Mystical Praying: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 11

Recently, during a conversation with a friend, we got to talking about this "Towards A Theology Of Prayer" series and he made a comment that had yet to dawn on me, he said: "Your definition of prayer is very mystic(al)." After thinking about it a bit, I came to the realization that, indeed, he was, in a few ways, quite correct. I guess it had not dawned on me because I do not really consider myself a "mystic" nor do I have a background steeped in "Christian Mysticism". In fact, if I were to be honest, the term "mystic" conjures up sort of esoteric and exotic images for me; I don't consider my prayer life esoteric or exotic. When I think of mysticism, I think of desert monks, hermits, etc. Of course, this sort of caricaturing is only half true! There is a sense in which a mystical prayer life isn't all that exotic or doesn't seem all that exciting.

In fact, Friedrich Heiler has said that mystical prayer is the "sublimest kind of prayer". What this means is not that it is incredibly boring or pointless but rather, that as a form of prayer, it is the most free from egoism and eudaemonism. To put it differently, mystical prayer removes self from the center (egoism) and places God there. It also does not treat prayer as a sort of action or event whose end-result is happiness (eudaemonism). In fact, my definition of prayer (Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us) wholly decenters the self and brims with an anti-eudaemonic aura. Prayer does not exist to make us mortals happy, no, it exists to encounter God and to seek out what pleases Him!

However, it is at this point that I would veer a bit from typical mysticism and go a couple of different routes. While I can agree with Heiler's comment that, "In naive prayer the essential content is the expression of need and desire, but this is not true of mystical prayer...which is merely a turing of the mind towards God", I differ in that I see prayer as more of a two-sided, back-and-forth event. In other words, as I have argued in previous posts, while one enters into the prayer event in the main to attend to God's presence and to find out His wants / desires, there is an aspect of the "genuine relationship" between us and God that allows for tension to exist between God's desires and ours. To state it more succinctly: God is open to hearing our desires too, and allowing us to genuinely (not manipulatively) share those (even when there is tension with our desires and His).

This argument is actually a rather large step away from the views of traditional mysticism in regards to prayer. Traditional views assert (seemingly unanimously) that prayer is a sort of practice whereby the one praying constantly "submits" to God and has his or her will "bent" by The Divine. In fact, the mystics are known for treating the prayer event as a complete act of silence (no talking, no asking, no thinking, just being quiet) but I, personally, do not hold this view (though, I see contemplative silence as a healthy practice, by no means do I see it as the only way to pray or as the "end goal" of those who do pray). Nor do I use the popular metaphor of "surrender" to think about prayer; it is not surrender, it is not "The Infinite" swallowing up the finite but rather, it is interacting and engaging, experiencing one another. It is an experiential event of mutality founded on genuiness!

So, while my definition of prayer definitely has mystical tints to it, by no means would I fully align myself with the spiritual guild that is historically known as "The Mystics". While I wouldn't call it "mystical prayer", I would venture to call it "Mutual Prayer" or "Relational Prayer" or "Dialogical Prayer" or something similar. As we continue to work towards this theology of prayer, what input might you have about all of this? What are the pros and cons? What questions remain to be explored? I look forward to reading / hearing your thoughts.


Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Mystical Praying

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