The Transcendent Practice of Prayer

The following faculty address was delivered by Susan Abraham, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies, in the Memorial Church during the June 3 Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving for the Class of 2009.

Dean Graham, Reverend Gomes, Class of 2009, members of the faculty, alumni, honored guests, families and friends: I am deeply honored to present a reflection on prayer on this sacred occasion and in this sacred place.

It was not that long ago I sat in these very pews with the graduating class of 2003. It seemed to me then, in the tragic aftermath of September 11, that our damaged world was in urgent need of prayer. I wondered then whether the "learned ministry" had really prepared me for prayer in the chaotic new world to which I was being sent. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the uncomfortable suspicion that I had too much learning and not enough prayer.

Our world continues to be chaotic and complicated. I believe we have a responsibility now to bring not just our learning, but also our spiritual energies to counter the failure of our social, political, religious, and academic institutions.

What is prayer? Gandhi called prayer "a longing of the soul, the most potent desire in the universe." It is a practice that uses the language of transcendence to yield understanding and knowledge "otherwise." It interrupts, ruptures, and fissures the sheerly immanent. It is a discipline of receptivity to the sacred and yields the fruits of compassion, humility, hospitality, and love. It fosters the conditions for intellectual and spiritual conversion. It sparks reconciliation. It re-enchants the world.

Far from being an elitist, cerebral, or "otherworldly" activity, prayer is a disciplined spiritual attentiveness. It embraces paradox: the intellectual one presented in the oppositional relationship of transcendence and immanence, and the practical one of choosing between knowing and doing. As such, it is resistance and possesses a great power to reconstitute the world differently. Prayer is not the kind of dangerous quietism that permits retreat from the self, creation, other human beings, and God; it requires that we courageously embark on journeys both within and without. Prayer is a "raid on the inarticulate." In the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same:
you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

For Eliot, prayer is an engagement in the world of space and time—the here and now. Prayer may use words, but it definitely requires the body. It is a response to transcendence from embodied reality.

And what is the manner of transcendence? It is complex, differentiated, transcendent, other. In the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka instructs his son Svetaketu:

In the Beginning was only Being
One without a second.
Out of this One was brought forth the cosmos
And entered into everything in it.
There is nothing that does not come from the One.
Of everything this One is the inmost Self.
The truth; the self Supreme.
You are that, Svetaketu; you are that.

Tat Tvam Asi. You are that. You are Ultimate Reality, transcendence itself. Yet this is not a simplistic statement about the divinizing of the self. It is a statement of how to constitute transcendence. "Other" is not so "other" that it is strange or unknowable. It is to be known as the self is to be known. What collapses is dualism of the finite and the infinite, of the human and the divine. What is redefined is the boundary.

The collapse of the dualism however, need not engender any problematic oneness, but presents us with the idea of nondual two-ness. Transcendence and immanence can only be captured in relationship to each other. For Hinduism, this is the dvaita disposition. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has recently written on the dvaita disposition. Spivak, following her "willingness to suspend disbelief," argues that it is the practice of dvaita in worship that interrupts rigid belief systems so easily co-optable into colonial, nationalist, identitarian, and racist agendas. Even postcolonial theory is talking about prayer!

Paradoxically, the discipline of redefining the boundary of self and other requires us to embark on a program of intensification. The theological insight with regard to prayer in the context of Buddhism is that Buddhism complicates not transcendence, but immanence. There is a Zen story told called "The Furnace of Reality":

A disciple came to his master and asked, "It is terribly hot. How shall we escape the heat?" At once the answer came: "Let us go down to the bottom of the furnace." So the perplexed disciple asked again. "But in the furnace how shall we escape the scorching fire?" To which he received the reply: "In the furnace, you will not be troubled by pain."

Dying to the Self is the only way to achieve clarity with regard to the complex immediacy of immanence. We need such clarity because suffering manifests itself most painfully in this immediate world. This is the paradox: meditating on immanent reality requires us to embark on a path of negating the most immediately present form of immanence—the Self.

There is no way to be free to apprehend the suffering of the world if one is focused on the self. The path of egolessness in Buddhism is a "first turning" teaching and undercuts claims of identity as well as privilege. Egolessness, or being awake, is the path by which we realize pratityasamutpada—the interbeing of all things. Being awake, therefore, is less a state of reinforcing the psychological self, even as it is not a nihilistic condition or an unconscious or vacuous state of nonperception and nonthinking.

It is important to note that Buddhism's disavowal of transcendence is a moral response to the excesses of theistic frameworks that ignore suffering in the world. Modern atheism follows this impulse. The emphasis on immanence is not necessarily a rejection of transcendence; transcendence here is transcendence of the self in ethical relation. Note, however, that prayer here is directed toward self-purification, not against theists!

Some of the members of Harvard Business School's Class of 2009 have just signed an oath against greed. Here is a concrete commitment to egolessness in a context saturated with narratives of self, power, and greed—the context of spiritual bankruptcy. What a novel idea: that economic bankruptcy is produced by spiritual bankruptcy. Would that we bring our learning and our disciplined practice of egolessness, the prayer of the not-self, to the wasteland of the world's financial systems!

To pray is to practice holiness. Judaism teaches us that the path of holiness requires attention. Attention requires practice. I remember a conversation with a student once who wondered aloud if he had an attention deficit disorder because he found the required text for the course "terribly boring and makes my mind wander."

Rather than diagnose any medical condition, I asked him if he had ever considered the possibility that the book was boring. He was astonished. He had never considered that possibility. Some books are boring. But it is important to explain how and why. His classroom experience, and mine, was transformed when he had to move beyond the shallow judgment of "boring book" to evaluating criteria for determining "boring." He eventually said that he learned something from a "boring" book and a "boring" class: that paying attention is holy work; it is prayer.

In the Pirke Avot (5:27) it is said:

We are here to do. And through doing to learn
And through learning to know
And through knowing to experience wonder
And through wonder to attain wisdom
And through wisdom to find simplicity
And through simplicity to give attention
And through attention
To see what needs to be done.
We are here to do.

All our doing and attention is to heal and make whole the world. I once asked Roger Haight, the recently silenced Roman Catholic theologian, what prayer was. He simply said: My work is my prayer.

For those of us who love learning and studying, especially in the fields of religion and theology, it is important not just to be learned about religion and theology, but to know how to do religion and theology. It is to inhabit our intellectual traditions in such a way that our intellectual work is our spiritual work and vice versa.

In such a vision, gratitude for the gifts one has promotes the response that we are part of a whole chain of being and that our primary job in the world is to pass on life—enhanced—to future generations. All our work, all our prayers, are for healing and wholeness.

Judaism, as you see, befriends transcendence. In the work of healing, in the work of tikkun olam, transcendence and immanence are friends. The human-divine relationship is that of covenantal partners. God and God's people (all God's people, not just God and Tim Geithner) have mutual responsibilities and obligations in order to make the world whole and holy. It is being heartbroken over anything that breaks the heart of God, for friendship with God means opening one's heart to what is beloved of God.

All attempts at cultivating holiness bring us to the realization that it is transcendence that first approaches us. In so approaching us, transcendence makes room for itself in immanent, material, finite, creaturely reality.

Ibn 'Arabī writes:

My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles
And a monastery for Christian monks,
And a temple for Hindu images
And the pilgrim's Ka'ba
And the tablets of the Torah
And the book of the Qur'an.
I follow the religion of Love:
Whatever way Love's camel takes,
That is my religion, my faith.

Recognizing the nearness of the divine to our reality, Islam practices the prayer of the many names of God. Prayer in this form preserves transcendence as transcendence. Precisely because there are multiple names for God, the prideful self is prohibited from thinking that it can capture or possess God. We arrive at egolessness through a different path than Buddhism, but with the same effect. Dwelling on the names of God makes of human hearts and minds a dwelling for the divine. And the Divine who has at least 99 names, and who has knocked on the door of the willing heart, takes up this dwelling.

Prayer in its many different forms can teach us that the intellectual exercise of grappling with the relationship between transcendence and immanence only happens in embodied experience. There is a very difficult form of prayer called the prayer of the open hands, which wordlessly seeks to experience the gift of the divine. This form of prayer, also called the prayer of petition, uses the gesture of open hands to signal receptivity to the Divine. But the prayer of the open hands is not simply about what we can receive; rather, it is about what we are willing to give up or to have taken away. Immanence is most truly itself when it transcends its bounds and catapults itself into the reality, the bosom, and the heart of transcendence.

For Karl Rahner, this is the clearest experience of human freedom. Freedom is not the freedom to; it is the freedom for, without reservation, for transcendence in the concrete particular of this space and this time. One is simply not free, in the way that Rahner means, if one cannot pray the prayer of the open hands: As I would receive, so I will give. Rahner would go so far as to say that we cannot, learned though we are, talk about freedom, write about it, or even fight for it, if we have not prayed the prayer of the open hands in freedom and for freedom.

So what is prayer? It is a practice, a desire, a force, a power of truth that embraces paradox. I have always wondered if Harvard's motto, "Veritas," is a secular stand-in for transcendence. Veritas connotes transcendence: Truth, it is out there, beyond us; that is why we seek it and embark on journeys within and without, desiring it. We have learned from our religious traditions, however, that what is "out there" often approaches us, draws close, and comes near. Then it inspires us to suspend the ego, realize the self in the Other, pay attention to suffering, let God be God, and realize human freedom in relation to the sacred. Its multidimensional structure, evidenced by the dizzying plurality of form, tradition, and cultural interpretation, is grasped only in the experience of participation. Truth is plural; and to think of pluralism as relativizing and voyeuristic simply indicates a poverty of the spiritual imagination.

Inhabiting the plural, as we have in a multifaith worship service experienced here today, creates the conditions for metanoia in our time. Metanoia is a Christian word and means conversion. Metanoia cannot refer solely to the Christian message of redemption and salvation; it must now capaciously include metanoia to the religious other in our shared living of embodied response to transcendence and immanence.

John Howard Yoder has repeatedly called for a disavowal of the Constantinian model for Christian theology. A deliberately anti-Constantinian mode of doing theology, drawing on both the spiritual and the intellectual in view of peaceful, though complex, relations between religious claims and identities is the work of Christian theology. This is to do the work of truth for our complex time and the work of love. And this is true for any religious identity and theology which would seek to manage and contain and control the multiplicities of response to the divine in the world.

To borrow a phrase from Pope John XXIII, "Veritatem facere in caritate" is prayer. Prayer is doing the truth in love. It is, I would think, the meaning of "learned ministry." All learning and all ministry is about a simple four-letter word: love. Have you learned to love in and through our differences? Have we not experienced love-in-difference today? If so, we have learned to pray in a way that makes prayer valid.

Consequently, Class of 2009, I do not say farewell to you. I say fare forward (thanks to Eliot again), and do the truth in ardent love. Fare forward in love, to transform your journeys within and without into the prayers and deeds so mightily needed for our world.

Thank you.