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by rubbing which we summoned the angels of God to do our bidding, prayer was a blank check signed by the Almighty which we could fill in at will and present to the universe to be cashed. Such a conception of prayer is picturesquely revealed in the confession which Robertson of Brighton, the great English preacher, gives us in a paragraph about his childhood. “I remember when a very, very young boy,” he says, "going out shooting with my father, and praying, as often as the dogs came to a point, that he might kill the bird. As he did not always do this, and as sometimes there would occur false points, my heart got bewildered. I believe I began to doubt sometimes the efficacy of prayer, sometimes the lawfulness of field sports. Once, too, I recollect when I was taken up with nine other boys at school to be unjustly punished, I prayed to escape the shame. The master, previously to flogging all the others, said to me, to the great bewilderment of the whole school : 'Little boy, I excuse you: I have particular reasons for it,' and in fact, I was never flogged during the three years I was at that school. That incident settled my mind for a long time; only I doubt whether it did me any good, for prayer became a charm. I fancied myself the favorite of the Invisible. I knew that I carried about a talisman unknown to others which would save me from all harm. It did not make me better; it simply gave me security, as the Jew felt safe in being the descendant of Abraham, or went into battle under the protection of the Ark, sinning no less all the time.”
Many of us can look back to some such experience as this with prayer; but, as with Robertson, serious doubts soon disturbed our simple-hearted trust. How often we rubbed this magic lamp, and no angels came! How steadily our faith in its efficacy gave place to doubt and then to confident denial! As experience increased, we relied not on prayer but on foresight, work, money, and shrewdness to obtain our desires.
Frederick Douglass said that in the days of his slavery he used often to pray for freedom, but that his prayer was not answered until it got down into his own heels and he ran away. In that type of prayer we come increasingly to believe; but where then, is the old trust that used to look for gifts from heaven? Indeed, when in anguish we have cried for things on which the worth and joy of life seemed utterly to depend, our faith has been staggered
by the impotence of our petition and the seeming indifference of God. We have entered into Tennyson's crushing doubt:
"Mother, praying God will save thy sailor,
This practical disappointment with prayer as a means of getting things leads in most men to one of two conclusions: either a man gives over praying altogether; or else, continuing to pray, he seeks a new motive for doing so to take the place of his old expectation of definite results from God. Men used to put flowers on graves because they thought that the departed spirits enjoyed the odor. Although that superstition long has been overpassed, we still put flowers on graves; but we have supplied a motive of sentiment in place of the old realistic reason.
So men who learned to pray in childlike expectation of getting precisely what they asked, are disillusioned by disappointment; but they continue prayer, with a new motive. "Never mind if you do not obtain your requests," men say in this second stage of their experience with prayer; “remember that it does you good to pray. The act itself enlarges your sympathies, quiets your mind, sweetens your disposition, widens the perspective of your thought. Give up all idea that some one does anything for you when you pray, but remember that you can do a great deal for yourself. In prayer we soothe our own spirits, calm our own anxieties, purify our own thoughts. Prayer is a helpful soliloquy; a comforting monologue; a noble form of auto-suggestion." So men returning disappointed from prayer as a means of obtaining definite requests, try to content themselves with prayer as the reflex action of their own minds. This is prayer's meaning, as they see it, put into an ancient parable: Two boys were sent into the fields to dig for hidden treasure, where all day they toiled in vain; and at evening, coming weary and disappointed home, they were met by their father. "After all,” he said to comfort them, "you did get something—the digging itself was good exercise."
How many today think thus of prayer as a form of spiritual gymnastics—what Horace Bushnell called "mere dumb-bell exercise !” They lift the dumb-bell of intercessory prayer, not because they think it helps their friends, but because it strengthens the fiber of their own sympathy. They lift the dumb-bell of prayer for strength in temptation not because God helps them, but because the act itself steadies them. Prayer to them is one form of menticulture. But this kind of prayer is not likely to persist long. A thoughtful man balks at continuing to cry "O God,” simply to improve the quality of his own voice. He shrinks from the process which Charles Kingsley describes in a letter as “Praying to oneself to change oneself; by which I mean the common method of trying by prayer to excite oneself into a state, a frame, an experience.” Or if he does indulge in such spiritual exercise, he must call what he is doing by its right name; it is meditation, it is soliloquy, but it is not prayer. When a man indulges in this occasional self-communion for spiritual discipline; when no sense of fellowship with God is left in his soliloquies to remind one of Jesus' great confession, “I am not alone, but I and my Father” (John 8: 16), his meditation can be called prayer only in the qualified phrase of one of the parables, where a man “stood and prayed ... with himself” (Luke 18:11).
Is not this a typical experience of modern men? They find themselves impaled, as they think, upon the horns of a dilemma. “Either," they say, “prayer is an effective way of getting things by begging, or else prayer is merely the reflex action of a man's own mind.” But the dilemma is false. Prayer may involve something of both, but the heart of prayer is neither the one nor the other. The essential nature of prayer lies in a realm higher than either, where all that is false in both is transcended and all that is true is emphasized.
To Jesus, for example, the meaning of prayer was not that God would give him whatever he asked. God did not. That sustained and passionate petition where the Master thrice returned with blood-stained face, to cry, “Let this cup pass” (Matt. 26:39), had “No” for an aswer. Neither did prayer mean to Jesus merely the reflex action of his own mind. Jesus prayed with such power that the one thing which his disciples asked him to teach them was how
to pray (Luke 11:1); he prayed with such conscious joy that at times the very fashion of his countenance was changed with the glory of it (Luke 9:28, 29). Can you imagine him upon his knees then talking to himself? Was he merely catching the rebound of his own words ? Surely, when the Master prayed, he met somebody. His life was impinged on by another Life. He "Felt a Presence that disturbed him with the joy of elevated thoughts." His prayer as not monologue, but dialogue; not soliloquy, but friendship. For prayer is neither chiefly begging for things, nor is it merely self-communion; it is that loftiest experience within the reach of any soul, communion with God. Of course,
this does not answer all questions about prayer, nor exhaust all its meaning. Definite petition has its important place, and later we must consider it. But at the beginning of our study, the thought of prayer as communion with God puts the center of the matter where it ought to be. The great gift of God in prayer is himself, and whatever else he gives is incidental and secondary. Let us, then, consider in particular the significance which this truth has for our idea of praying.
For one thing, the thought of prayer as communion with God makes praying an habitual attitude, and not simply an occasional act. It is continuous fellowship with God, not a spasmodic demand for his gifts. Many people associate prayer exclusively with some special posture, such as kneeling, and with the verbal utterance of their particular wants. They often are disturbed because this act gives them no help, because it issues in no perceptible result at all. But even a casual acquaintance with the biographies of praying men makes clear that praying is to them a very different thing from saying prayers. One who all her life had identified with prayer certain appointed acts of devotion, properly timed and decently performed, exclaimed “Prayer has entirely left my life”; yet when asked whether she never was conscious of an unseen Presence in fellowship with whom she found peace and strength, she answered, “I could not live without that!” Well, that is prayer—“not a mechanical repetition of verbal forms,” as A. C. Benson puts it, “but a
strong and secret uplifting of the heart to the Father of all."
Let any of the spiritual seers describe the innermost meaning of prayer to them, and always this habitual attitude of secret communion lies at the heart of the matter; they are seeking God himself, rather than his outward gifts. As Horace Bushnell says: “I fell into the habit of talking with God on every occasion. I talk myself asleep at night, and open the morning talking with him”; and Jeremy Taylor describes his praying as "making frequent colloquies and short discoursings between God and his own soul”; and Sir Thomas Browne, the famous physician, says, “I have resolved to pray more and to pray always, to pray in all places where quietness inviteth, in the house, on the highway, and on the street; and to know no street or passage in this city that may not witness that I have not forgotten God.” Ask a monk like Brother Lawrence what praying means to him; and he answers, “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God's presence, by continually conversing with Him”; and ask the question of so different a man as Carlyle, and the reply springs from the same idea, “Prayer is the aspiration of our poor, struggling, heavy-laden soul toward its Eternal Father, and with or without words, ought not to become impossible, nor, I persuade myself, need it ever."
To be sure, this habitual attitude is helped, not hindered, by occasional acts of devotion. Patriotism should extend over all the year, but that end is encouraged and not halted by special anniversaries like Independence Day; gratitude should be a continuous attitude, but all the months are thankfuller because of Thanksgiving Day; “Remember the week day to keep it holy” is a great commandment, but the experience of the race is clear that to keep one day each week uniquely sacred makes all days sacreder. So if all hours are to be in some degree God-conscious, some hours should be deliberately so. The biographies of praying men reveal regularity as well as spontaneity. One would expect John Wesley to undertake anything methodically, and prayer is no exception. In addition to his voluminous Journal, Wesley kept diaries, scores of which have been preserved, and on the first page of each this vow is found: “I resolve, Deo juvante, (1) to devote an hour morning and evening to private prayer, no pretense, no excuse whatsoever; and