite the contrary, the overwhelming majority of our tiny acts of prevarication, acts which we lie to ourselves about by believing them to be something other than deceptive, are undertaken for wholly legitimate, even sincerely altruistic, even truth-valuing purposes. We lie most to the people we value most, and with respect to the topics and conversations where the most is at stake. Which is to say that our filters, our efforts to actively manage and control communicative interactions, are turned up to their highest and most sensitive levels at precisely those times when, in theory (and in the simplistic and idealized world we deceive ourselves into believing we live in), the highest possible premium should be placed on absolutely transparent, unfiltered, unadulterated truth-telling.
Our words never convey the truth as we know it, never the whole truth, always conceal part, always misdirect on some level, always spin the situation, always manipulate, and never, never transparently and fully reflect our thoughts. And the reason for this is that our thoughts, which we ostensibly disclose in speaking, are nevertheless concealed from those we address (indeed, concealed by the very things which allegedly reveal them—our words). Before I tie this to prayer (along lines you probably can already anticipate, at least in part), I should note that this brief disquisition on human communication is not meant as either a grand unified theory of ethics, nor as a philosophical or metaphysical argument about the relationship of thought to language or of language’s ability to fully represent the universe and the totality of human experience and cognition. This is an argument about how we use language in the most practical, creative, and pragmatic sense, to certain effects, to the shaping of our experience and our social relations toward our own desired ends. Our language use simply never aligns perfectly with our mental world precisely because we never align the two.
With one exception.
An act of sincere, serious prayer, to the extent that it is, in fact, sincere and serious, presumes and almost summons into being a Being quite unlike any other potential interlocutor its utterer might face in this life. Whatever I might think about the limits (or lack thereof) of divine omniscience, to the extent that I believe that my prayers, like the prayers of others, are heard, processed, and understood, then I understand myself to be speaking, in real words and complete sentences, to an Interlocutor who can freely read my mind. If the only purpose of praying were to convey to God my thoughts, then prayer would be unnecessary. Unless, of course, my thoughts were otherwise unavailable to God, which would arguably indicate a God to which most would be likely disinclined to pray.
The implications of this fact, in terms of the effect it has on the person praying, are, I think, highly significant, extending well beyond its shaping of our belief that God profoundly understands who we are or the intentions of our hearts. We attempt to produce (or reproduce) the practical effects of such an otherwise inconceivable spoken interaction in certain highly significant and therapeutic settings of self-disclosure: the clerical confessional and the medical or psychological examination (see, Foucault was right!). We do this largely through juridically enforced strict professional imperatives of non-disclosure and confidence, the legal category of Privilege. In some religious settings this is augmented by a sense that the confessed to authority has certain powers of spiritual discernment. But this is at best a pale shadow of the real thing: a conversation with (actually, an addressing of) a Being who is fully aware of all that you might otherwise seek to limit awareness of through communicative stratagem. Who cares deeply for you, and who you believe has some power to help you. We are taught to speak to God, submissively yet intimately, in particular about those aspects of our life which are most difficult, where the most is at stake, and we do so in an implicit, awesome awareness of the scope of God’s own awareness of us. The dynamic I’m describing here is only fully present, of course, in private (as opposed to public, family, or even prayer with a mission companion or a spouse). But its consequences are profound.
All of this means that personal, sincere, private prayer is the one speech event in your mortal life—meant to be as routine in execution as it is singular in nature—in which all filters are shut off, in which what you say transparently reflects, to the degree that such a thing is possible, what you think. Your spoken self aligns, for just a moment, with your inner self, and you are laid bare before God, before the universe, and before yourself. It is a moment of pure self-disclosure, absolute self-honesty. It is the moment in which you are forced to encounter and, because you articulate rather than simply feel or experience it on some more primal level, analyze your true and absolute self. Because of the kind of being God is and the kind of being we address God as, irrespective of any subsequent or independent action or intervention such a being might choose to make, prayer alone makes possible the kind of self-knowledge that capacitates the miracles of repentance and, by extension, of atonement and exaltation.