Prayer: “A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.”

Part 13 in a series; see other parts here.

The notion of prayer as a kind of melody sung in unison with God can give great comfort—until we realize that we’re trying to match pitch with a thunderbolt. It’s not that God is out to get us, but that the music running through all of creation is so immense and powerful that it inspires awe, and, if we’re paying attention, not a little terror. Prayer connects us to the music of vast overhanging cliffs, of entire oceans being lifted by the moon’s gravity, of nebulae swirling with newborn stars. Our lives and deaths seem like insignificant pinpricks on such a scale.

In prayer we come to see our own smallness, our apparent cosmic insignificance, and yet prayer does not permit us to vanish into nothingness, but obliges us to witness the splendor of which we, too, are a part. Prayer shows us our innate dignity, stripped of all hubris. Prayer grounds us in Being itself.

God’s grandeur isn’t bluster, but largesse, and it aims to generate perspective, not fawning gratitude. Prayer teaches us to see ourselves as we really are, neither under- nor overestimating our own capacities. The way it does this is by keeping us in motion. Like the massive torqued sculptures of Richard Serra, which cannot be seen all at once from any given perspective and so require the viewer to move and thus to engage with them as space, prayer is our mechanism for coming to terms with a creation—including our selves—bigger than we’re able to take in.

By moving in the space of prayer, we learn our own dimensions and formal qualities, which enables us to orient ourselves more adeptly to the great cosmic music, first attending to this strain and then to that. We may never quite piece together the whole symphony, but in time we can learn to swim more adeptly in it. Prayer is like the experience of standing chest-deep in the sea and looking out to the far horizon while feeling the rhythmic power of its vast bulk pulse through our bodies. We are small in relation to its majesty and power, and yet we are one with it, the water in our bodies resonating with its teeming liquid. We add to its chorus not with our voices, but with our whole selves, our every cell and atom moving to its time, which, according to string theory, always turns out to be the speed of light.

The song of creation is nothing but light in the end—fittingly, for it began with a Fiat lux—and there are as many ways to sing it as there are ways of combining the dimensions that slice and curl through our reality. What infinite musical gymnastics God can perform, and what lithe dances begin to dawn on us, tiny things that we are, sitting perched on the cusp of time.