The Ground of Our Being

Book cover
Prayerby Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Houghton Mifflin. 416p $28


In 1918, the German religion scholar Friedrich Heiler published his great phenomenological study of prayer, which, for all its merits and sympathy for prayer, was flawed by his rigid separation of prayer from ritual, gesture, folk custom and icon. Heiler’s restrictive methodology did not come as a surprise because, as the Zaleskis point out, Heiler was in the process of leaving his Roman Catholic past for a new life within Lutheranism. In that transition, he desired to leave behind the Tridentine world of devotionalism for the pure life of evangelical simplicity. In a certain sense, this volume can be seen as another look at prayer globally understood but with the added purpose of reconnecting prayer to primitive magic, liturgy, gesture and so on. In short, the Zaleskis write against the prejudices of Heiler.

Beyond the restrictions of Heiler, the Zaleskis also argue against those reductionists of various stripes who locate prayer as anthropological byproducts (Tyler, Frazier and others) or psychological quirks (Freud) or socioeconomic responses to oppression (Marx and company). Their point of departure can be simply stated: Prayer lies in the ground of our being and connects us to its source, and every creative act bears manifest or hidden, its imprint. Theories of prayer that fail to recognize its fundamental and perennial character are therefore bound to fall short.

To survey the subject of prayer as a human phenomenon, the authors have had to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries, which they do by using broad categories while adducing evidence from a wide range of religious material. This is no easy task, as their discussion of the possibility of prayer in the archaic period shows; we must assume that ancient burial sites, cave paintings and so on have some nexus to prayer. Once we have cultures with writing, things get a bit easier, at least to sort out. Thus, to cite one example, in a section on the contemplative character of prayer, the authors have subcategories for the warrior (those who wrestle with the demonic), the lover, the knower of the self, the searcher for the true self and the artist. Within those subcategories, they then present evidence of how the various paths of contemplation are realized.

It is not clear that these various taxonomies work with precision when closely examined. When treating the contemplative artist, for example, they use both Zen and Christian models. But it may be fairly asked if there is anything more than a faint family resemblance between the intentions (to say nothing of the metaphysical presuppositions) of the Zen poetry of Basho and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Similarly, later in the book, in a discussion of the efficacy of prayer, the Zaleskis juxtapose the thinking of Gregory of Nyssa with that of his near contemporary, the Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa, without much taking into account the radical incommensurability between Theravada Buddhism and Patristic Christianity. While both argue for fruits deriving from their efforts, one is praying and the other is meditating (and doing so in a sense quite different from the way in which meditation is understood in the Christian tradition). One could argue that Buddhist meditation is not exactly the same thing as Jewish, Islamic or Christian prayer.

If there is a weakness in this ambitious undertaking, it is the unspoken assumption that prayer, while it may be nearly universally practiced if very broadly conceived, is the same reality, at least as understood by its most devout practitioners. There is, admittedly, a certain commensurability in the understanding of prayer in the three religions of the West, but things get highly problematic when one moves into the world of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

If I have been a bit skeptical about some of the linkages made by the Zaleskis, this is only because interreligious dialogue done at the level of contemplative exchange shows so much promise while also being so fraught with difficulty. That being said, any serious student of prayer will learn a good deal from this book. The Zaleskis have amassed a huge amount of material and have organized it with skill. While reading this book, I constantly saw avenues to pursue to enrich my own understanding of Christian prayer. The patristic doctrine of remembering God bears a striking similarity to the Islamic practice of remembering God (dhikr). The discussion of petitionary prayer, which the Zaleskis link to sacrifice, is extremely well done, with keen insights of both Kierkegaard and William James brought to bear to argue against understanding prayer as pleading for things from a capricious gift-giver in the sky. Likewise, the crucial place that prayer plays in the maintenance of tradition is well explored. Catholics, after all, affirm their identity with the prayer of the eucharistic canon, which goes back millenia, linking us, as the prayer itself insists, with the present, the future and with those who have gone before us and sleep the sleep of peace.

The very ambitions that motivate this capacious study make me think that someone needs to write a book on the history of Catholic prayer. That would be a massive project in its own right, because apart from the various prayer practices in the Catholic tradition, there is a huge literature on prayer that runs from the third-century Origen of Alexandria (whose treatise on prayer anticipates almost every problem on prayer later discussed in the tradition) down to considerations in our own day, as the writings of Hans von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton and others amply attest. That, of course, is to suggest a book other than the one that the Zaleskis have written. Their book, schematic and wide-ranging, makes a wonderful read, especially in its biographical portraits of the great masters and mistresses of prayer in the world’s religions. Henri Matisse is said to have confessed that he was not sure if he believed in God or not, but the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer. That frame of mind is what this book attempts to understand, and it does a good job of it.

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