I began trying to write something about prayer more than a month ago.
I’m continuing now having recently returned from a trip to Europe which included several days of retreat at Stift Goettweig, a Benedictine monastery (Stift) founded in the 11th Century on a mountain overlooking the Danube in Austria. I assume its name is medieval dialect and means something like (the deliberately ambiguous?) “God’s Way”.
And after the Jewish High Holy Days of Atonement and New Year, and at the end of Sukkot. Traditional forms of ritual prayer and celebration.
In what follows I give, without any special sequence or order, a number of personal reflections on prayer. In these reflections I’m going to allow myself the latitude to make asides about this and that; tell an anecdote or cite a passage. And you, dear reader, must allow yourself the similar latitude of skipping around or just deleting. At the end I indicate that this will be the first in a series of posts on prayer.
As always, I invite readers to respond with their thoughts and questions, doubts and beliefs, about prayer.
As an opening teaser, I note that while usually connected, prayer and God are not necessarily connected. I know, for instance, that at least some secular Jewish friends follow the High Holy Days and Passover, mostly at home. Yet not because these rituals connect us with some G-d, but simply because they are healthy human practices, important communal and family traditions. And, of course, Buddhist practices of meditation imply no connection with any god. Only later in Buddhism did the gods arrive in some Buddhist traditions.
Yet I suspect that most Christians who practice Buddhist meditation do so within the horizon of Christian belief in God. (See subsequently about my prayer to Quan Am, goddess of mercy.)
Then there is this from Pope Francis on 9/21 (from his daily prayer site “Journey With The Pope” — which I highly recommend):
“I would like to reiterate that if we want to preserve fraternity on Earth, we cannot lose sight of Heaven.… Yes, true religiosity consists in adoring God and loving one’s neighbor. And we believers cannot exempt ourselves from these essential religious choices: rather than demonstrating something, we are called to show the paternal presence of the God of heaven through our harmony on earth.”
I also believe that most of us continue in a variety to pray to the old pagan gods. We as a nation make immense sacrifices at the altar of Mars.
And I hope at some point to reflect on the ways many atheists pray.
Perhaps we all pray, with or without gods?
I have prayed, or tried to, throughout my entire life – even before words came to me.
I’ve long been a student and professor of religious studies and have developed much appreciation for the prayer beliefs and practices of different religious traditions.
Yet I am also a philosopher trained to habits of criticism as well as appreciation. For there is much that is phony in religion, and much that is at times very dangerous. For me that means especially the many forms fundamentalist belief and practice found throughout the world’s religions (though hardly limited to religions). They need to be criticized since they contribute in so many ways to polarizations and violence.
And though I continue to pray, I have my share of doubts and serious questions about prayer. I suspect that Freud (and Marx, etc.) may have been right about much prayer – simply seeking illusory but much needed comfort or reassurance in tough times. But then who am I to judge the character of anyone’s prayer?
I’m still filled, two weeks after, with my days at Goettweig, so allow me to ramble a bit. And perhaps go to their excellent website Benedictine Abbey Göttweig – place of encounter (stiftgoettweig.at) for photos that may provide images for fmy words.
I had no “retreat” program. It was just several days of quiet, with walks through the now large monastery’s shaded grounds and gardens. The weather was clear early fall. I sat for what seemed hours at this or that valley overlook, and spent time reading and scribbling. I made occasional “visits” to one or the other of the monastery’s churches. One evening I just happened to walk into a sung High Mass in the very large and very baroque cathedral church. There were trumpets and drums and full choir accompanying the magnificent organ, and up front a good number of monks in choir stalls and at the altar. I have no idea what the occasion was, but it filled my heart to experience this baroque brilliance with a full congregation of masked and local folk – farmer and business families from surrounding villages, many of whom work the monastery’s fields and forests.
Did I mention that the food was great; that the monastery not only makes its own beer, but seven different kinds of wine, as well as specialty apricot liqueurs. The monks, about 60 (with quite a few elderly) are pastors at many area parishes, minister at several prisons, and have an active ministry to youth. So the beer and wine and other goodies – including the meals at the monastery restaurant – are these days the work of employees from the surrounding towns.
And all of it – from the food to the quiet to the services and sights – was for me a form of prayer. Which may have something to do with the constant stream of daytime visitors – mostly hikers and bikers, but many family cars and occasional tour busses. It’s hilltop grandeur and historic significance make it a natural tourist stop. Yet I can’t help but think that some sort of sacred aura (whatever that might mean) nonetheless draws folks there. Even the many couples and family groups who seem simply to come for the superb restaurant. The place resonates hospitality. As it’s website says, it’s a place of encounter. Not accidentally with several churches, a museum of monastic art, and the cloistered apartments for the monks. An aura of prayer.
One other surprise. One evening while I was dining on their beautiful terrace restaurant, I noticed noise and loudspeakers on another terrace above. I wandered up and discovered an electric car show – new electric models from VW and BMW, Porsche and Peugeot, and several Asian carmakers. One could sign up to drive any one of these on the roads circling the monastery. And, lo and behold (or LOL), there was the Abbot in his black Benedictine robes wearing a bright red stole and holding a prayer book. Next to him was someone carrying a holy water bucket and sprinkler. The announcer was calling for quiet while the Abbot read a prayer of blessing and then walked with the sprinkler blessing both cars and crowd. (The pervasive cameras were, I’m sure, for newspapers.) After watching this ritual, I approached the Abbot and told him that Pope Francis would have loved this. A Laudato Si’ event. He agreed and also suggested that this was simply one part of the monastery’s ministry of hospitality and prayer.
That’s it for now. Hope to post more on prayer soon enough. Vaya con Dios.