I RISE out of my depths with my language.

You rise out of your depths with your language.

Two tongues from the depths,

Alike only as a yellow cat and a green parrot are alike,

Fling their staccato tantalizations

Into a wildcat jabber

Over a gossamer web of unanswerables.

The second and the third silence,

Even the hundredth silence,

Is better than no silence at all

(Maybe this is a jabber too—are we at it again, you and I?)

I rise out of my depths with my language.

You rise out of your depths with your language.

One thing there is much of; the name men call it by is time; into this gulf our syllabic pronunciamentos empty by the way rockets of fire curve and are gone on the night sky; into this gulf the jabberings go as the shower at a scissors grinder’s wheel.…

Carl Sandburg

Pretty much every day now in modern America, we have a mass shooting. Most of the time it doesn’t even make the news anymore. Every couple of weeks, there is one that is particularly heinous. Usually it happens when children get shot, and I’m reminded of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom saying, “Every idol will eventually demand a sacrifice, and eventually that sacrifice will be the blood of children.”  Molech still wants his food.

After this happens, there is a curious modern ritual that happens on my socials. Someone will post something about “thoughts and prayers” going to the victims. Then someone else will post something about “thoughts and prayers” not being enough and needing action. Everyone starts talking past each other because people mean different things when they talk about prayer.

I don’t think I can shed any light on much of this, but as someone who has a pretty extensive practice of prayer and meditation, I can at least clarify what some of us mean by prayer — and what we don’t mean. As far as “thoughts” go, my guess is that it means something very similar to what religious folk mean by prayer.

Here are some thoughts to elucidate what prayer is and isn’t.

Prayer is not trying to influence and invisible sky god to do what you want. In technical terms — at least for traditional theism — God is not a “being” that “exists” “somewhere” that you try to get to do stuff for you. God created existence and is not subject to it. In prayer we are not reaching out to a “being” that is “somewhere.” God is a “who” and not a “what.”

We cannot say anything really intelligible about the God who transcends being and non-being alike, but in prayer, we can participate in the divine life. By participation, we do not gain intellectual knowledge. We get experiential knowledge that is transformative for us and for the world because we are falling in love.

If you conceive of prayer as something that is divorced and separate from action, you are talking about something different than what people who pray are talking about.

Often when we pray, we begin with the wrong perspective. We imagine a situation that is stressful and inducing anxiety in us. We ask God to do something to fix the situation — as if God were somewhere outside of the problem. It’s a way of carving out little silos of secularity in the world where God isn’t present, and then asking God to get into the space where God isn’t. But this is a fundamentally deist understanding of things, for there is not place where God is not. Prayer, then, attunes us to the spaces where we aren’t present to God. Prayer puts us in the place where we can say with St. Jacob, “Surely God is in the place, and I didn’t know it.”

“Prayer does not occur in time, but time occurs within prayer.” – A. J. Heschel