restricted access TWELVE: What Should We Pray For?
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W h a t S h o u l d W e P r a y F o r ? 1 9 9 199 TWELVE What Should We Pray For? rayer, both private and public, is one of the most common of human activities. All human history records it; its roots probably go back to before recorded history. Yet, when we attempt to submit its most common form, that of petition, to philosophical analysis, we run into difficulties. All too often we pray for things, such as victory or gaining a desired position, and forget that there are losers in such competitions. Prayer, here, seems caught in the “mimetic violence” that René Girard describes.According to Girard, our socialization involves our imitating others. It thus leads us to desire what they desire and hence to compete with them, often in violent ways, for possession of a desired object.1 Our focus on objects in petitionary prayer also seems to trap us within what may be called an “earthly economy.” We pray to God for some object and often promise something to God, some sacrifice on our part, in return.As I previously cited Plato, the piety evinced by such prayer “would then be a sort of trading skill between gods and men” — one involving a mutual exchange of benefits (Plato 1981, 21). The difficulty is that the gods neither need nor depend on our sacrifices (19). What benefit could the gods receive from us? How can we enter into a process of exchange with them? (21). Plato’s critique, P 2 0 0 H i d d e n n e s s a n d A l t e r i t y which Derrida repeats, makes us ask: How can prayer relate us to the sacred? How can we ask for things and not be trapped in an “earthly economy?”2 To answer these questions, I propose to examine prayer phenomenologically — that is, in terms of the appearing of the sacred. My thesis is that the above difficulties can be resolved if we see prayer as the attempt to provide a space where the sacred can appear. The key concepts here are those of kenosis and incarnation. Providing a space for the sacred, involves the form of hiddenness that occurs in God’s kenosis or selfemptying . This kenosis is also a manifestation, one which permits the sacred in petitionary prayer to incarnate itself into our bodily being and behavior. Two Concepts of the Sacred The first, and perhaps most basic, concept of the sacred seems to stand opposed to any attempt to analyze it phenomenologically. Phenomenology is the study of appearing, but the sacred seems to signify what cannot appear. The Israelites believed that no one could see God face to face and live (Exod. 33:30). The Greeks, too, had a sense of the killing splendor of God. When Zeus fulfills his promise to Semele to show himself as he is, he does so in a bolt of lightening, reducing her to ashes. Behind such examples stands the notion of the otherness of the god, of its not fitting into the contexts in and through which things are normally given. Such contexts are those of the “earthly economy” — that system of exchange through which things come to us. Our bodily metabolism with its organic needs is an example of this economy; so are our normal, everyday commercial transactions. They point to our dependence on the world, to the fact that we live only through a constant process of exchange with it. The otherness of the sacred manifests itself in its not being part of this economy. Thus, as I earlier noted, the Greek root of the Latin, sacer, means “safe,” in the sense of being kept apart or reserved for the divinity. As consecrated to the god, the W h a t S h o u l d W e P r a y F o r ? 2 0 1 sacred cannot be used by us. One cannot cut down and use the timber of a sacred grove; the trees forming the grove are inviolate. One should not, in fact, even enter the grove. The trees and the ground, as sacred, are “not to be touched.” Fortunately for our purposes, there is a second notion of the sacred, one that has an equal place with the first: the sense of the sacred as coming into the world by incarnating itself...


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