This is a brief meditation on the most distinctive form of religious discourse: prayer. The oddness of prayer–in spite of its almost universal use in the practice of the world’s religions–is that it is, and is not, actual discourse. It is a conversation with someone (or with many) where all the speaking is on one side. There is no verbal response and not even any sign that someone is listening. Whom are we addressing in this case? Ourselves? Emphatically not. None of us is likely to confuse prayer with, say, personal reflection. So what are we actually doing? The case is confused by the fact that much prayer begs for an answer–and, of course, many beseeching souls convince themselves they have received the longed-for reply. We are only too familiar with those whose “answered” prayers send them to war, or persuade them to run for public office, or assure their sports team’s victory. As Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, both sides of America’s most disastrous war prayed to the same God.
By way of personal anecdotes and literary references, I try to point out that this peculiar use of language exposes the depth of our ignorance, not just about divine matters, but about ourselves. It also has much to say about the dynamic involved in the act of listening, and is a reminder of the degree to which much of the world and our experience of it makes no obvious sense. The ironic consequence of acknowledging this is a comforting modesty in our judgment of others and ourselves, a judgment always open to revision.