If the wordless yearning or broken-hearted sigh of the Muslim and Jew and Buddhist nun and wordless child and brujo and kahuna at prayer is not equally pleasing to the One True Listener, to hell with prayer…”
by david james duncan
The only unfailing guide I’ve ever found through the innumerable blind alleys of my life as a writer, man, husband, father, citizen, steward, or believer, is the love burning in my heart. For me, prayer is about one thing: making contact with that love. Though it burns in there like a candle flame, hot, bright, beautiful, love’s flame is fragile: so fragile, I feel, that that the wrong kind of prayer can snuff it out; so fragile, I sense, that it absolutely needs the stillness of “the closet” Jesus recommends in order to burn brightly. So to the prayer president and every other proponent of mass piety and public prayer, I say Matthew 6:6 forever. If prayer now means we talk to the Flame of Love, on TVs and street corners, telling It what we desire rather than seeking Its guidance, then to hell with prayer. If prayer means proclaiming to the world that America is the source of this Eternal Flame and that U.S. fundamentalists are the Chief Spokespersons for God on earth, to hell with prayer. If the wordless yearning or broken-hearted sigh of the Muslim and Jew and Buddhist nun and wordless child and brujo and kahuna at prayer is not equally pleasing to the One True Listener, to hell with prayer. If prayer is now a means of coldcocking the powers of reason that Jefferson swore democracy would die without, if prayer is a means of wooing votes, if prayer has ceased to marvel at an unspeakably sublime Mystery and is now a public gloat about a “mandate” gained through media onslaught, half-truths, military might, cathode-ray distortions of reality, and outright lies, to hell with prayer.
Keeping one’s love burning, and living in accord with that burning: this, to me, is prayer. And love, as the gospels describe it, is not the glorification of self, but the renunciation of it for the sake of the beloved, whether that beloved be God, the words of Jesus, a woman, a child, a doomed salmon run, or an annihilated mountain in East Tennessee.
When prayer comes to mean asking for ends that please me first and foremost, God help me stop praying: help me love something or someone instead.
(collage: troy dockins)
This piece is excerpted with permission from David James Duncan’s new book, God Laughs & Plays: churchless sermons in honor of the gospels the fundamentalist right no longer seems to read, to be published by the Triad Institute in January 2006.
Duncan is the also the author of two novels, The River Why and The Brothers K, and a collection of stories and essays called River Teeth. His most recent collection, My Story as Told by Water was a finalist for the National Book Award.