Sunday, February 27, 2011

Magical Thinking--and Praying

In a recent blog, Frank Wilson talked about "magical thinking," which is not easily defined. I think the issue is related to prayer, so this post will be one of my reflections on prayer, in part a response to a friend's request, his interest in learning more about why and how people pray.

According to Wilson, the primal human engagement with the world was not logical, a matter of clear and distinct ideas, but more of a mystical encounter; not an objective, clinical observation. This is a valid way of apprehending reality, he says, and it "survives in quite a few of us" because magical thinking, involving how we feel as well as think, doesn't "radically detach the knower from the known." A purely rational approach to reality, by contrast, downplays imagination and emotion. It puts the other/Other "out there."

All of this seems to me relevant to prayer, a private experience not any easier to discuss than "magical thinking." It begins, usually, with words, as in a petition, then, ideally, proceeds to the non-verbal, to silence, the kind of silence Thomas Merton and others have talked extensively about wherein I can, on a good day, sense and feel the presence of God. I also feel a closeness to others.

So prayer is not really a narcissistic endeavor, any more than meditation is; it is not merely asking for favors but asking for God to make us aware of His presence within us. The contemplative prayer that is my goal when I pray leads to a resting in God.

It might begin with simple observation of the world around me, an appreciative sense of the present as a gift; it might use a word or scriptural phrase that is repeated until it is no longer needed.

It is quite possible, even desirable, to have this type of prayer as an ongoing activity throughout the day. That is what Merton presumably meant by having "an uninterrupted dialogue with God." Perhaps what we hear is our own voice coming back to us, but the knower is inseparable from the known, so what we hear can be called the voice of God whispering in the silence of our hearts.

Does prayer do any good? Can I change reality by praying for someone? I often doubt it. I remember C. S. Lewis writing to his brother and saying (paraphrased), "I don't known if my prayer does you any good, but it helps me." And that is not self-serving for reasons I just stated.

Why do I pray? To help myself deal with problems both external and internal: the daily fears we all have, the worries and decisions and choices that can't be made alone, that require "outside" help--help that is other than my inner self. I need the comfort that Someone is listening to my concerns, One who understands loneliness, pain, disappointment, and all that flesh is heir to.

Do I have the feeling of God's presence in church? Yes, at times, when the church is quiet and I am not distracted by the presence of others; but it happens mostly in those fought-for periods of silence when I am alone and my busy mind quiets down long enough to sense that I am not really alone. It can happen when I am in awe at the beauty of creation, absorbed in music or reading...all of which can be mystical experiences.

I know I need to say more, to define some of these indefinable terms, to say more about the mystery of an experience that is really beyond words. And I wish the process of praying was as easy for me as I have made it sound. Perhaps this rumination will lead to other reflections...

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

This is great. I've been struggling with the whole subject since we talked but haven't had (or taken) the time to put my thoughts into words for you. I am printing this post as well as Saturday's, because I want to chew on them for a while before responding. Your words appear to offer a delicious treat, but as of yet, I've only taken a whiff of the aroma.