Prayer: What It Was For Me

I’ve been reading Donald Spoto’s In Silence: Why We Pray, and I’ve come to realize that my assumptions about prayer — like so many of my other assumptions — were dreadfully inaccurate. Much of this comes from my assumptions as an atheist, but a great deal of it is lingering crud from my early church experience.

An initial realization is the difference between communal and private prayer. I would argue that only very rarely do Protestant churches have anything resembling communal prayer, but Spoto points out the importance of communal prayer in the Old Testament, and experience illustrates the importance of communal prayer in the Catholic tradition.

Prayer in the church I attended in my youth was hierarchical and private. Even when someone prayed in public, it was a private prayer. Our church service began and concluded with prayer (opening and closing prayer, it was called), but like most Protestant prayer, it was merely a private (i.e., individual) prayer said in public. Members bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and dutifully said “amen” at the conclusion, but the congregation never felt — and was never made to feel — as if it were praying. We were standing behind the one man who praying. He represented us all before God.

That was very much a common model in our church. Members were forbidden — not merely discouraged, but forbidden — to proselytize. That job fell to Herbert Armstrong. Our responsibility in preaching the Gospel was primarily to back him up. To support him fiscally.

It was very much like that with public prayers. Just as Armstrong represented us to the world, the individual offering up prayer was representing us before God. Our job was simply to say “We agree” by saying “amen.” The petitioner spoke; God and the congregation listened.

That model of humans speaking and God listening somehow became the dominant paradigm of prayer for me. Very one-way.

What about prayer as listening? Spoto, you have opened my eyes and closed my mouth…


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