‘Enflame thyself with prayer’ I have thought about these words a great deal over the course of my adult life. Time and experience have taught me that at its best prayer embodies the noblest thoughts, aspirations, concepts and ideals of humanity. Indeed, throughout history prayer has often been committed to posterity in poetic form, which is interesting because from the earliest times poetry has been acknowledged by many to be the highest expression of the literary art; thus it is only natural that prayer and poetry should combine.
As I continue to meditate upon this theme, I am mindful that the spiritual ethos that sustains prayer has never really been disturbed by the political changes and movements in religion. Religious forms come and go but ‘prayer’ has never been called upon to justify or define itself, it has ever been a part of the fabric of the human soul and thus of society. However, the same cannot be said of 'society' today. It is probably more true than not to argue that the established world order more or less ended with the outbreak of war in 1939 and out of its ashes emerged a new order whose immediate appetite was and continues to be materialistic, and, very ‘SELF’ focused.
This appetite, since being unleashed, has given rise to an unprecedented growth in world consumerism, which, along with related developments in science and technology, has effected a dramatic change in the soul of human culture. It is a change that seems to have caused more destruction to this world and the creatures that live upon it than in the entire known history of human existence.
It would appear to be the case that humanity has become permeated with a materialistic philosophy that often assumes the name of Humanism but is in fact a form of Materialism that is self-serving and invariably hostile to religion, the spiritual life and all spiritual thinking; a philosophical stance radically different to that of Renaissance luminaries such as Erasmus, Thomas More and Ficino, who along with other spiritually minded thinkers founded the great intellectual movement known as Humanism.
Humanism began in Renaissance Italy during the early part of the 15th century. Its originators sought to revive the study of classical Greco-Roman thought embodied in rediscovered ancient texts that had been lost to the major part of the western world for centuries. The movement was called ‘Humanism’ because it provided a basis for an education in Humanitas (better known today as the Humanities). Its philosophical focus was the intrinsic worth of Man, emphasising human welfare and the fulfilment of human interests in this life without undue reference to the transcendental or spiritual world.
The main exponents of Renaissance Humanism were concerned with promoting religious and social tolerance. An advocate of Renaissance Humanism, Desiderius Erasmus [1466-1536], one of the most important literary figures of the Renaissance period, campaigned for many years for peaceful reform in the undivided Church, rather than the internecine conflicts that came with the Reformation.
Another, Sir Thomas More [1478-1535], revealed to the world in his Utopia a model society based on the natural reasoning power of humanity without spiritual revelation, whilst Ficino [1433-99] a protégé of Cosimo Medici and head of the New Academy of Florence, translated for the first time the complete works of Plato into Latin as well as various other works on Neoplatonism. It should not be forgotten that Humanism was a movement conceived within Christianity by Christians and nurtured by Christians such as Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa, John Colet and Pico della Mirandola. It was also championed by popes Nicholas V, Pius II and Leo X.
Today, those who call themselves humanists are almost all agnostics, materialists, or avowed atheists. It should also be noted that Materialism has long been a part of the human intellectual landscape. Indeed, one of the most notable of the early exponents of Materialism was the Greek philosopher Leucippus [5th century BC], who, along with his student Democritus is credited with being the originator of the theory of Atomism, an essentially materialistic description of the universe. However, the more modern cult of materialism, which emerged during the late 17th century, much influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679], is far more extreme than the philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus in its denial of the existence of God, of the soul and of the continuity of life after death, promoting instead the pessimistic viewpoint that human life along with all of its beliefs, aspirations and loves is nothing more than the result of the random combining of atoms that ceases at the moment of death, thus reducing our perception of consciousness to a temporary biological function.
By claiming the credit for being the philosophy underlying the amazing scientific and technological developments of the 19th and 20th centuries, the proponents of Materialism have in the name of Humanism, unjustly, in my opinion, dominated the intellectual landscape of our culture, contributing to the dismantling of religion and the secularisation of society. As a result the word ‘prayer’, now reveals less and less of its meaning in modern everyday language and is becoming increasingly difficult to explain objectively. Thus the question ‘what is prayer’ is a question that is probably more pertinent now than at any other time in our history. But how is it to be answered? Are we to view prayer as the last hope of the desperate as argued by the proponents of Materialism, whose philosophy provides little more than the cold comfort of a meaningless existence? Or, are we to view prayer in spiritual terms and accept it as a means by which we can elevate our hearts and our minds in fellowship with God, and in communion therewith develop a greater understanding of our existence, and of this wonderful creation in which we have our being?
If we accept prayer in the latter, positive sense, it necessarily follows that we accept God as a conscious living being, because the essence of prayer is ‘communing with God’; and although a discussion on the nature of God is outside the scope of this paper, we may accept, with some degree of certainty, that humanity’s definition of God as the source, ground and destiny of being embodies the totality of purpose and meaning of human existence in a framework of absolute consciousness, and it is only in this context that prayer can be defined in an objective and meaningful way.
However, this is far removed from our common understanding of prayer, which rarely transcends the notion of pleading or asking for a special favour from a divine source, which is interesting as the etymological root of the word ‘prayer’ is derived from the Latin prex meaning an entreaty or request, typically from a deity. Be that as it may, no matter how accurate this definition may be, it is insufficient to describe the vital part that prayer plays in the soul’s intimate relationship with God, which is far more than begging or plea-bargaining with divinity. It is an act of friendship, of love; of personally sharing with the source and destiny of our being what we can never share with another person. It is communication at the most intimate and essential level, a communication initiated by the soul and reciprocated by God.
It is then not surprising that from the earliest times prayer has been central to the life of humanity, indeed, many of the earliest records we have are prayers or hymns to the Divine. The people of Ancient Egypt may well have been pragmatic, they were after all ‘survivors’, but they were not philosophical materialists. To them life on this earth meant far more than mere survival, they recognised that the end of a human life was but a beginning of another superior life. That much is obvious, even from a casual examination of the records they left on the walls of the earliest Pyramids. These ‘Pyramid texts’, as they are called, date from the 3rd millennium BC and constitute the oldest corpus of religious literature available to us. They contain a vast amount of information concerning the Egyptian understanding of the spiritual life. Without doubt many of the prayers of ancient Egypt, as of any other culture, were prayers of need, or at least perceived need. As, for example, this excerpt from a prayer accredited to a certain Nebensi, a scribe and artist of the Temple of Ptah:
O thou god Hetep let me gain dominion within the Field, for I know it, and I have sailed among its lakes so that I might come into its cities. My mouth is strong; and I am equipped against the khus; let them not have dominion over me. Let me be rewarded with thy fields, O thou god Hetep; that which is thy wish shalt thou do, O lord of the winds. May I become a Khu therein, may I eat therein, may I drink therein, may I plough therein, may I reap therein, may I fight therein, may I make love therein, may my words be mighty therein, may I never be in a state of servitude therein, but may I be in authority therein… [Sir E.A. Wallis Budge (Trans.), The Book of The Dead, London, 1899, p327]
Yet the Egyptians also embodied some of the more sublime human ideas and concepts. The following is attributed to the scribe Mes-em-neter, a servant of the God Amen:
“Hymn of praise to thee O god who makest the moment to advance, thou dweller among mysteries of every kind, thou guardian of the word which I speak. Behold, the god hath shame of me, but let my faults be washed away and let them fall upon both hands of the god of Right and Truth. Do away utterly with the transgression which is in me together with my wickedness and sinfulness, O god of Right and Truth. May this god be at peace with me! Do away utterly with the obstacles which are between thee and me…” [The Book of the Dead, p.63.]
The prayers of ancient Egypt span several millennia and enshrine an intimate relationship between the soul of the people and God. For the Egyptian the spiritual world and the mundane world permeated each other in the perpetual rhythm of life, thus establishing meaning at the very root of human existence, and it seems difficult to imagine today that for thousands of years a whole civilisation was grounded in a spiritual ethos that gave certainty to the meaning of existence. Yet Egypt was not alone in its convictions. In the fertile lands of Mesopotamia that lie between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, civilisations were established one upon another. The ancient culture of Sumer gave way to the founders of Babylon who in due course gave way to the Assyrians. Each one rooted, as was Egypt, in a world that had both a mundane and spiritual dimension. In a Sumerian epic the following hymn occurs:
Prayer: “O lord, in thy city which thou lovest, may thy heart be at rest. In the temple of Nippur, thy city, which thou lovest, may thy heart be at rest. When thou joyfully enterest the temple Shumera, the dwelling place of thy heart’s contentment say to thy wife, the maiden queen of Nippur, what is in thy heart, say to her what is in thy mind, say to her the kindly words of one who is forever king.” [Stephen Langdon, The Mythology of All Races - Semitic Mythology, Boston, 1931 p.125]
Close in spirit to this Sumerian hymn is a prayer addressed to the god Bel by the Urigalla or high priest on the second day of the Babylonian New Year Festival. It is a plea for the protection and wellbeing of the people of Babel.
“Bel, without equal in his anger; Bel, merciful king, lord of the lands, Causing the great gods to be favourably disposed; Bel, whose glance overthrows the mighty; Lord of kings, light of mankind, fixer of destinies. Bel, Babel is thy seat, Borsippa is thy crown. The wide heavens compose thy liver; Bel, with thine eyes thou dost behold the universe; With thine oracles thou dost control the oracles; with thy glance thou dost give the law; With thine arms thou dost crush the mighty; thy people thou dost grasp with thine hand; When thou dost see them thou dost take pity on them; thou causest them to see the light; they declare thy might. Lord of the lands, light of the Igigi, who dost bestow blessing; who will not speak of thee? Who will not declare thy might? Who will not tell of thy glory? Who will not praise thy kingdom? Lord of the lands, whose dwelling is in E-ud-ul; who dost take the hand of him who has fallen; have mercy on thy city, Babel! Establish the liberty of the children of Babel, objects of thy protection…”[S. H. Hooke, Babylonian & Assyrian Religion. Oxford 1962 p101-2]
In the foregoing prayers it is easy to see that the concerns of the high priest are for the well-being of the people and for the administration of society. In principle they are no different from the prayers of our own generation. The concerns are the same – for peace, prosperity, good government, and the general health and humour of the people and their rulers.
In ancient Israel the same principal concerns are addressed. The most important scriptural reference point is the Bible, particularly the first five books, known as the Pentateuch and the Torah (Law). They contain divine instruction (law – Torah) given by God to the people of Israel about how they should live in the world and how they should order their lives around God. Later books of the Bible contain many prayers and hymns that demonstrate the intimate and dynamic nature of Israel’s relationship with God, particularly concerning the Torah. For example, in the first Book of Kings it is written that Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of the assembled people of Israel and prayed thus:
“Lord God of Israel, there is no god in heaven above or on earth below like you, who keep your covenant and mercy with your servants who walk before you with all their hearts. You have kept what you promised your servant David my father; You have both spoken with your mouth and fulfilled it with your hand, as it is this day. Therefore, Lord God of Israel, now keep what you promised your servant David my father, saying ‘You shall not fail to have a man sit before me on the throne of Israel, only if your sons take heed to their way, that they walk before me as you have walked before me.’ And now I pray, O God of Israel, let your words come true, which you have spoken to your servant David my father. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple which I built! Yet regard the prayer of your servant and his supplication, O my Lord my God, and listen to the cry and the prayer which your servant is praying before you today: “that your eyes may be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place which you said ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may hear the prayer that your servant makes towards this place… [1 Kings 8:23 – 29]
The prayers of Israel are probably nowhere better enshrined than in the Psalms, many of which are traditionally attributed to King David, the father of Solomon. The Book of Psalms consists of 150 hymns and prayers of which two examples are given below; the first describes an ethical basis that must be a fundamental pre-requisite for a wholesome and sustainable society, the second, Psalm 23 ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, is arguably the most famous of all of the psalms. For many people it has been a guiding light throughout their lives, and a constant source of comfort in difficult times:
Psalm 15 Lord, who may abide in your tabernacle? Who may dwell in your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, And speaks the truth in his heart; He who does not backbite with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbour, Nor does he take up a reproach with his friend; In whose eyes a vile person is despised, But he honours those who fear the Lord; He who swears to his own hurt and does not change; He who does not put his money at usury, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.
Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The golden thread of spiritual understanding, which from ancient times connected us to the spiritual world, wove its way down through ancient Egypt to Moses and the people of Israel, and then into Christianity. As Christianity emerged out of Judaism it was inevitable that early Christian religious life would continue to some degree the same practices and disciplines of Israel, consequently, many of the prayers used by early Christians were prayers used in common by both Jew and Christian. Thus, apart from the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, the scriptures were then, as now, a major source of inspiration for many Christian prayers; however, the most important prayer in Christian terms has ever been, and always will be, the prayer taught by Jesus Christ himself.
Known as the ‘Pater Noster’ or ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, it embodies the same essential relationship between humanity and the divine as established in Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Jewish religions, of which it could be argued that Christianity is but a continuation. Yet, the Lord’s Prayer contains an element that is unique in that it is a prayer that is accepted by all Christians as being given to humanity by God, rather than an entreaty from humanity to God. It is consequently far more intimate in its relationship than anything that man alone had previously devised, indeed, for countless people, both religious and secular, this prayer has been the focal point of prolonged contemplation; its simplicity should not be taken at face value. There also follows another early Christian prayer that is typical in that it demonstrates our perpetual need to involve the divine in our daily life.
The Lord’s Prayer Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,In earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen
A Morning Prayer "Helper of Men who turn to you, Light of men in the dark, Creator of all that grows that grows from seed, Promoter of all spiritual growth, have mercy, Lord on me And make me a temple fit for yourself. Do not scan my transgressions too closely, For if you are quick to notice my offences, I shall not dare appear before you. In your great mercy, in your boundless compassion, Wash away my sins, through Jesus Christ, Your only Child, the truly holy, The chief of our souls’ healers. hrough Him may all glory be given you, All power and honour and praise, Throughout the unending succession of ages. Amen" [Adalbert Hamman (Ed.), Early Christian Prayers, Chicago 1961 p62-3]
That same golden thread, which passed through ancient Egypt and Israel and then into Christianity, also flowed via Orpheus, Solon and Pythagoras into the world of classical Greece, and thus to Rome. It is an obvious thread, yet it has often been passed over un-noticed by those seeking evidence of deeper things, which do indeed exist, although not, as some might suppose, in the gloomy recesses of secret halls full of cryptic symbolism. Rather it is found in the relationship that exists between humanity and the divine; and is more commonly beheld in the highs and lows of daily life. For as creatures subject to the whims of fate, and suffering particularly from such constant threats to our very existence as disease, war, and famine, we commune more readily with the divine when under pressure or when threatened; as so much of human history can testify. The following hymns from ancient Greece are typical of that relationship, in that they are concerned with establishing and continuing a harmonious rapport between the gods and the community, that peace, prosperity and health may be maintained.
Hymn of the Kouretes "Io, Kouros most great, I give thee hail, Kronian, Lord of all that is wet and gleaming, Thou art come at the head of thy Daimones. That we make to thee with harps and pipes mingled together, and sing as we come to a stand at thy well-fenced altar. For here the shielded Nurturers took thee, a child immortal, From Rhea, and with noise of beating feet hid thee away. And the Horai began to be fruitful year by year And Dike to possess mankind, and all wild living things Were held about by wealth-loving Peace. To us also leap for full jars, and leap for fleecy flocks, and leap for fields of fruit, and for hives to bring increase. Leap for our cities, and leap for our sea-borne ships, and leap for our young citizens and for goodly Themis." [Jane Harrison Themis, Merlin Press, London 1963. p.8-9]
Hymn to Demeter Demeter with her lovely hair, sacred goddess, I begin to sing of her and her daughter, The surpassingly beautiful Persephone, Farewell goddess. Save our city And guide my song. [J. Cashford (Trans.), The Homeric Hymns Penguin Classics, 2003, Hymn XIII, p112]
And yet, as efficacious as such prayers might be, it is nevertheless a matter of fact that just as every life has its turn on the world stage, so every civilisation has its day and then fades as another emerges to take its place at the forefront of the honours list, and so it was with classical Greece, which in its own fashion gave way to the emerging power of Rome. Initially the religion of Rome was a family religion, where each family constituted a little church whose centre and focal point was Hestia (or Vesta) the 'goddess of the hearth'. Upon this model the state religion of Rome was foundered. Hestia was the guardian of family life both for the state and its citizens; a temple to Hestia stood in the centre of Rome wherein burnt a sacred fire that was never allowed to go out. However, if the Roman military conquered Greece then Greek religion conquered Rome. Greece became the elderly tutor to the younger Rome, particularly where religion and philosophy were concerned. Greek anthropomorphism displaced Roman animism and their love of ritual, pomp, sacrament and aestheticism overwhelmed the simpler Roman cult.
In time the prayers of Rome and Greece merged both in form and spirit, as the needs and pantheons of both were essentially the same. The following example is taken from one of four prayers found in Cato’s ‘Farm Almanack’ and addressed to the god Mars, is typical of the Greco-Roman world. It illustrates the intrinsic sense of relationship that humanity had always shared with the divine and is wonderfully direct and purposeful.
Prayer at the Lustration of a farm “O Father Mars, I pray and beseech of thee, that thou wouldst be well willing and propitious to me, to my house, to my dependants; and for this reason I have ordered that the suovetaurillia should be led around my fields, my land and my farm, that thou shouldst hold back, and drive away sickness, visible and invisible, desolation, ruin, damages and storm; and that thou shouldst cause to grow and prosper the fruits of the soil, the grain, the vineyards and the thickets; that thou shouldst keep in safety the shepherds and the sheep; that thou shouldst give prosperity and health to me, to my house and my dependents. For these reasons, and because, as I have said, I am lustrating and causing to be lustrated my farm, my lands and my fields, mayst thou be increased by this suovetaurillia which is being offered to thee. O Father Mars mayst thou be increased by this suovetaurillia which is being offered to thee.” [Marcus Pocrius Cato, 234-149 BC, Roman Tribune.]
In this prayer, as with all of the foregoing, the relationship between humanity and the divine is clearly an important part of daily life. Perhaps this is because in the ancient world life was precarious, and people sought every advantage, alternatively, perhaps it is because there is something within each of us that intuits another realm of existence, and desires knowledge and experience of it, no matter how clumsy or naïve the means. How we describe that ‘something’ may be open to discussion, but to all intents and purposes there is an innate need within us all to live our life in a spiritually meaningful context, which the rewards and distractions of this world do not fulfil. The desire to commune with the divine, then, is not so much a conceit or a delusion as a primary instinct lying at the very roots of our being.
Thus, from a personal perspective prayer is far more meaningful than any dictionary or encyclopaedic definition might suggest. It may be understood on one level as the natural expression of our need to commune with God, sharing our most intimate thoughts, hopes, aspirations, intentions, fears and doubts with our creator in the same way as children commune with parents, or lovers with one another. And as we have seen, at a mundane level the prayers of humanity are concerned with very human needs. After all, we are gregarious creatures who generally seek fulfilment in communion with each other so why not with God? Deprived of human company we sicken because communication is fundamental to a healthy and meaningful life, the lack of which can result in loneliness, depression and other psychological disorders. The same may be said regarding a meaningful spiritual life. Deprived of the opportunity to communicate with the divine essence that we call God, who is the very source, ground and destiny of our existence, we have no benchmark or polestar to set our life’s course by and ill health may well occur in the form of self-obsession and the inevitable addiction to the basic human failings of avarice, gluttony, anger and lust. . . .
To be continued . . . .
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