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Psychology Of Prayer

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

As an alienist, and one whose whole life has been concerned with the sufferings of the mind, I would state that of all the hygienic measures to counteract disturbed sleep, depression of spirits, and all the miserable sequels of a distressed mind, I would undoubtedly give the first place to the simple habit of prayer." To this effect spoke Dr. Hyslop, the distinguished specialist, to his medical brethren at a recent Congress. The utterance is noteworthy, both for the words themselves and the audience to which they were addressed. Of all men in the world, the average Englishman is the most reticent on the subject of religion. One might suppose it had never been properly acclimatised with him. He wears it awkwardly, as though it were a misfit. To ask him for an expression of it is to produce on him the effect of an indecent exposure. And the medical faculty has shared to the full this insular singularity of ours. Doctors have been supposed, indeed, to be specially inclined to scepticism. " Tres medici duo athei " is a hackneyed proverb, and still current. The deliverance we have quoted, calmly offered to this specialist audience as a scientific observation resulting from experience, is then, we say, a notable fact, worthy our best consideration.

It reveals, for one thing, that new attitude towards religion which prescient minds already discern as the note of the coming age. We have remarked on the awkwardness of English religion. That is the result of its having been so largely ‘a convention, an artificiality with which we have had no proper relations. But this is already, in the best minds, passing away. We are on the way to naturalness because we are on the way to humanness. Science is the new religious mediator. It is entering this great region of the human consciousness as a realm whose facts and experiences demand its closest investigation. It is beginning to realise the absurdity and mischief of its previous shyness in relation to them. And thus it will come about that what has been previously held as the exclusive property of theologians, to be dealt with in a jargon of their own by the pulpit and the " religious world," will be recognised once more as a common property, a recognised part of the inalienable human possession.

We treat Dr. Hyslop's declaration on prayer as a sign of this new attitude. He discusses prayer, not theologically, but as a phase of consciousness, a recognised activity of the human spirit. That is the new way. Our fathers started their religious explorations from a standpoint in the heavens, attainable only in their imagination. Hence a system handed down to us which we feel to be saturated with unrealities. We are today building on surer ground. We commence with ourselves, with the things we know and feel. It is from this standpoint we can best discuss prayer. And dealing with it thus, we see how far we have travelled from the mid-Victorian position, when Tyndall and Huxley threw down their challenge to the Church to experiment about the efficacy of prayer in a hospital ward. So far have we travelled that science can no longer think on those lines. It has been forced off them on to a new track. Let us see, in one or two directions, how the matter now stands.

There is, first of all, the old a priori philosophical objection to prayer. It used to be argued as absurd to suppose that the mere wish of a man, as expressed in devotion, should cause any deviation in the settled order of the universe. The eternal law to be turned aside by a wish ! The infinite wisdom which fore-sees all to take orders from a suppliant who foresees nothing ! Is not this for the fly on the wheel to govern the machinery ; for Phaethon to take in hand once more the chariot of the sun ? It is curious to note how these ideas seem still to obsess a certain order of mind. The present writer has been frequently asked by correspondents whether, in view of such considerations as these, he can possibly himself believe in prayer.

But the new science does not reason in this way at all. For one thing, it is giving up a priori speculations as to what is and what is not possible. And that especially in the relations between the finite and the Infinite. For here we can pile up by the score absolute contradictions that are yet facts. We can prove motion impossible, and yet we know things move. We argue a philosophic necessity, and yet act on the supposition that our will is free. The latest science is coming back to an absolutely homogeneous something as the ultimate beginning, and yet declaring this homogeneous something to be the cause of all variety ! We have to accept these seeming contraries, and to recognise at the start that our mind is not on a scale for estimating truly the relation of the finite to the Infinite.

But that is only the beginning. The argument against prayer based on the distance between God and man is really to-day out of date. We suspect now that these two are more nearly related than we thought. Modern philosophy, especially since Hegel, has regarded man as the chief mode, on this planet, of the Divine consciousness. It is in the human soul that the Divine thought, immanent in the universe, comes to its self-expression. It is thus that the modern mind thinks of the Incarnation. Humanity itself is an incarnation. As Augustine has it, when we dig deep enough into the human we find the Divine.

When we come, therefore, with these considerations in mind, to our question—" Can a frail mortal influence by his prayer the Eternal Power ? " we are at another standpoint for discussing it. The question, we discover, is, " How much in prayer is of the frail mortal," and how much of " the Eternal Power " ? And in this argument also, let it be noted, it is prayer in its truest expression, and not in its imperfect forms, that is in question. As Aristotle has taught us, our judgment of a thing is to be formed, not from its beginnings or its history, but from the perfect idea of it which the beginning and the history are labouring to exhibit. Nature always begins her creations low down. And prayer, considered historically, begins low enough. But the beginning is not the end. To decide on it from a study of savage incantations, of pagan priests with their " O Baal, hear us ! ", of Tartar prayer-wheels, of the naive proposals of some modern religionists to make God the accomplice of their selfish schemes, is to go beside the mark. Yet even these, at their lowest, rightly considered, carry the great argument and justification of prayer. For they represent man's mysterious right, felt as a right at the inmost of him, to appeal from the visible to the invisible. These crudest forms are, after all, a natural movement of the soul, an instinct born of our nature and of our position in the scheme of things ; an instinct to which we feel the universe has provided adequate response.

And when we trace this movement upward to its higher manifestations, the more certain do we become of its entire appropriateness, and of its marvellous inner efficacy. We realise in these experiences the fulfilment of that law, that wherever you challenge the higher possibilities of the universe it reacts upon you with entire generosity. Prayer is in this sense the exercise of the soul's responsiveness, of its receptivity. It follows here with precision the whole process of human development. Man has grown in all his departments of living by this method. It is the method of preparing himself for the action on him of outside forces. Light, heat, electricity, the chemical actions and reactions, all these were in his world from the beginning, waiting for his appropriation. The savage was savage because of his lack of response to them. As his receptive surface became widened by know-ledge, he took in of these waiting powers, until now they are his workers of miracles. Prayer, on precisely the same lines, is the appeal to subtler forces even than these. It is a receptiveness on an even grander scale. It recognises, as Clifford Harrison in his " Notes on the Margins " has excellently put it, that " if waves of force pass through earth and rock ; if certain forms of light pass through our bodies it may well be that psychic and mental force can be and is transmitted and exercised in a hundred unknown and mysterious, but absolutely natural ways in the unrecognised ether of thought."

To put it broadly, prayer on the human side is man's declared affiance with the Infinite. It is the sap in us, all the warm life-current in us, rising past every intermediate object of desire to our very topmost, and thence streaming out to meet that higher Beyond of which it knows itself a part. For we know ourselves not as a finished product, but as rather a process, a becoming, and in prayer we seek the element which is making us. It is in this conception we finally meet the objection, absurd in itself, of prayer being the dictation of weakness and ignorance to the all-governing wisdom. The objection ignores the whole system of things in this world. It supposes that man's prayer begins with man, whereas nothing in man begins with him. It began first in his universe, in. his Maker. It is as the action of sun and rain. From out of the ocean the sun draws up the vapours, which later come back in showers upon the earth. Here is a circulation from deep to height, and from height again to deep. So, under the shining of the Sun behind the sun, out of the deeps of man's mind and heart are carried up the invisible currents of his aspiration and soul's desire, to descend afterwards in secret responses which he knows, nevertheless, to be real. Real, though the first form of his desire is often enough left unanswered. The response lies, indeed, often enough in the heightening and purification of his desire. In Gethsemane's agony he prays, maybe, for his cup to pass from him. He leaves the garden with no other wish than that God's will be done.

Apart, then, entirely from considerations of technical theology, prayer will come more and more to be recognised as an indubitable spiritual experience, as a moral force of the first quality. It is indispensable to the man who would deal with and judge men and things from the highest plane. Its reactions on the human spirit and in the world of affairs are, indeed, incalculable. For this reason alone it is time that science took up, as it has not yet attempted to do, the whole literature of prayer—took it up as a unique study of the soul in the greatest of its manifestations. There is no literature on the whole so wonderful. Who wants man at his highest cannot leave this page unturned. It would be an entirely new sensation for our generation to leave the latest novel, and to take a turn instead at the world's devotional record. We should not pronounce on this subject until we know what men before us have accomplished in it ; until we know our Augustine, our Francis, our Luther, our St. Teresa, our Madame Guyon, our Andrewes and Wilson, our Methodist Bramwell, our Romanist Vianney.

We cannot come into contact with these great spirits without realising that, apart from their varying opinions on speculative points, they were in their prayers on the common ground of a great spiritual reality. What may be the precise relation of our nature to that unseen side of things to which in prayer it appeals, we may not accurately know. But this we are assured of, that the response from that other side is immense. Under certain inspirations the giants of faith have asked and received, because the asking and the receiving were alike of God. It is in this region the heroes have found their strength. Gordon in his tent here won his battles beforehand. Here the common man conquers himself and the world. Fides impetrat quoe lex imperat. " Faith obtains what the law enjoins."

There are all kinds of prayer. Much of it in a well-attuned man is a joyful acquiescence. As Coleridge has it :

No wish conceived, no thought expressed,
Only a sense of supplication,
A sense o'er all my soul impressed
That I am weak, yet not unblessed
Since in me, round me, everywhere,
Eternal strength and wisdom are.

But a man in healthy contact with the unseen will not be content with that. To such, as a mediaeval mystic puts it, " seeking is as good as beholding." There arises in us a sense of intimacy in which, as Marie Bashkirtseff daringly puts it, we find " a God from whom we can ask everything, and to whom we can tell everything." We may go even further and say, as did Feneloa to an inquirer, " Si Dieu vous ennuie, dites lui qu'il vous ennuie." That is the highest intimacy.

In sum. Religion will come back to its true place when it is put once more on a natural basis. We discover that basis in the study of the soul's nature and powers. Chief among those powers is prayer, the faculty by which man expresses his affinity with the Unseen. In the exercise of it he widens immeasurably his relations with the Universe, and increases beyond all reckoning the sum of his inner resource.

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