Pray Like You (Don’t) Mean It: On Genuine Prayer

When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen?

The kneeling murderer suffers through an attempt at prayer. Repentant yet addicted, he bows and shouts and almost hopes. As he prays, he notices he must adjust his brother’s royal crown on his own head. As he prays, he doesn’t notice his brother’s son lurking, both armed and wronged, behind him. The usurping king prays silently until he belts out a phrase familiar in feeling to many who have prayed as ardently as they could:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” Claudius mutters as Hamlet leaves the scene.

There are two reasons to say this about your prayer: either you don’t care about it much or you care about it a very great deal. In the first case, the one who prays finds herself offering an inauthentic, flippant set of words. In the second case, the one who prays is overwhelmed by her complete inability to be as attentive and genuine and repentant and real in prayer as her need demands.

Despite many failings, Claudius fits the second description – he cares about his prayer. This is no cocky, confident charlatan tossing holy words around for show. This is a man torn inside, who wants to pray and can’t pray as he needs to pray. His reasons for struggle are different than mine, but this murderer, certain that his words can’t rise above his thoughts, reminds me of my own inattentive and flighty mind set simultaneously and irreverently on genuine prayer and inexplicable wandering.

When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen? To pick on Claudius, it is clear that, in some sense, he believes himself to be the origin of his prayer’s power. He believes the action taking place to be primarily his own; God is passive.

This is always a problematic way of seeing God. We do not pray to a passive God. At our most ardent efforts to pray genuinely and attentively, we must remember that God is better at hearing prayers than we are at saying them. God is the most active participant in our prayer life.

The Heidelberg Catechism instructs, “It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer, than that I really desire what I pray for.”

This is what Claudius lacks (and perhaps some boundaries around not killing people). He does not have a sense that God has an active part in the activity of prayer. He believes that for his words to rise to heaven they must come from a perfectly attentive heart. This is not the reality of the human person. The reality of prayer is not duty or flawless execution or ready-made perfection. When I pray, I do not turn my perfection upward toward God; it is precisely the opposite.

Oh, Claudius, if you could see! You think your prayer does nothing, but Hamlet, because he sees you pray, chooses to delay killing you. The prayer you thought failed preserved your life. It is as though the God which Shakespeare portrays will react enthusiastically to even the faintest effort to pray.

The sense that “words without thoughts never to heaven go” conveys half the story of prayer: the half where I am active. But, the half where God is active is the more exciting part. He’s done this prayer activity quite a lot more than I have, and He is, demonstrably, rather good at it.

We come to prayer as genuinely as possible, and we remember that greater things are possible than our attention can facilitate. The author Fredrica Mathewes-Green writes, “However, when you are plagued with distraction and run through a hundred prayers without awareness, when you keep spurning thoughts of Christ for amusing trivialities, when you feel dry and stupid and the words are sand in your mouth, pray them anyway. Do not cease praying when prayer becomes hard, for fear of doing it imperfectly. If you cease praying when you can’t do it right, the devil gets the victory. So keep offering a broken prayer, and remember that you are only an unworthy servant, and yet Jesus wants you.”

In short, the feeling that we’ve failed to pray should never occasion the end of prayer, as it did with Claudius. After his pious lament, quoted above, comes the one-word sinful stage direction which he should never have followed, “Exit.”

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Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Is Your Identity As You Like It?

If the world is a stage, we like putting on the same shows. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Equilibrium…not original. Even in Shakespeare’s 17th century comedy As You Like It, we confront the suggestion that the world is a sham and humans are the sham’s pawns.

At surface-level, the play is a ball of fluff—a cute comedy where everything ends neatly and everyone gets married. On a closer read, though, we find that Shakespeare juggles weighty questions in this ‘ball of fluff’ like ‘what is it to be human?’ and ‘how do I ‘find myself’?’ The various characters in the play (namely Jaques, Rosalind, and ‘everyone else’) depict three different answers to these questions—beyond that, Shakespeare leaves us to untangle identity’s mysteries.

Corrosive melancholy drips from Jaques’ words. “All the world’s a stage,” he declares, “…And all the men and women merely players.” The woodland existentialist makes his cynicism clear: in using ‘merely’, he implies that our ‘stage’ is meaningless. After all, as his soliloquy continues, every life ends in nothingness—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.” To ‘What or who am I?’, Jaques responds, ‘You are a pawn. Dust. Puppet of a cosmic stage.’

I can hardly find fault with the cynic when I consider how most of the characters go about finding identity: they don’t. Rather, they seem to say, ‘we simply are what we’re thrown into’. Not exerting any will over their own lives, they trip obliviously through events. To accuse them of being ‘merely players’ is easy: from exile to love to religious conversion, the characters are reflexive, their identities in constant flux because derived from immediate fortunes. In this, they cut themselves off from pursuing human ethics: a typically requirement for ethical behavior is the cognitive choice of action rather than simply responding to externals.

I admit. I commiserate with Jaques acidic misanthropy: malleable people bug me. Even when they have strong desires, the desires are imbibed. In a way, As You Like It echoes the ironic image of a million Americans wearing name-brand shirts that boldly state ‘INDEPENDENT’. I can point at it and say, “I don’t want that. I don’t want my identity to be ‘pawn’.” If my life were entirely dependent on external influence, I think I’d fall into a kind of despair.

But is Jaques the alternative?—the man who detached from society in order to see it ‘objectively’ and became, as a different character notes, “nowhere…like a man”? He doesn’t despair about his life being externally caused; he has a despair of ever having that despair! We look at aloof Jaques, polar opposite of the manipulated majority, and see that while being a puppet of fortune is bad, isolation is worse. True identities are largely dependent on involuntary givens.

As Gandalf says to Frodo, we don’t get to choose where or when we live, but only what we do with the time we’ve been given. The majority of the players in As You Like It don’t impose will on the given—they simply absorb it. Jaques tries to reject all givens, but he ends up isolated. He affects the events of the play so little that Shakespeare could exclude him in the earliest manuscripts without much alteration from the later versions.

Still, Shakespeare doesn’t leaves us directionless in the ‘insanity’, as G.K. Chesterton called it, of “the man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else.” A different character provides a satisfying example of embraced identity…Rosalind. While she fully lives in her community, Rosalind also uses her wit and desires to impact her surroundings. She is committed to the given–she engages with life as presented to her–but Rosalind is not addicted to it. She knows herself because she sees the given and accepts it, doing what she can to improve it: she is not tossed blindly by fortune, nor does she pretend she can escape fortune.

We Christians claim to ‘live in the world, but not of it’. Rosalind demonstrates that principle in action. Not fighting suspension between reflexive and rational, Rosalind gains full human identity by embracing both. Unlike Rosalind, though, I hope Christians find better use of time than matchmaking. Unless, of course, the match was made in heaven..then participation is required.