Published in Basileia, April 2010 as “Encountering God in Prayer”.
At half-past four in the morning, the little neighborhood in Kolkata resounds with chirps of birds, radio music, and early voices of shopkeepers, vegetable vendors, paperboys, school kids, and a miscellany of others rolling into their day. Dominating these are the sounds of bells and sacred chants (mantras) from a nearby Temple, a Prayer Call (adhan) by a muezzin from a Mosque nearby, and hymns from Christian homes around. Religion, certainly, is an interwoven fiber of our society. Prayer is its distinctive feature.
From homes and neighborhoods to schools, universities, and working places; from market places to river banks, vales, and mountain tops, we are incessantly surrounded by sights, symbols, and sounds of prayer. The experiences are varied; the commodities, not few. We, of course, talk of flowers, incense sticks, coconuts, and nectar; we also know a bit about prayer wheels, prayer mats, prayer shawls, and prayer books; not to mention, oils, waters, and herbs; shrines, shuls, and sanctuaries. Somehow, deep within the human heart lies a distinct connection, one that reaches out from the abysmal within and plunges into the transcendent infinite-yet-at-hand that we know is God; the reaching out suffused with breaths of sincere prayer and sustained by the force of faith. Even the early Greeks had an altar “To The Unknown God” (Agnosto Theo), in case there was One who was not addressed among the myriads of deities that they knew and worshipped, and the Indians had this aphorism by Kabir “He is remembered by all in sorrow; in pleasure, by none: why would there be any sorrow, if He were remembered in pleasure by one,” thereby declaring that memory of God must not be merely limited to the temporality of need but must pervade our entire experience of being. However, Kabir belongs to the post-Islamic era, when monotheism and the way of personal devotion had found some place in the Indian mind instigating reflective local movements such as the Bhakti panth and Sikkhism. The gap between the fearful appeasement of “The Unknown God” and the culture of devotional self-surrender is bridged by the revelation of an important aspect constituting the approach of God: it is what we will call as the rediscovery of prayer, something that was, was not, is, and still is not, and must constitute, with all its pillars and strings intact, the fundamental of the approach of God – a bridge that spans within the exclusive revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of man.
The Bible teaches us the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We have direct access to God. However, this directness of access is grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ, past all religious boundaries. He is God, He is Man; He is the Bridge between God and man.
We have sufficient reasons now to believe that the foundations of religion are not animistic but theistic. In fact, several anthropological studies justify the Biblical view that animism and polytheism are not primal but degenerated forms of the first spiritual experience. There is no significance to theorizing that the sense and fear of the unknown and the numinous engendered the cult of prayer, except for the evolutionary underpinning of some chronological frameworks – which is irrelevant and unnecessary for a rational understanding of nature in general and specific, and has been discussed at length by experts in the various fields in works elsewhere. That being said, we must now plunge into enquiring the foundations of prayer from a Biblical vantage point.
The distinctive teaching of Christianity is that the universe was created out of nothing (ex nihilo); therefore, it has no fundamental standing; it is contingent. The building blocks of this universe are made of the substance called as void, zero, cipher, or shunya – for, the world is basically made out of emptiness. However, it is not nothing; though, in itself and by itself it is engrossed with the sense of abstract-yet-personal rootlessness and voidness that produce anxiety or vanity as manifest in the consciousness of sentient beings. Neither reason (which is devoid of concrete elements) nor experience (which is devoid of the ground of necessity) can rescue man from his falleness which may be described as the condition of self-zeroing. The only rescue is God, who gives us shape and purpose by the Word of His power (Heb. 1:3) that brought this world into existence (Heb. 11:3). Throughout the Bible recurs the truth that it is not the human longing as much as is the divine calling that functions as the primary motivation for all recourse to faith. God desires and calls us to seek Him, therefore prayer exists.
One may, however, ask whether prayer existed before the Fall. Indubitably, yes; for, prayer being a seeking of God’s will, permission, or action regarding any given subject, is prior to and unrelated to the Fall. A clear evidence of this fact is that the Lord Jesus Christ prayed, in fact, more than any other man on earth; yet, He was untouched by the fallenness of man. Therefore, it would not be right to say that prayer originated after the Fall. Whether the Fall existed or not, prayer would exist as the bond that linked our contingent and finite worlds to the eternal purposes and resources of God. The bridge, essentially, is Christ who is the only One Mediator between God and man. Every other way is redundant and terminal.
Yoga versus Prayer
The sanyasa sat serene, undisturbed, unattached, and tranquil. Prince Siddhartha was intrigued by this sight. He resolved to don the saffron robes and walked out of his luxurious palace into the dark and violent night of this world in search for the light. Years later, someone asked him who he was. He had been in contemplation under a tree, and he replied, “I am Buddha (the enlightened one)”.
It is a known fact that the philosophy of Yoga, though springing from Samkhya, has considerable roots in Buddhist philosophy (as well as in Jain philosophy). A comparative perusal of the Yoga Sutras would provide sufficient proof of this. One significant component of both these systems is a stress on the contemplative life, stretching this further onto fixture of mind on nothingness or emptiness (shunya). Drawing from this principle, Abhishiktananda (originally, Henri le Saux; died 1973), a French Benedictine monk in India, had elaborated much on what he termed “the prayer of silence” that he judged could be invaluably aided by yogic exercises. For him, the quest of yoga (comprising the various methods or techniques) is spurred by the intense drawing towards the prayer of silence. In his words, “Genuine yoga is essentially a method, having both an inward and an outward aspect, whose aim is to bring the mind to total silence.” He quotes the first aphorism of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras that sums up the essence of true yoga as “the arresting of all mental activity.” For Abhishiktananda, “there can no more be a “Christian” yoga than there could be Christian logic or Christian gymnastics”; on the other hand, “Genuine yoga aims at stopping the formation of concepts and immobilizing the mental flux, so that every image or thought may disappear, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.” Having said this, he explores the value of the experience of emptiness in Christian experience of prayer as the spring of self-awareness and, ultimately, divine awareness. His logic is simple: until one reaches the point of union with God in consciousness, one has not understood or known God, one has not been enlightened by the Spirit, one has not received the highest of the gifts of the Spirit, which is the gift of Wisdom, by which “the Spirit acts at that central point of the soul where it is nothing but pure awakening to the self, pure awareness of being, beyond all that is perceived or thought.” In view of all this, he says, Christians are bound by the obligation to develop their mind’s capacity for silence and to hold themselves in a state of constant wakefulness, waiting upon the Spirit. When the processes of the mind are stilled and the mind emptied of all its volatile content, then out of that abyss arises, according to him, some inner power or light that breaks in the awakening. The theological rationale of all this must be quoted in Abhishiktananda’s own words to retain its flow of argument:
The Christian who is seeking for true prayer cannot be indifferent to all this. Any prayer which, even unconsciously, regards God as an object is not a prayer “in spirit and in truth”. God cannot be an object, because by definition an object depends on a subject, who sets it before himself (ob-jicit) so as to be able to look at it or deal with it, and so makes of it a thou or a he, if not an it. We cannot rightly speak of God in the third person, despite the exigencies of grammatical or linguistic convention. God comes first. I am only myself in the thou which God addresses to me. God alone is the first person, in the proper sense of the term, for he is the fount of all discourse…. To be absolutely true, the Thou of my prayer should be grounded in the Thou which the Son eternally addresses to the Father, in the indivisible I-Thou of the One-in-Three.
So long as in our prayer we continue to think and feel, to treat God “in relation to ourselves”, it is certain that we have not yet entered the innermost “mansion” of the Interior Castle – according to the imagery of St Teresa of Avila. Those whose aim is God never stop short at anything whatever that is thought or felt, no matter how exalted or uplifting it may seem to be. God is beyond…. [The spirit] is for ever incapable of reaching him [God], so long as it is not ready to leave itself behind and to be immersed and lost in the abyss of God himself. Then only it understands that silence is the highest and truest praise: Silentium tibi laus [in footnote, “Praise for you is silence”, based on the Hebrew text of Ps.65:1 (cp.62:1)]. The soul itself is then simply silence, a silence to which it has been brought by recollecting itself deep within and by stilling its inner activity; but now a silence which the Spirit makes to resound with the eternal Word, a silence that is all expectation, gazing at the One who is there, pure waiting, an awakening…
The philosophical foundation of such emerging theology is marked by at least four incongruities:
- Mystic Blundering. The aim of this theology is the ascetic mystic experience. However, since mysticism is not explicitly (or even implicitly) taught in the Bible, the recourse has been to the closest philosophy that upheld it with some misinterpretation of Scripture and adducing of tradition.
- Ambitious Void. In Buddhist yoga, the experience of emptiness is considered to be the end of all dialectics (ideas, experiences and actions) and the attainment of Nirvana (emptiness), which is Buddhahood (Enlightenment); similarly, in Maitri Upanisad, the highest state of Brahman (non-dual Self) is “the state of unqualified understanding (unqualified consciousness) where the mind is completely dissolved without any trace of the concept of space, time, sound, breath, or any object.” The state of the highest consciousness is identified with the cessation of the sound at the end of the chanting of OM – the end of the chant, the non-sound at the end, Brahman (self) is silence – and that is the goal of yoga, the cessation of all chittavritti. This view is totally in opposition to the Biblical view of Jesus Christ as the Divine Logos, the Word, Wisdom, Reason, and Revelation of God as person. Contingency is abhorrent to yoga; therefore, the physical ambition aims at invincibility, while the psychical ambition aims at transcendence – both, reflective of Edenic Fall caused by the desire to be like God. It is obvious, that Abhishiktananda disregards this fundamental difference in thinking of yogic practices as aids to Christian experience of prayer, while also accepting that emptiness should not be the goal.
- End of Reason. The Bible nowhere recommends the kind of silence that yogis talk about. The emptiness of OM is set in opposition against the intense logical and spiritual depths of the Laws of God that the Bible calls us to meditate upon. When the Bible calls us to call upon the Name of the Lord, it doesn’t refer to chanting, as is the common practice of the mantric religions. Intelligence is an important feature of Christian worship and prayer. Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the intellect also” (1Cor.14:15, ACV). The silence of waiting is not a blank voidness of mind akin to samadhi; it is reverent anticipation before the Lord, and never lasts very long.
- Fall of Prayer. The vision of submerging in the nebulous consciousness of God without subject-object distinctions may have mystic attractions; but, it has certain philosophical assumptions that must be seriously countered at the outset. Yoga views the soul to be an individuated manifestation of the universal force reduced to its particular form through stress raised in the universal consciousness. Man as a genus is considered to be the result of the differentiation of the whole into an infinite plurality of correlated centers called individuals, effects of nature. As such, the relationship between the particular consciousness and the universal one is akin to that between air in the atmosphere and air in our lungs. Therefore, in Yoga, there is no prayer: there are only techniques towards self-realization; yogic exercises are meant to excite and awaken the latent, inner powers; as such there can be no compatibility between yogic meditation and Biblical contemplation.
Contrary to the yogic world, contingency plays an important role in the prayer-favoring framework; for, it not only distinguishes God from man in essence, but also positions man in the state of urgency and need; God never prays to man, but man is expected to pray to God. This is absent in both polytheistic and monist religions, where any individual has potential to acquire supreme status. Regarding yoga as physical exercises, chiefly what Surendranath Dasgupta has referred to as “the science of breath” and its developed form of pranayama (“a system of breath control”), the value of the techniques depends on, first, the theological validity of the system (since yoga has been adopted by several systems, ascetic, occultic, etc) that gives them meaning – and there can be no meaning without a reference frame, then on the purpose or end pursued that defines their virtue.
© Domenic Marbaniang, 2010