It was the first sign of intelligence you showed, and no one taught it to you. It came, as it were, a gift of God: the smile that you offered when you first recognized a human face. What a basic human experience: responding to the presence of another. Everything changes when we realize that we are not alone. Whatever else we’re doing, we add to it the decision of how to react. It doesn’t matter if the person is friend, family, stranger or lover. Humans respond to the presence of each other.
If you’re unsure of that, think of that fundamental deception, which you’ve so often committed: acting as though you didn’t know someone was there. It’s a calculated, deceptive comeback, but it’s still a response to the presence of the other.
Have you ever walked into a church, which you expected to be empty, only to find someone there, someone at prayer? And, seeing the other praying, did you have the sense that you had stumbled upon not one presence, but two? That this was a conversation?
The other day, sitting in the confessional, I heard someone enter the church, and I naturally prepared myself to encounter a presence, a person. But this individual never entered the confessional, and I came to realize that there were two presences, out there in the church, neither of whom I could see. Someone had come, not to confess, but to be the presence of God. It’s an interesting sensation, like waving at someone who smiles at you, only to realize that he or she is looking beyond you, at someone else.
Some would say that there was only one presence in the church, or, perhaps, one real and one imagined. One was there, praying; the other was only in my mind. But that’s the particular thing about presence. A human being knows when he or she is in the company of another.
When we pray, we know that someone is there. We respond to a presence. Yes, sometimes the sensation is lacking, but faith tells us that God is always present. And, for those who believe, noticing the contrast between feeling the presence of God and the absence of that feeling is evidence enough of God’s existence. We know the difference between sensing God’s presence and failing to do so.
Back in the 1950s, the British philosopher John Wisdom created a parable about a garden, a spot of earth with growing things. Two people argue with each other about whether or not someone is tending the garden. The point of Wisdom’s parable is that neither debater can prevail in an argument about an unseen gardener. Is someone tending these plants, or do they simply grow that way? Without more evidence than that offered by the plants alone, the argument will never end.
Many non-believers see this as the problem with prayer. Are prayers truly answered? Or do events simply turn out as we hope that they will? And what about unanswered prayers?
Believers insist that prayers are heard, even when we don’t receive the desired response. It’s then that we talk of accepting the will of God. But can you see the challenge this creates for the non-believer? Why this sounds of self-delusion?
Still, there is no way to prove that a prayer was answered. We can’t step into a world in which the prayer was never uttered to see the difference. If prayers are real, then God’s response to them becomes the real. You can’t use the unreal to prove their potency.
Besides, efficacy isn’t the fundamental issue with prayer. It’s presence. Once having known the presence of God, we can’t forget it. That’s how we know that God is close, even when we fail to sense God’s presence. That’s the truly singular thing about God’s companionship. Feel it once, and you can never deny it, even when you can’t feel it. And the converse is true. If you’ve never felt it, talk of prayer is only that, talk.
The ending of a beloved novel will bring us down to earth. Brideshead Revisited was the original Downton Abbey, a great house full of loves denied and passions embraced. Evelyn Waugh ends his story with a strange little reflection about the Catholic chapel in the Brideshead home. The characters have all exited, yet the narrator, Charles Ryder, who revisits the estate, now an army post, during the Second World War, insists that one actor remains.
Arguments about the efficacy of prayer will never end, not in this world. Yet the awareness that we are not alone when we pray, isn’t up for debate. Why, we’ve known, since infancy, when we are in the presence of another.
Genesis 18: 20-32 Colossians 2: 12-14 Luke 11: 1-13