Arts and Culture

Prayer and Person

Fifth in a series

TEACHING A COURSE on the philosophy of personalism last spring semester has proven to be a real blessing for me. The students’ reaction to the course was similar to mine. All of us had the feeling that we could go deeper and deeper into the meaning and the mystery of personal existence.

Different sections of Seymour Cain’s book, “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, Inc.) reminded me of other books that I have read. I wonder if the authors of those books had read Marcel and were influenced by the French personalist’s insights. I also wonder if Saint Pope John Paul 11 and Pope Francis have read Marcel because there are so many personalist insights in their writings. Because personalism is a 20th- and 21st-century philosophy, both pontiffs might have been exposed to the philosophical insights of personalism even without reading the works of Marcel. For the last hundred years the influence of personalism has grown.

Some insights of Marcel into the mystery of prayer are both beautiful and profound. These insights especially interest me and I think that Cain’s comments about them are quite good. I have decided to devote this particular column to those insights. Perhaps by writing about them I will come to understand them better and perhaps readers of this column might find the insights as interesting and as important as I do. In commenting on Marcel’s view of prayer, Cain writes the following:

“Prayer is for Marcel the prime example of the relation to the Absolute Thou, of invocation and mutuality. Prayer is not a pragmatic technique, a means of securing our finite ends through the absolute recourse. … Prayer is a matter of being, of being-with, not of having. ‘I can pray to be more, not to have more.’ Prayer can transform my being, but it can add nothing to my having – to my finite possessions …It is a matter of being and being-with, of a we-community, directed toward the absolute being who is always thou and never it for us. In this view intercessory prayer is not only possible, it is necessarily implied. But I cannot pray for another person insofar as he is an it for me, for his use value (O, God I pray you to make my servant well so I can receive guests this weekend!”) I can only pray for him, as he is a thou for me, a real being and self, as we are in a spiritual community, as we are we. There is at the base of prayer, a will to union with my brothers, without which it would be deprived of all spiritual value.” (pp. 41-42)

I love the idea that even a so-called private prayer that I might say alone in my room involves my relationship with others in addition to my relationship with God. How I relate to God influences how I relate to others, and how I relate to others influences how I relate to God. If I am holding a grudge against someone, how does that influence my prayer? Marcel seems to suggest it would destroy the prayer. So not only does the Eucharist unites me with everyone, but also every prayer unites me with everyone.

Marcel claimed that when we talk about God, it is not God about whom we are speaking. I don’t agree with Marcel if he meant that literally. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe that all God-talk deals with enormous mystery but it can be meaningful. It can be both meaningful and true but we can never understand such talk completely. There is always mystery. If in saying when we talk about God it is not God about whom we are speaking, Marcel meant that we frequently drag God down to our level, that we turn God into a finite, limited object, then I would agree with Marcel. It is difficult not to drag God down into a finite object, but it is possible to avoid that temptation.

For example, when I pray the Our Father, my prayer is often accompanied by an image of an old man with a white beard. Perhaps I got that image from Michelangelo’s painting of the last judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Wherever I got the image, I know God is not an old man with a white beard! Our relationship with God should lead to a better and deeper understanding of Who God is. Our reading, reflection and prayer can help us to grow in our ways of thinking about God.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).