Prayer – An Engagement With The Divine

Prayer has to be simultaneously both one of the single most important and yet single most misapprehended elements to our faith(s). We are genuinely surprised at how frequently we seem to come across a vocal belief that there’s something somehow inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘alien’ to prayer in an Indo-European (and usually rather specifically, a Germanic) context. It doesn’t seem to matter if quotations from texts nor sound theological positions are propounded against this – some people seem to feel very ardently that if they’re actually having to try and reach out to a God that something’s gone horribly wrong and they’re acting like a Christian. Or something.

The actual roots of this curious belief are probably at least partially traceable to Robert E. Howard’s famous literary figure, Conan – who does indeed make some remarks in the specific direction of the similarly literary deific Crom that would appear to fit the bill.

A moment’s consideration ought reveal the problem inherent in basing your entire attitude toward real-world Divinity on the remarks of a single 1930s fantasy hero about a single fictional deity that’s pointedly portrayed in-setting as negative in disposition and temperament toward humans and prayer.

We do not for a moment seek to disrespect either Howard (who was, most certainly, a remarkable man – and not least in the breadth and depth of his self-acquired knowledge of the ancient world) or Conan by saying this … but these are not exactly canonical materials for understanding the religious perspectives of our pre-Christian forebears.

But I am (in danger of) digressing. Suffice to say that I have always found it rather bizarre that some people seem to genuinely think this notion of actually engaging with Divinity is some kind of modernist or otherwise alien ‘projected’ anachronism. Not only because I just … don’t get why they’re insistent upon turning up in religious circles if they’re so convinced that Gods are basically just literary devices, ‘natural forces’, or largely ‘Deus Otiosus’ style figures that may as well not exist and definitely shouldn’t be genuinely prayed to. Might as well ‘lean in’ to ‘functional atheism’ and get out of the way so that the rest of us can get on with it instead.

But also because it would seem an awful lot of effort to go to for various Indo-European groups to compose (and then preserve for generation after generation!) numerous sacred liturgies and formulas via which the Gods are said to be propitiable, render significant quantities of votive offerings at defined holy sites (often inscribed with some particular labelling as to the boon hoped for via so doing), and build remarkable houses of worship (some of which still stand, today, albeit often ‘under new management’, so to speak) within which all of the above could be carried out … as some kind of civilizational-scale (pseudo-atheistic) performance art piece or something.

Then again, I suppose one only has to look at the excesses associated with certain entirely modern pop-cultural phenomena to see that sometimes, some people will put in a decidedly disconcerting quotient of effort into seemingly ‘worshipping’ (or just about nearest-thing thereto) concepts or characters or celebrities without (necessarily) believing these to be (literally) divine … for the most part. Although as applies certain of the political figures who’ve come in for this style of treatment, perhaps the thinking went that they’d be more responsive to actual out-and-out prayers than they were to properly submitted engagements through local versions of the democratic process. Again I digress.

Earlier this week, we’d posted part of an exchange that an associate (and sometime translator) of ours, A.P. Lasbleiz , had had with one of these ‘prayer is for the weak’ types.

His interlocutor had claimed that “Praying is the last bastion of an exhausted mind, if one chooses prayer then you have not worked hard enough”. They appeared to believe that their own personal action (we assume of a rather physical-material variety) meant “no prayer is required”. Either – and at the risk of putting words into somebody else’s mouth or thoughts into their head (however much it might, perhaps, seemingly benefit from the latter) – because they’d be able to succeed at whatever endeavour was at issue anyway without the assistance from On High … or because they had not yet managed to increase their strength and capacity so as to be able to do these things unassisted, and so needed to ‘work harder’ to build up to being able to do so.

I’m not sure that that’s a ‘Nietzschean’ philosophy (as distinct from a ‘philosophy that sounds like it’s being loudly advocated by some guys on the internet who’re very enthusiastically claiming they’re ‘Nietzschean”), but it does strike me as a rather heavily ‘individualist’ one – if not outright solipsistic in the extreme.

Certainly, I do not think I have heard of too many persons who hear that they’re facing serious medical difficulties, for instance, and proceed to eschew the services of a trained surgeon (and anesthetist) in order to go off and upskill themselves to the point of being able to carry out the operation in question with no exterior help required. But perhaps I am merely ‘mentally exhausted’ at this early hour of the morning.

In any case, my actual purpose in writing all of this doesn’t relate all that much to that person’s attitude at all. But rather, what came next.

My own comment on the exchange had been a simple (and succinct – shocking, I know) one:

“I do not understand the objection? How is prayer not an action? How does one carry out detailed & energized observance with an ‘exhausted mind’ ? How is Sadhana not ‘work’ ?

Why do they think we do not have results from prayer?”

Now, I’d taken an intentionally quite broad perspective on what constitutes ‘prayer’ there – because here in the modern (Anglosphere) West it is, indeed, quite a broad (and often quite a shallow) concept. One which can definitely lead to misapprehensions and misunderstandings on the part of people unfamiliar with what it actually constitutes – or who come from different contexts where prayer (and, indeed, ‘living religion’ itself) is still much more of a ‘thing’.

As applies the former, I suspect that, in part, what’s happened here is ‘Prayer’ has been itself ‘Flanderized’ (a perhaps ironic labelling for the situation) down to basically just ‘Asking For Things’. We intend to take a bit of a look at the proper approach for ‘petitioning’ deities shortly.

This is quite unfortunate – as it means that the notion of ‘Prayer’ as ‘Engagement with the Divine’ is sidelined. Or, rather, that it is ‘reduced’ in scope – and in so doing, also reduces down our concept of divinity; from … well .. Divinity, with all the awesome power and gravitas of responsibility (on our part, as well as Theirs) which that implies, through to what we might succinctly encapsulate as a sort of ‘Cosmic Vending Machine’.

And hence, again in part, we presume the perspective of some of those who are therefore antagonistic toward the very idea of ‘Prayer’ in an Indo-European (or Germanic, etc.) spiritual context: because it does indeed seem to imply a decided lack of ‘respectful’ engagement with the Divine or genuine effort at attainment (of something as marvelous as a relationship with the Divine, most certainly) by the would-be supplicant. If it’s done ‘badly’, that is. And as I say – we’ll take a bit of a look at the opposite of that in due course. Because even in the case of petitioning deities … that’s really not what this is about, at all.

As applies the latter suite of perspectives .. . that is to say, persons from outside the modern Anglosphere and its relative religious (and linguistic) situation who perhaps take a different view on ‘Prayer’ being utilized as a ‘catchall’ term for ‘Divine Engagement’ …

A perspicacious new associate of ours wished to emphasize the distinctions between what in Sanskrit would be termed – ‘Sadhana’, ‘Vrata’, and ‘Prarthana’. We think that these are interesting and useful labellings for us to keep in mind, even if we are not (by which I mean even if you are not) Hindu.

What do these mean?

Sadhana can mean a few things … but for our purposes, we might say ‘Self-Cultivation’, ‘Self-Development’. Its various more specific senses tend to orient around just what it is that we’re trying to cultivate. However, it is of particular utility in the course of a discussion on Prayer because, well, that ‘relationship with the Divine’ is both something which we cultivate – as well as something that enables particular forms and growth of self-cultivation in the process. Getting better at the efforts required , cultivating one’s ‘power’ (to crudely conceptually translate), growing in knowledge and ability to ‘speak’ – these are all eminently relevant considerations for us to have. And one can most certainly pray to be a better servant for one’s Deity.

‘Vrat’ (or ‘Vrata’), meanwhile, is directly cognate with ‘Word’ (and you can see the V – W and T – D sound-shifts right there therein) – as in ‘I Give You My Word’. It means a ‘Vow’ or a ‘Pledge’ and pertains to a style of observance built around just exactly that. One undertakes a particular effort with defined conditions, often for a specific and specified point and period of time. One frequent example is the Pradosha Vrat that occurs twice monthly – wherein, for the several hours after sundown on the right days, we undertake relevant actions to propitiate Lord Shiva. Other Vrat exemplars focus particularly on abstaining from certain things for a given period, you get the idea. The point is that one is supposed to declare intent – make the ‘Vow’ – to do the thing and then do it. This is, in part, where it gets its ‘power’ from as a style of observance. Declare, then do. Follow through.

Prarthana, meanwhile, is quite literally ‘Asking Before’; ‘Artha’ to mean ‘Asking’, and ‘Pra’ as in ‘Before’, ‘In Front Of’. It is making a plea, or a ‘petition’ – “I come before You to Ask, Humbly Request, Petition that / for […] “. In this it is, indeed, quite directly cognate to the archaic Latin that gives us our modern word for Prayer – Latin ‘Prex’ (or ‘Precor’), which means to plea, to beseech, to request. A reasonably direct Sanskrit cognate would be ‘Prcchati’ ( पृच्छति ), as a point of interest – from PIE *Prek (‘To Ask’, ‘To Entreat’, ‘To Sway To’, ‘To Woo’), but with a bit of a ‘continuous’ sense added via the *-sketi suffix. So – ‘continuous asking’, then. We can certainly see how that might have developed.

However, whilst the Latinate term that has produced English ‘Prayer’ might indeed pertain to the concept of ‘asking for’ from the Divine (and we can observe something similar going on in the archaic Germanic terminology built around *beda elements – more on this some other time, perhaps), that does not imply that the meaning-field of the *modern* sense of ‘Prayer’ can be entirely reduced down thereto.

Indeed, quite the opposite.

Although I have to say, it is rather curious that we hear all of this talk about how ‘our ancestors’ (whichever group of ‘ancestors’ and builders of a great archaic civilization it might so happen to be this week) apparently allegedly ‘did NOT’ seek to engage with Gods to ask for aid and availment, particularly not through prayer … only to have various of the most prominent terms for prayer in various Western IE spheres turn out to quite literally mean ‘asking the Gods for help’ in their core etymologies and employments.

In essence, ‘prayer’ – at least, as we understand it – is ‘engagement with the Divine’ in some active and intended, often outright (consciously) ‘communicative’ sense. It is certainly true that one can have specific manifestations of this principle that comprise making requests for assistance. And it is definitely true that these can be phrased downright impiously or outright disrespectfully – not least to the actual concepts inherent of Divinity or the particular Gods and pantheonic perspective, religions, theologies, in question.

Yet the ability for something to be done badly does not mean that it cannot be done in entirely different fashion – indeed, it is a necessary predicate for something to be done badly for there to be a right and righteous, proper manner to do it instead that the wrongful conduct is merely a malefic knock-off of.

We intend to return to examine the notion of ‘Prayer as Asking’ in the very near future.

2 thoughts on “Prayer – An Engagement With The Divine

  1. Pingback: Prayer – An Engagement With The Divine – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. The teaching of a belief system that it is not grounded in the genuine ideology of that system seems somewhat reminiscent of the story of Brhspati disguising himself as the guru of the Asuras in order to lead them away from the Vedas in order to weaken them so that the Devas could overcome them. Don’t know the true motivations of these self appointed ‘teachers’ but the thought that an action which is obviously a strength of belief should be a weakness of it sounds like falsehood and not Dharma.

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