Get on your knees

But the sorrow is radiant, like light shining in the darkness of a black stone lying over the heart. Sr. Meinrad Craighead OSB, Lodestone.

One year on, I’ve been coming back to this episode of The Great Humbling, where Dougald Hine and Ed Gillespie mull over what prayer does or does not mean to them. What I wanted to do here, Dougald says, was to talk about how there has almost certainly never been a human culture with so little literacy in blessing, or the other moves that belong to the practice of prayer, as the one that most of us are surrounded by and educated in. Along the way, he also responds to an essay I wrote for the Dark Mountain Project about praying the rosary, called Black Light.

It was a curious experience – a first, actually – to hear others musing on what I’d had to say about prayer a pandemic ago. What came home quite forcefully as I listened to those long, pored-over sentences being read aloud by Dougald was how strangely useless they’ve been to me, since.

Perhaps these Sea Crow letters are more of the same. As much as they’re about anything they’re a space in which to wonder aloud about prayer. Talking about prayer at all seems to amount to peering over an edge – an edge that all these words can’t – or don’t – ever quite leap over. What all such talk returns me to instead, it seems, is an obscure sense of bereftness.

If we were to start from that bereftness, and from what it has to say on the matter, we might begin by noticing some of the things prayer isn’t. Erudite. Competent. Clever. That whatever else it may or may not amount to, to ‘get on your knees’ is an admission of dumb need. A need which gives rise, in my case anyway, to a promiscuous willingness to keep company with whatever half-baked theology might allow me to keep company with the Friend – or just to make a habit of pretending that’s what I’m doing, without needing it to be anything more plausible or subtle or insightful or resolved than that.

A few years ago now a friend called Matthew Stillman, introduced me to a small book that’s since become one of my most valued meditations on prayer. It’s by Matthew’s fellow New Yorker, the theologian James P Carse: The Silence of God.

For Carse, there are two basic modes of religious language, that contain within themselves all the wealth and diversity of religious culture: theology, and prayer. Theology includes all of our talk about God. And prayer includes any and every language by which we address ourselves to God.

I find this simple distinction both helpful and liberating. With respect to prayer, Carse tells us, what matters most is simply that we speak from the heart. ‘When we speak from the heart, we are speaking to God.’ And the essential basis for all such speech, Carse suggests, is that prayer – irrespective of how we choose to understand the Who or the What our prayers address – can only happen at all by virtue of the un-breachable silence which both precedes and receives it.

I love that idea: that the very possibility of prayer radically depends on the impenetrable silence of the Real. That whatever absent-present fullness we live and move within leaves us, by that necessary absence, at liberty to emerge stumbling and faltering into being.

Carse’s measured, tweedy voice makes my heart and head sing. He hands me back this inarticulate, stubborn bereftness as a kind of touch-stone: not an obstacle to be somehow circumvented or overcome (as if), but a capacity to be attended to, even safeguarded. Especially when getting to our knees.

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