Prayer is a conversation we carry on in questions

Who asked first? Photo by Jared Cherup, Flickr

"I am not a man of God," said Tauwhare, frowning.

"And yet there is much of God in you," Devlin replied. "I believe you must have an instinct for prayer, Te Rau -- to have come here today. To pay respects at your dear friend's grave -- to pray over him, indeed."

Tauwhare shook his head. "I don't pray for Crosbie. I remember him."

"That's all right," Devlin said. "That's fine. Remembering is a very good place to start." Smiling slightly he pressed the pads of his fingers together, and then tilted both hands down -- his clerical pose. "Prayers often begin as memories. When we remember those whom we have loved, and miss them, naturally we hope for their safety and their happiness, wherever they might be. That hope turns into a wish, and whenever a wish is voiced, even silently, event without words, it becomes a supplication. Perhaps we don't know to whom we're speaking; perhaps we ask before we truly know who's listening, or before we even believe that listener exists. But I judge it to be a very fine beginning, to make a practice of remembering those people we have loved. When we remember others fondly, we wish them health and happiness and all good things. [...]"


"A prayer needn't always be a supplication, of course," Devlin added. "Some prayers are expressions of gladness; some are expressions of thanks. But there is hope in all good feelings, Te Rau, even in feelings that remember the past. The prayerful man, the good man, is always hopeful; he is always an optimist. A man is made hopeful by his prayers."

Tauwhare, who had received this sermon doubtfully, only nodded. "These are wise words," he added, feeling pity for his interlocutor.

In general Tauwhare's conception of prayer was restricted to the most ritualized and oratorical sort. The ordered obeisance of the whaikorero produced in him, as did all rituals of speech and ceremony, a feeling of centrality and calm, the likes of which he could not manufacture alone, and nor did he wish to. The sensation was quite distinct from the love he felt for his family, which he experienced as a private leaping in his breast, and distinct, too, from the pride he felt in himself, which he felt as a pressurized excitement, an elated certainty that no man would ever match him, and no man would ever dare to try. It ran deeper than the natural goodness that he felt, watching his mother shuck mussels and pile the slippery meat into a wide-mouthed flax basket on the shore, and knowing, as he watched her, that his love was good, and wholly pure; it ran deeper than the virtuous exhaustion he felt after a day stacking the rua kumara, or hauling timber, or plaiting harakeke until the ends of his fingers were pricked and raw. Te Rau Tauwhare was a man for whom the act of love was the true religion, and the altar of this religion was one in place of which no idols could be made.

"Shall we go to the grave together?" Devlin said.

-- excerpt from The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Prayer #292: Some Questions

What is prayer? Pleas and bows, yes, but is it also hugs and screams? Is it as simple as remembering, as immediate as invoking?

And what of its tone? Is a "prayer" by nature positive, in that its creation signals a flicker of faith where perhaps none is thought to be? Then what of those times when the prayer is a wail, a keening moan flecked with spit and blood that twists throughout an unresponsive cosmos?

And what of your response? If your unpracticed antennae cannot detect a reply, how does that build hope? How do you put an ear horn to the most remote canal of your psyche and listen for speeches in a language you don't speak? How can you not in these silent, ticking moments feel less heeded, less wanted, less loved?

And what of different kinds of love? What of the contemplation of it, the experience of it, the demonstration of it? When the wild first surrounds you, undirected and circumspect, do you make your steps more tender across the shifting bog? When the second hugs you from behind, do you whip around to match arms to face, or do you simply revel in the tight sensation? And when the third -- focused, ordered, intentional -- speaks what you cannot articulate and shows what you cannot describe, what is left for you to do?

What then is prayer? It is a conversation we carry on in questions.