Fr James Alison, writing from the depths of Brazil, where he seems to be visited by inspiration, has a stirring reflection for the beginning of Lent at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng54.html
I am slightly puzzlied by his opening flourish: “One of the strangest features of that weirdly under-religious collection of texts known as the New Testament is how little there is in it on prayer.” By any standards the NT is full of religion, not just of the faith that would deconstruct religion according to a Barthian-Girardian schema. The miracle stories of the Gospels and Acts have a prophetic thrust, but they are often marked also by just the kind of sensationalism we expect from religious propaganda. As to religious institutionalism, one need only read the Pastorals. The dark, violent underbelly of religion can probably be found in the Apocalypse at least.
As to prayer, it is a theme on which the NT constantly harps. More than that, the NT is itself a text steeped in contemplative prayer. When one reads the Gospel slowly, with a pause after every phrase, it generates a contemplative effect that is extraordinary. But of course Alison knows this.
He writes: ‘“We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act… Humans are those animals in which even basic biological instincts (which of course exist, and are not the same thing as desire) are run by the social other within which the instinct-bearing body is born… Through this body being imitatively drawn into the life of the social other, gesture, language and memory form an “I” that is in fact one of the symptoms, one of the epiphenomena, of that social other. This “I” is much more highly malleable than it is comfortable to admit… But is there Another Other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods, and our texts on prayer are part of our way into becoming part of the great Hebrew answer.’
The Lord’s Prayer certainly is a tuning in this other desire, the Thy in ‘The Kingdom come, Thy will be done’ does not refer to a despot who subjects our wills to his, but is rather a call for liberation – for righting of a world trapped in wrong desire.
‘Jesus is described in various places as withdrawing to pray. Typically these moments of withdrawal come in the immediate aftermath of a major interaction with a crowd following a miracle. And it is not hard to see why. The risk which any leader runs, especially one who is enjoying a certain success, is becoming infected by the desires of their followers, allowing themselves to believe about themselves what the followers believe, and to be flattered into acting out the projections which have raised them up, and thus to become the puppet of their crowd’s desires. Jesus’ moving off to pray shows that he understood his need to detox from the pattern of desire which threatened to run him.’
Prayer is essential to keeping one’s perspective, or rather to learning the divine perspective on creation. The gaze one acquires through prayer is actually quite reassuring about the purposes of God, for prayer teaches one to look on the world benignly, compassionately, but with active care, not sentimentally.
‘Before he gets to talking about prayer, Jesus is already demonstrating an understanding of desire. His presupposition is that we are all immensely needy people who long for approval and rewards. He doesn’t say “Really, this is too infantile. You shouldn’t be wanting approval or rewards. Grow up and be self-starting, self-contained heroic individuals who act on entirely rational grounds”. On the contrary, he takes it for granted that we desperately need approval. The question is: whose approval is going to run us?.. The trouble about seeking the approval of the social other, is that you will get it. You will act in such a way as to get that approval, and then become its puppet. And because of that you will be selling yourself short. You won’t be wanting enough, you will have too little desire. Your “self” will be a shadow of what you could be if you allowed the Creator to call you into being.’
This is an excellent thought for the beginning of Lent. We are run by our routines, the tasks we feel called to accomplish by the social taskmaster (who in reality is oblivious of our existence, or who in reality has no existence ‘himself’); prayer takes a step back, inspires other, more generous ambitions, that are not premised on future acclaim from faceless others but on present basking in the divine approval, as worthy offerings to the Father who sees in secret.
'The Creator is absolutely not part of the give and take, the tit-for-tat reciprocity of the social other'. It is when we shun prayer that we think of God as more or less the same as the social other who dogs our misguided conscience. Prayer reveals God as a wellspring of freedom, as one that challenges and enables rather than prescribes and paralyzes.
‘You start to dwell in the strange place which I call the interface between your “own” desire, very small, and only tentatively coming into being, timidly and somewhat shamefacedly, and the voices which run you, and which you have in fact so perfectly ventriloquised. I presume I’m not unique in having, after some time spent alone, occasionally detected the person who was speaking through me – the voice of my father or mother, or a headmaster, or some admired teacher, or political or religious leader. In other words, I had been giving voice to a pattern of desire taken on board from someone else. And of course, doing it with all the conviction of it being really me who was talking and desiring.’
Prayer can be the best form of psychoanalysis – and it’s free!
Moreover, prayer is a school of passionate desire:
‘It would appear that “Your Father who sees in secret” doesn’t despise our smelly little desires, and in fact, suggests that if only we can hold on to them, and insist on articulating them, that we will actually find for ourselves, over time, that we want more than those desires, but we really do want something with a passion. In other words, he takes us seriously in our weakness and unimportance, even when we don’t. If we learn to give some voice to those desires, then there’s a chance over time that we may move through them organically until we find ourselves the sort of humungous desirers who throw ourselves into peace work in the Middle East, or into famine-relief in Bangladesh, or even into being the sort of missionary for whom the Holy Father wants people to pray in May. But we’ll be doing so because we, who start from not really knowing what we want, by not despising our little desires, and learning to articulate them, have discovered from within that this is what we really want. And in our wanting will be who we come to be.’
Prayer and desire are closely linked – as one can see by studying the language of lovers, with its rich floraison of religious submission and impetration and adoration. Prayer is the expression of a lover’s desires, and they expand and become great-hearted like the desires of the Apostle Paul. (An Anglican friend comments: 'I recall reading that Swami Prabhavananda once encouraged Christopher Isherwood to see his beloved companion as the young Krishna, and to embrace their relationship as a tangible expression of the divine. Would that other religions and religious teachers had such a healthy and whole-making viewpoints.' Yes, but there is the Song of Songs tradition.)
‘"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” I hope it now makes much more sense why this is emphatically not a way of saying “Jesus wants me as a doormat”. On the contrary. Jesus knows very well how we become intimately involved with that subsection of the social other which are our enemies in just the same way as we become intimately involved with those whose approval we seek. He knows how susceptible we are to taking our enemies on board, and becoming just like them by acting out reciprocally towards them. So he offers us this recipe for freedom: do not allow yourselves to be run by those who do you evil. This involves a refusal of negative reciprocity and a learning to move from the heart towards them in a way which has nothing to do with what they have done to you. In fact he is saying “step out of the pattern of desire in which you are enthralled by, and in thrall to, your enemies, and step arduously instead into a pattern of desire such that you are not over against them at all, but are able to be, as God is, for them, towards them, without being their rival”.’
The cursing psalms of the Old Testament, mercifully omitted from church worship today, are the opposite of this, I suppose. Or are they a sort of escape valve for our destructive desires, just as some passages in Job and Ecclesiastes are an outlet for suicidal desires. Perhaps these desires too need to be voiced, and can also become part of that pedagogy in divine desire that prayer gives.
‘The Our Father is all about desire. It begins by addressing the Other other who is manifesting himself, has a desire, an intention, a project and a reality which are way prior to anything that the social other knows, and yet which can begin to have incidence in the life of the social other. And secondarily, it takes for granted, and underlines, the fact that we are entirely mimetic animals. The goodness of the Other other can only be unbound in us, flow through us, to the degree that we agree to be unbound towards our co-members of the social other. Just as our “selves” are what they are entirely thanks to the social other, so our “new selves” are only going to be “new selves” in the degree to which we unbind the social other.’
The sanity, the common sense, the Menchenkenntnis of Jesus provide the bedrock of Christian religion, just as those of Shakyamuni are the bedrock of Buddhism. Time to get back in touch with this. It has nothing to do with trumpet-tootling piety, everything to do with being human.