you can't find enjoyment in your prayer, there is probably something missing.
Is there any power in a prayer? That question, frequently asked,
may preempt a more fascinating one. Is there any pleasure in a prayer? I suspect
that for many people prayer is seen as a duty imposed, rather than a pleasure
eagerly sought. I suspect that prayer is something that arises most often out
of need, desperation, guilt, or perhaps merely habit. If these impressions of
how many people relate to prayer are accurate, then it might be useful to clear
the decks and take a fresh look at this widely misunderstood but critical element
in the life of the soul. In my view, prayer is a natural and spontaneous response
to the presence and beauty of God; prayer is not something necessarily imposed
by religious professionals, led by experts, limited to the theologically educated.
Prayer is what wells up from within when one stands in the presence of God. And
to the extent that prayer flows from a relationship with a loving God, then it
is clear: prayer is one of the supreme pleasures of life. After all, can you think
of anything that gives greater satisfaction and pleasure than being in the presence
of someone you love? If that "someone" happens to be God ... blow me
Prayer as one of the supreme pleasures of life
to see it this way, one may have to clear away some powerful misconceptions. Consider
how it was that you were first introduced to prayer. Were you ever told that learning
to pray was something that every good child ought to do? Did your father or mother
insist that you say your prayers before going to bed at night? "Now Johnny,
don't forget to say your prayers!" Do you remember having to wait at the
dinner table before eating a sumptuous feast, so that a family grace could be
I remember being asked to pray for the starving Armenians
long before I had the slightest inkling who the Armenians were. I remember being
reminded to pray for poor Aunt Minnie, though Aunt Minnie frequently spoiled our
Sunday afternoons with her long and uneventful visits. And I was made to feel
guilty that feeding the Armenians or entertaining Aunt Minnie were not high on
my list of priorities at the age of ten or eleven. I also have distinctly unpleasant
memories of prayers foisted off upon me and my classmates during the morning assembly
in my public school (before the Supreme Court rescued me from that pious captivity)
and prayers intoned at great length on purely ceremonial occasions like the Inauguration
of a new President.
Hence the unmistakable lesson was communicated that
prayer was a duty and an obligation imposed by someone in authority regardless
of whether I shared the pleasure in it or not.
And there's another
thing. If you attend many of our Protestant churches around the country as I have,
you are likely to come away from many of them with the impression that prayer
is a matter of dour responsibility because so few people seem to be enjoying it
very much. At worship, we Protestants seem to be mournful and grave, silent and
sleepy-eyed, and by our very style of worship, we communicate the feeling that
prayer is a matter of obligation rather than joy. If we are to shatter some of
these negative images we need look no farther than two of the greatest prayers
in the Bible; namely psalms #148 and #150. These two examples capture both the
form and substance of prayer at its best. Look at the opening verses of psalm
#148. In his enthusiasm the psalm writer makes prayer a cosmic celebration; turning
the very stars of heaven into an intergalactic chorus:
the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; Praise God in the heights.
Praise the Lord all angels; Praise God all ye hosts; Praise God sun and
moon; Praise the Lord you shining stars!
Of course the
psalmist does not expect that the stars will literally burst forth with human
speech; this writer is affirming that the stars are in their very beauty an act
of praise. These words express the joy and wonder one feels in the presence of
the infinite. Aware of the terrible beauty of the universe, it is quite natural
that one is moved to express a sense of wonder, joy and praise.
to the psalm. Having enlarged our vision and widened our horizons with his sweeping
view of the heavens, the psalm writer calls our attention back down to earth:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and
hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God's command. Beasts and
all cattle, creeping things and flying birds.
are quite extraordinary when you think about them. For clearly the call to worship
is not addressed simply to the pious church goers and the devout adherents of
The psalmist gives the impression that the whole
of creation is involved in the act of praise.
How is it, then, that
many people appear to be so concerned about proper form, ceremony and propriety
in prayer when the psalmist makes it perfectly clear even sea monsters, cattle
and creeping things are perfectly capable of prayer?
I know that many will
dismiss this psalm as an overstatement, some will say that the writer is merely
waxing poetic. Surely we are not joined in our prayers by the beasts and the cattle
and other creeping things. Well, I wouldn't be so sure. True enough, we are the
only creatures capable of building churches and expressing our prayers in human
speech. But all creatures great and small are the work of God. The natural world
is not just an assortment of physical matter spinning aimlessly through space.
The whole creation is evolving under the rule of God. God stands beyond, but also
behind and within the passing flux of all things. God is the real waiting to be
realized; God is the future waiting to unfold; God is the one who ties the diversity
and multiplicity of the cosmos together into one harmonious whole.
an ancient quilt maker, God takes the shredded fabrics of our lives and sews them
together into a pattern of great beauty which is a pleasure to behold.
the nineteenth century in America, women would in fact make quilts from the scraps
of fabric left over from other projects. These shreds of calico, linen, cotton,
silk, velvet and satin, seemed to be of little value in and of themselves, but
when sewn together they became works of great beauty. They were called crazy quilts.
And often the quilt maker's love or faith found expression in their design. Like
a master quilt maker, God can take the discarded scraps of our lives and shape
them into works of beauty. Noticing the handiwork of God in our own lives and
in the world all around us, nothing seems more natural than to sing a song of
praise and thanksgiving.
What does prayer look, sound and feel like? The
second psalm, #150, captures the spirit of prayer. Here the psalmist is quite
Praise God in the sanctuary. Praise God in the mighty
firmament. ... Praise God for exceeding greatness. Praise God with trumpet,
Praise God with lute and harp; Praise God with tumbrel and dance; Praise
God with strings and pipe; Praise God with sounding cymbals; Praise God
with loud clashing cymbals; Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord.
take this psalm as a guideline and a goal for all prayer. Here there is nothing
held back; every medium of expression comes into play. It's all stops out for
God. Music and the dance, the sights and the sounds, the color and the drama.
Clearly prayer is meant to be enjoyable.
John Calvin, one
of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation expressed it well when he said
that the chief end and purpose of life is to "enjoy God forever." That
is not only good theology; it's also a practical suggestion for the renewal of
the soul. In the past people have often pondered the question, "Is there
any power in a prayer?" Today there is a more pertinent question: "Is
there any pleasure in a prayer?" I would submit that if God truly is the
source of all things beautiful and good, then prayer is the supreme pleasure of
You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
(To see the current list of
topics your browser must allow Active Content)
Please take a moment to let us know you
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.