In June 2018 Ipswch Quakers held a series of Quaker Quest events in which visitors were invited to come and find out about what makes people Quakers. The format was for three Quakers to each give a short talk on the topic for the evening after which there was a discussion on what was said. Some of those who spoke have kindly agreed to share their talks on our blog.
This is John Mann’s talk on Prayer.
A recent survey found 6 out of 7 people believe in prayer, with young people more likely to pray than those in their 50s and 60s. So people seem to feel an intuitive value in prayer even if perhaps they don’t really know much about it.
There are three things I will be covering on prayer.
First – what sort of universe is it in which prayer might make sense.
Second – what is prayer, what does it mean for Quakers, how do we pray?
Third – what is prayer for, what comes out of prayer?
So our universe, what is it? What do we know about it? In one sense we know a lot – well, a lot more than we did 100 years ago and more than 400 or so years when Quakers started or 2000 years ago when Christianity started.
However we have also come to realise how much we don’t know – 80% of the matter in the universe is composed of dark matter of which we know almost nothing. 68.3% of the energy in the energy in the universe is dark energy which again we know almost nothing about.
Evolutionary models of perception show what our experience of the world is functional rather than veridical – that is, coinciding with reality. 75% of our perceptual experience is generated from our brains, only 25% actually comes from sense data. We literally hallucinate our experience of reality.
Our experience of the world is like our experience of a computer – when we use a computer we see things through the desktop – we see windows and the mouse, and files and documents and applications, but if you were to look inside the computer none of those things would be there. That is because it is a functional experience – what is actually going on in the memory and circuits of the computer is much too complex to understand directly, so we simplify it through the functional interface. Our experience of the world is just a functional interface, so much of what is actually “out there” is far removed from what we experience.
The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung said we are dreaming even when we are awake, we just have dreams inspired by our sense data.
So most informed people are quite agnostic about what type of universe we are actually in. One question that divides many scientists and thinkers is the question of consciousness. We can simulate some parts of consciousness – we can create computers that remember things, that speak, that reason, that drive, that find things – even some that can write music or paint pictures. However how we would even begin to create a computer that felt joy or sorrow or was able to reflect on its own existence is a mystery.
For this reason some argue that consciousness is not contingent on a material universe but in some way exists separate from it. The constituent parts of material reality cannot conjure up consciousness. Instead it actually makes more sense to see consciousness as primary and material reality, or our experience of material reality, as part of a more universal consciousness. And we could of course if we had time also bring in how quantum physics makes consciousness primary in its explanation of quantum events.
So my first point is that our universe is a mystery and consciousness a key element in that mystery. Even if more traditional and archaic notions of God appear simplistic and part of our pre-scientific world view, religion and religious experience may point to some deeper reality we have as yet only seen through a glass darkly.
Now what is prayer? Some would say Prayer is connecting with God. Psalm 42:7 says:
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me”.
If you meditate or practice mindfulness you will know the mind is a mysterious thing. We appear to have at least two minds – our regular mind, a sort of chattering thing that just keeps going as long as it has the energy, and a reflective mind that is able to step back and watch the chattering mind. As in a dream, much of the time we are unreflecting, we just do what we do, say what we say, think what we think.
But most religious practices teach us the importance of not simply letting this chattering, busy, unreflective mind do whatever it wants. They say we need to strengthen the reflective mind. But now do we do this?
In part, it is learning to practice what the author Tim Freke calls “lucid living” – being awake to ourselves and our existence. Many traditions speak of “waking up” from the sleep of existence.
But it is also about how to let this reflective self explore the depths of the mind. This is prayer – going deep into ourselves and finding out what lies within. This is how we can find what Quakers call the “inner light”. Through the experience of silence and stillness, of listening, of being attentive, of exploring inner space, we can learn wisdom. Some have used the word “God” to describe what they find within, but different cultures have given it many names, including “Goddess”, “Fullness”, “Love” or just existence.
Be open to what is within. In ancient Greece a daimon (δαίμων: “god”, “godlike”, “power”, “fate”), which a lesser deity or guiding spirit. Socrates attributed his wisdom to listening to his guiding spirit. Jesus says. “ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened” – speaking to god is no mystery, it is just asking and listening for the answer.
There are many ways to do this. Prayer isn’t just about sitting still with your eyes shut – in fact the only time the Bible describes Jesus praying it says in John 17:1 “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed”. You can pray sitting still and using visualisations, but you can pray through music or art, or walking in the country.
Even in tense and difficult situations, you can pray out of the experience, you can pray from whatever experience you are having.
And prayer isn’t just about listening, it is also about debate and discussion with that inner voice, that inner light. The name “Israel” literally means “he struggles with God”. The Bible is full of an active engagement with the divine, not passively responding but actively disputing with God. The experience of Israel was in part to correct God, to improve God, to critique God. Prayer is a two way process.
Again, there is so much more that could be said on this, but to not pray is to miss out on a magical human experience, it is like never having listened to music or never having looked up at the stars or never felt the awe of watching the ocean. Like most profound experiences it is beyond words but words are still needed to point to try to share something of its essence.
My third point is what comes out of prayer. My answer is, surprises. We can be radically challenged to re-think what we believe and how we live. As an example, the New Testament often talks about how Jesus mixed with “tax collectors and sinners” but who were the sinners? Some think it must have been the marginalised and the oppressed, however James Crossley Professor of Bible, Society, and Politics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London and co-executive editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.
In Jewish literature from Hebrew Bible texts and through rabbinic literature the range of meanings appear to be relatively stable in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek…. One view of the Gospel ‘sinners’ which should be discounted, however, is one which should have long gone away: ‘the sinners’ as ‘the marginalised’, ‘the outcast’, ‘the oppressed’ etc. with whom Jesus was prepared to mingle. There is a lot of discussion about the socio-economic status of ‘sinners’ in Jewish literature (Psalms, DSS, 1 Enoch, lots of rabbinic literature etc.) and the answer is always clear: ‘sinners’ are perceived to be rich and oppressive. In this sense, they can only be ‘marginalised’ in the same way as ‘the 1%’ are marginalised today.
This appears shocking to us but I would suggest that Jesus was doing what Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi and in particular Nelson Mandela did – they were looking to rethink how to live with each other. They had a hope and vision for the future that didn’t involve retribution, vengeance or payback.
When Nelson Mandela was in jail he learned Afrikaans – which many black revolutionaries refused to do, being literally the language of the oppressors, because he wanted to be able to talk to his enemy. He got to know his jailers in prison, when his solicitor came to visit he would say “James, let me introduce you to my guard of honour” and introduce all the jailers by name. Because he wanted to build trust and bring peace to his country.
Through prayer we can learn unconditional love that changes us and changes how to relate to others. It can stop us being haunted and trapped in the past and can free us for the future. It can stop us feeling concerned with status and reputation and instead give us confidence to build character even in adversity. Because prayer changes things.