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Primary Speech: Psychology of Prayer– Ann and Barry Ulanov

March 28, 2015

PS“In prayer we say who in fact we are – not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are.”

“In prayer we must begin where we are, with the images of the divine that we project and find ourselves projecting onto the unknown.”

If you have ever wondered what St. Paul meant when he said that the Spirit groans within us with deep sights, that prayer joins us in the flow of communication of the Holy Trinity, then this book explains it.

The authors suggest that all human beings pray at this “gut level”. They feel anger at injustices, awe at the beauty of nature or in response to the intricacies of modern technology. They yearn for a better world, for the wellbeing of friends or for the nameless starving people of the third world. This “prayer at gut level” has much in common with the sentiments expressed in the book of Psalms by the prophets.

Modern writers about spirituality often suggest that Christians have repressed their authentic, inner feelings as a result of praying in words which they believe they ought to pray rather than to pray what they actually feel. It should he remembered that Jesus of Nazareth criticized harshly

Those who would censor the cursing verses in the psalms are failing to understand that in prayer we bring our whole selves to God, not just the self we pretend and wear as a mask in polite company.

At one common extreme, we may as well settle into an undemanding routine of: A couple of set prayers on arising, a matching pair at: bedtime, a fixed few in church, all barely attended to and finally reduced to empty rote repetitions, (meaning) less in our lives than breakfast coffee or nightly martini or the day’s episode in the television soap opera.

It’s as if we: prefer to stick to gossip with acquaintances and refuse the soul-stirring conversation of real friends.

Not that ‘set prayers’ are necessarily wrong: .At one period in our life, the correct procedure may simply be to sit quietly without saying any words at all. At another, reading the daily lessons of a prayer book and meditating upon them may be right. Reciting the psalms may be appropriate, or unburdening our minds to God in a rush of our own words, or simply raising the heart in a tumult of silence. ……Prayers become intensely personal and at the same time more objective and formal. The prayers of the church take on meaning of a keenly objective sort. Our own voice, particular and individual, finds it likes to join other voices speaking to God. Our primary speech opens onto the level of human speech, where others speak for us and we speak for them.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey was asked how long he spent in prayer each day. He answered ‘Thirty minutes. But twenty-none of those is spent settling down.’ This is much more demanding that reading ‘set prayers’. Simply becoming still, trying to be silent, we discover a cacophony of voices within us but eventually: We begin to discriminate among the noises that earlier beset us so strongly.`

Augustine says that our prayers have a voice of their own, quite apart from our own voice.’ God hears all the voices that speak out of us — our vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out eloquently….. prayer is the construction of our desires.’ God does not need to be told anything about what we need and want. Our words in prayer are not for God’s instruction but our own. We discover this way what in fact we do desire, what we want to reach out to and love. Thus we come to hold in open awareness what before we had lived unknowingly.’

But how do we know which is the authentic voice?: If we can let ourselves go in prayer and speak all that is in our minds and hearts, if we can sit quietly and bear the silence, we will hear all the bits and pieces of ourselves crowding in on us, pleading for our attention. Prayer’s confession begins with this racket, for prayer is noisy with the clamor of all the parts of us demanding to be heard. The clamor is, the sound of the great river of being flowing in us…. Prayer is also primary in the sense that its speech includes this mental process, this unconscious voice that exists in us from the very beginning, from the moment of birth. This primary speech does not begin with words, but starts much earlier in human life, with instincts and emotions and with an infant’s first discriminations of value. They occur when a baby discovers that the flow of milk from its mother’s breasts is or is not accessible, is or is not plentiful….. John of the Cross talks about God’s response to the beginner in prayer as a mother to her nursling.’… The language of primary-process thinking is not verbal. It comes in pictures and emotion-laden wishes and is private to ourselves, not really communicable, even though we all share in it. This language speaks our secrets, even those we keep from ourselves…. Prayer enables speech; it extends us beyond our known self into the unknown God.

I have long paid attention to my dreams because: Prayer opens a door to unconscious images, too, images we did not know we possessed. We may, remember dreams or fantasies and be shocked suddenly to realize how frequently that particular image has been with us.

As we acknowledge our desires instead of repressing them into our subconscious, we will be less controlled by them. The purgation spoken of by the classical spiritual writers applies to our false images of God but also to our false images of ourselves. As our desires are bought into the open, they will change. So instead of forcing ourselves to desire the right things, the desires will change by themselves. Instead of forcing ourselves to avoid ’distractions’ in prayer, those distractions will teach us, in the words of the Spice Girls, what we ‘really, really want.’: We allow the fantasies instead of repressing them. But we do not define our being in terms of the fantasies. While they no longer possess us, we do not throw them out and then suffer the fate of that overzealous spiritual housekeeper of the parable who threw out one devil and returned only to find seven devils. We have them and do not have them. We contain them instead of being contained by them. That is hard, painful work, necessary work, rewarding work.’

I was once asked, ‘What do you do with your anger?’ and I didn’t even understand the question. In polite society, we pretend to be calm. And polite prayers pretend likewise. There are two dangers in this: The first, a maneuver that Freud attacked vehemently, is to repress all our angry aggressive feelings and transfer them to God, who will take vengeance against our enemy.’ ‘Such repression weakens faith. It takes the life out of it, makes it treacly-sweet and smirky-good, and even worse, sentimental on the surface and sadistic underneath. Such a faith is not tough enough to survive. It presents itself as willing good for the other, but its “I know what is best for you” attitude introduces a coercive and even tyrannical note in our lives. All the repressed aggression returns by another route under the guise of offering help, it exerts an inflexible control over us. The second danger is to find ourselves overwhelmed by our hate, identified with it, unable to hold onto any possibility to forgive. We are conquered on the inside by the enemy we are fighting on the outside. We now want to bring to others all the hurt, injustice, and meanness that we have suffered from them. We become what we hate. The danger now doubles. In addition to our original anger at others, we turn intense hostility upon ourselves. They have failed us and we have failed our own Ideals. We now hate self as well as other. We want to be forgiving, but instead we seek vengeance.

What about our sexuality? Well, that should be in our prayer too. After all, the marriage service includes the words, ‘With my body I thee worship.’ Sex as worship, lust refined into love.`

An interesting idea – that because God is outside time, prayer can be retrospective. You can ask God to intervene, as it were, into something which has already happened.

And we can’t change the world all by ourselves. We are not the only ones praying. Our prayer links us with the communion of saints throughout space and throughout time: There is a remarkable coincidence of events in our lives now.’ We pray over an impasse, for an enemy, for a loved one. Some time later a series of events occurs that we see as directly related to our prayers. Logically, the events cannot be caused by our praying, but psycho­’ logically they impress us with their immediate connection to each other and to ourselves. We may have been feeling cut off from others, isolated, not seeing a way back into human company. We pray about it. The very day our prayer begins, an old friend from the past phones us, or another friend unexpectedly invites us for a meal. This is one way prayer is answered —through little events in our own history, our own incarnating experience of something other, striking right at our daily life. Little personal things make connections that cannot be statistically proved to rest on our interventions, but which make all the difference to us who live them.

Prayer might be dangerous because it exposes us to bad things but is also makes us more vulnerable to good things: Prayer exposes us to more suffering because it rearranges our re­lationship to evil. As we become more attuned to ourselves and our world, our hearing becomes more sensitive to jarring, discordant, and plainly wrong notes. We catch almost inaudible tones, very brief pauses, levels of communication we would have missed before. We hear how often and how easily people can be seduced into the wrong motifs for their lives. We understand how rare and extraordinary the harmony of goodness is. We come to marvel over the goodness that exists rather than dwelling endlessly on the evil that so often prevails. Our prayers expand to include wonder and gratitude when good actions happen or wise enunciations of truth are heard. We see and feel how vulnerable goodness is, in whatever forms it lives, because it is so attuned to being.

To what end is all this?: to be utterly changed, to be transfigured. To see all of ourselves from such a vantage point is an exposure of being unlike any other, for which the only appropriate name is transfiguration. The exposure and change occur very gradually, as parts of a long-range process. In early prayer we begin to discover our names for God, the names by which we address ultimate otherness in conversation. As we go on praying, we uncover the names for our relation to God and the images we have projected onto God through which God reaches us. We have found a place in our images and projections like Jacob’s, on an ascending and descending ladder. It is a ladder that does not reach all the way to the top or descend all the way to the depths, and yet it has an end. Our images of God cannot be translated into the reality of God. Prayer will be and must be overtaken by silence. A gap must exist between our self and this other. Unknowing, we wait. Learning of a new God-given language that may not have any words in it, we are convinced that the gap will be spanned from the other’s side. Attempting to close the gap ; entirely from our side, we would lose ourselves altogether in the gap. We do not find God simply by our efforts. Here, we recover ourself; we receive God’s name for us. We come to see how we are seen, how the sheep and goats in us are recognized and separated. We are the sinners; still, we are brought into the loving embrace. We come to see how our subjective self is the object of a greater subject’s attention.’

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  1. Primary questions… – Subversive Light

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