Why I Pray after a Tragedy

Admittedly, I am not exactly what one would typically describe as a “religious person.” Although, I have gone to great lengths to acquire a decent religious education in my adult life, I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly pious or observant person. Furthermore, I rarely find meaning in ritualistic exercises and I almost always feel like somewhat of an anomaly amongst the few spiritual communities I associate myself with.

I suppose I am one of those rare INTP types who would prefer to forgo congregational social gatherings in favor of serious study. Spiritually, I find myself on a constant quest to reconcile both the mystical and the logical aspects of my own psyche. At times, the former has taken on such precedence in my life that my rabbi once remarked, “It’s interesting to see how you view Judaism as a source of logic in your life.” On another occasion, while in the midst of describing my fascination with Maimonides’s Aristotelian concept of G-d as the “Ontological-metaphysical source of all manifestation,” my rabbi observed that I was “full of contradictions.”

His assessment struck me as profound because it affirmed that I haven’t completely surrendered myself to the sometimes crude and dispassionate world of pure reason with all it’s temptations to abandon wonder and subjectivity. It’s reassuring to know that I am still engaged in the process of constructing a non-dualistic conception of the world.

Furthermore, I’ve always contended that contradiction is a resting-place where the spiritual imagination and reason prepare for reconciliation.

While I still maintain that reason is perhaps one of the highest virtues, I’ve come to understand that the apprehension of knowledge itself is preceded by an aesthetic experience from which consciousness is drawn and ultimately acted upon. More importantly, I’ve learned that because the world around me is not rational, it is not through reason alone, but rather compassion that even the faintest glimpse of redemption is realized. Moreover, it is so often that the recognition of self comes to fruition in those times when each of us are brave enough to stair down the face of tragedy and answer back with love and empathy. It is in those moments that we pause ourselves from the constant tallying of life’s wins and losses and simply focus our attention on emanating light in the presence of darkness.

…And it is in this spirit that I prayed in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 15th.

Of course, at the time I had no idea that the subject of prayer would become a central theme in the world’s response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Over the weekend, I saw endless postings on social media that included the hashtag #prayforparis. After a day or so, I started seeing a number of anti-prayer/religious images pop up on social media. In one instance, a good friend of mine even sent one to my personal account that stated, “Don’t pray for Paris. Fight against hateful religious ideology.” Other images had slogans like, “Don’t pray for Paris. Religion caused this tragedy in the first place” and “Why would you pray after a tragedy to a God that did nothing to prevent the tragedy?”

At first it seemed like strange and arbitrary subject to dwell upon and but I’ve come to realize that each person has a different way of connecting to the Paris attacks and inserting themselves into the global conversation. Of course, my response to these images is no less of an attempt to insert myself into the conversation and perhaps by writing about it, I am making an effort to expand the spectrum of the dialogue.

While these images offer a starting point for a very important conversation, the very premise of the before mentioned statements also implies a problematic presupposition; a type of straw man argument if you will. That is the assumption that because one engages in the act of prayer, what follows is a primitive biblically literalistic theological conception of G-d and the world at large. For me, there is something wholly unlettered and dangerous about biblical literalism. And like most committed secularists, I have no sympathy for the moral bankruptcy of relying on prayer to remedy problems that require empirical solutions. That being said, I do feel that committed secularists hold fundamental misunderstandings about that various ways in which people embrace, experience, and ultimately identify with religious traditions.

One of the problems we have as a culture, is that our conversations about religion and spiritually are often far too abridged and therefore lack actual theological content. Part of the issue lies in the fact that it’s virtually impossible to host detailed discussions about exegesis, interpretation, and commentary when you’re audience is essentially biblically illiterate. This is dangerous because the absence of theological debate creates a vacuum which is often filled-up by hucksters and generally inept commentators. In recent years, left-wing secular culture has bolstered up a group of so-called “new atheists” like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence Krauss who continually prove themselves to be well-read but theologically illiterate.

On the flip side, sensationalist media outlets have all too often given a platform to “fire and brimstone” preachers and bigoted extremists. These voices tend to induce reductionist conversations based around a narrow dichotomy that juxtaposes absolute atheism against biblical literalism. Because these debates are generally contextually isolated and reduced to talking points, each of us walks away with any number of false impressions regarding both religious practice and scientific attitudes. In this case, one approach to prayer,often referred to as “petitionary,” has seemed to become representative of the entire practice.

In actuality, “prayer” is a term that applies to an incalculable number of approaches, attitudes, and historically/culturally constructed traditions. In reality, a great many of us that engage in prayer do not believe that it brings us into conversation with a divine being but rather that it provides us the opportunity to speak to what is sempiternal. While attitudes may vary in terms of how relational our prayers may be in respect to the divine, many people recognize the primacy of the existential experience for the practitioner.

Psychologist and philosopher William James described prayer as “The vital act by which the entire mind seeks to save itself by clinging to the principle from which it draws its life.” Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard proclaimed that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” And finally, representing one attitude from the Jewish tradition, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, ”The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.”

What’s important to realize, is that these approaches to the practice of prayer are antithetical to the spirit and unyielding fundamentalism which springs forth from terrorist ideologies. Of course, every terrorist campaign is waged on several fronts. Materially, terrorism seeks to vanquish populations and occupy territory. Psychologically, terrorism seeks to rob us of the security each of us innately experiences living in an open society. For some, prayer is a form of spiritual protest against the psychological subjugation terrorism tries to instill in us. In this case, our prayers give voice to our staunchest rejection of tyranny and oppression. In the act of prayer, we raise ourselves up to the eternal and proclaim to our enemies:

“You want me to surrender to fear, anxiety, and dread but instead I will choose to draw out a new consciousness for myself. In my meditation I will step out from underneath the hollow shell of the false ego-seeking selfness and not allow you to rob me of the ability to experience wonder and awe. My answer to your noise is to silence myself and ‘to guard my tongue from evil.’ In this moment of prayer, I will create a space in which my soul returns from the exile of the world. And it is here that I confront my inner-failings, highest aspirations, and become a dreamer again. What occurs in my dreams is nothing more or less than the harvesting of consciousness waiting to be realized experientially.”

It is this same spirit that the Negro spiritual and the tradition of American protest songs was first conceived. It is this same desire to express these aspirations that lead jazz legend John Coltrane to take up his horn and compose “Alabama” in response to the September 15, 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th street Baptist church that killed four little girls. We all know that Alabama won’t bring back the victims of these crude and inhumane acts but Coltrane once again reminded us that in the abstract world of art, we can often communicate sentiments that words fail to properly articulate. And as listeners we enter into the same reciprocity that inspires communities to assemble together and bond through prayer. Because like all creative endeavors, art has the power to inspire each of us to become active participants in the world’s historicity.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman correctly identified the correlation between music-in this case jazz-and prayer when he elucidated, “Prayer has its own proper structure, played out in time, first one theme and then another, until slowly but surely the whole service is completed, like a piece of jazz that starts somewhere, goes somewhere and ends somewhere, albeit with no predictability regarding each and every note the performers choose in executing the pattern. What notes are to jazz, words are to prayer. The words, then, varied; the overall thematic sequence stayed the same.”

Because prayer is an art form, it requires discipline, creativity, and ultimately a transcendent encounter in which the unknown reveals itself and discloses consciousness. As an artist engaged in the act of creation, our peak experiences can feel almost guided by a power greater than ourselves. The artistic experience requires a non-dualistic embrace of both the logical and meta-physical aspects of knowledge. Similarly, prayer is a creative act and like all creative acts, it requires a transcendental encounter. Like any art form, prayer has the potential to not only harvest consciousness and but to also reflect it back on to world through our deeds. Like prayer itself, a song, a painting, any other creative work may not have the power to spark a political or social revolution but no one would deny that these works have the ability to “disturb us and ruffle us from our complacency.” When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., arms linked, he said, “I felt like I were praying with my feet.” Heschel was so profoundly moved by this experience because he understood the importance of transforming reflection into concrete action.

He would go on to write:

“It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions. It is in the employment of his will, not in reflection, that he meets his own self as it is; not as he should like it to be. In his deeds man exposes his immanent as well as his suppressed desires, spelling even that which he cannot apprehend. What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds. The heart is revealed in the deeds.”

Prayer need not be an end but a beginning; a potential starting point where each of us feels compelled to act in the world around us. My first act is to write and once again experience the stillness and meditation of the creative process. My next act might not be so public, but I know that I am one step closer than I was yesterday to living an ethically committed life. For the moment, I am content to sit back and let tranquility rush over me as I put the finishing touches on this composition because for at least today, the tyrants of the world have failed to break my spirit.


About the Author
Anthony Greaves is a Director of Student Services in the field of post-secondary education. He also holds a B.A. from Berklee College of Music.
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