When I was 5-years-old our family went on one of those gondolas up a mountain in British Columbia, Canada, and just as our cable car suspended over the deepest part of the valley below, it stopped moving. It swayed at first, and then all went still. Nobody spoke. Except for a little voice, (and yes it was mine), that asked my parents, “How do we know this is on tight?”
That’s the question when life gets really scary, isn’t it? When you are dangled over the abyss and there’s nothing between you and… the thing no one is saying except the little kid who says what everyone is thinking: “How do we know this is on tight?”
Of course, that’s when we really start praying it is on tight. For everyone’s sake. In the face of such uncertainty, sometimes all we can do is pray.
But what are we actually doing when we pray? And what did the Biblical writer James mean when he told his fellow Christians that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”?
Experience tells us that prayer isn’t a secret remote control we can use to zap reality to our liking. Sometimes we pray and nothing changes. Sometimes prayers lead to miracles.
Other times we feel like we need to do something special to get God’s attention.
And for my five-year-old self hanging over a deep ravine, it would be a perverse God indeed, who said “just be a good enough little girl and pray the right way, and it will all be OK.”
What I love about history is that it anchors us in a reality we couldn’t otherwise touch. James wrote his letter to offer practical advice to newly converted Christians about a foreign concept of worship. In their world, people prayed to a chosen or local gods or goddesses: women swore by Artemis or Diana, Hercules was reigned supreme in the town of Thebes, or Zeus in Athens. James reminds them that they are not praying to fitful and bad-tempered gods who will hurl lightning bolts if they are angered. We are under the eye of the one true God who has actually come down to us as a little baby, who knows us and loves us and hears our prayers.
This fact changed everything about prayer, for first century Christians, and for us. Because since all things exist in relation to this God of love, our prayers do too.
We are praying to the God whose very sweetness has broken through to us.
So when THIS God moves to put our prayers into effect, they ARE powerful and effective. But we don’t make them so. So what are we doing when we pray?
Somehow, we are touching a reality beyond the senses.
Did you know that it isn’t the eyes that see, it’s the brain? I read an article in the New Yorker article called “Seeing with Your Tongue.” A person experiencing blindness could learn to see with a device called a Brainport.
The sense of touch takes the place of the optic nerve, transporting images to the brain. And somehow, perception is translated.
I can’t help but think that prayer works something like this.
In prayer we are brought into the presence of God, whose eternal reality translates for us. Crosses a boundary to create liminal space where transformation happens.
We sense that we were created because we are loved. Just that. We are not a means, but an end. And we are more whole, more alive, with a wellness that we didn’t create by some transactional effort on our part.
And there is some waiting necessary. To pray means we have to yield up space and time, and some of our darling preoccupations.
For one hot minute there is a self-emptying that mirrors God’s own. And as Simone Weil says, grace enters and fills the empty space wherever there is a void to receive it.
Once when Zach was little, my Mom threw a blanket over the dining room table, and the two of them crawled under to talk in whispers. His little face, so close to hers, was full of wonder that she wasn’t tall anymore, but small and enclosed with him in the semi-darkness. Their tent was a holy place where secrets were shared. It is the same for us in prayer, but God is the grown-up and we are the child.
The mystery of prayer is that we may never understand exactly how it works, just that it draws us into intimacy with a God who hears. When even in our tiniest voices we wonder, “How do we know that this is on tight?” and we can expect, somehow, that someone hears us and answers: “I know, right?”