Part 7 in a series; see other parts here.
Being an adult means spending quite a bit of time metaphorically at sea, not quite sure whether we’re in or out of our depth. Certainly we only rarely see to the bottoms of things. Herbert’s claim that prayer can find the bottom and measure its depth thus seems like a stretch. After all, the mere fact of praying doesn’t exempt anybody from occasional or even systematic cluelessness. What’s the use, then?
If plummets help measure depth, they can also be plumb lines, useful for testing how close something is to being right (geometrically speaking). The world and our perceptions of it are only rarely right, in any sense of the word, even if the Dunning-Kruger effect means that we think we’re right more often than we actually are. So, we experience life as charged with cognitive dissonance, because things rarely line up the way that we think they should.
If prayer doesn’t seem terribly useful for arriving at the totalizing perspective from which all cognitive dissonance vanishes (a perspective that I consider unattainable by any means available either in or out of the Church), prayer is incredibly useful for plumbing the experience of cognitive dissonance itself. Effective prayer demands ruthless honesty, and the discipline of working toward that honesty means coming to terms with the real tensions that attend human life—not to resolve them, but to learn how to inhabit them. Prayer, again, is about learning the art of being there. In the practice of attempting to be present before a being who can sound our depths with perfect accuracy, our little fudges become flagrantly obvious. Prayer is very much a plummet in that respect, as it relentlessly holds our attempts at verticality up to critique.
If we hope to measure out the heights of heaven and mark the depths of earth, we have to sign on to prayer’s persistent asceticism. Prayer can be a security blanket when we need one, because God is kind, but prayer is much more frequently as abrasive as it is soothing. The hard teaching often comes with generous dollops of love, but there are still times, as Jesus learned in Gethsemane, when nothing more anguished than prayer seems imaginable. Most cognitive dissonance pales before Jesus’ apparent abandonment by God and the scandal of the cross. What better way, then, to find out just how deep cognitive dissonance can go that to fall on your knees, with Mary, at the foot of the cross?