The Origin and Purpose of Prayer
For the most part the average person has overlooked the matter of prayer as a vital practice in his everyday experience. In fact, its common use has been more or less in the category of superstition. We have not understood either prayer itself nor the nature of him to whom prayer is addressed. We have fulfilled the various forms given us in our religious systems, and hoped that some good would come of it. In this respect our attitude has differed only in a certain measure from carrying a rabbit's foot, or indulging in mystic formulas of the hocus-pocus variety. Not that any form of prayer is valueless, for any hope of help is better than to have no hope at all. But we have not given its practice the thoughtful consideration that
it deserves and which in turn would make it genuinely and dependably effective.
Ordinarily, we have resorted to the practice of prayer only in extremities, and then because results have not been forthcoming we have been inclined to discredit its practice as a dependable rite. In reality the seeming ineffectiveness of prayer has been due to our lack of intelligence in its practice. The proof of the effectiveness of prayer is not to be found in its occasional or impulsive application, but in its daily and habitual practice in every phase of human experience.
Roger Babson, the great statistician, who is accustomed to dealing with the various commodities and resources in our commercial system, has said that: "Prayer is America's greatest undeveloped resource." In a conversation between Mr. Babson and the late Charles P. Steinmetz, Mr. Babson asked in what field the greatest discoveries of this age would be made. Mr. Steinmetz replied: "In the realm of spiritual forces." And he went on to say: "Some day people will learn that material things do not bring happiness and are of little use in making men and women creative and powerful. Then the scientists of the world will turn their laboratories over to the study of God and prayer and the spiritual forces. When this day comes, the world will see more advancement in one generation than it has in the past four."
The above statements coming from men who are
accustomed to dealing with what we call material things, are rather startling perhaps, even to spiritually minded people. But when such statements are made by men of this caliber, it is time that we give the matter of prayer and the development of spiritual forces in human experience, more definite consideration than we have in the past. Instead of taking prayer and spiritual things as a matter of course, resorting to them only in emergencies, we shall find it a subject worthy of our most earnest consideration and practical application.
Abraham Lincoln said, "I am driven to my knees over and over again because I have nowhere else to go." In the experience of Jesus Christ, from the time that Mary "pondered these things in her heart," until Christ himself cried upon the cross: "It is finished," prayer was the secret of his development, growth, and achievement, and therefrom was developed the greatest degree of genius that has ever been known in this world, which gave to mankind an entirely new understanding of life, its possibilities and how these potential capacities within him may be developed.
In arriving at a correct understanding of the most vital facts concerning prayer, it is doubtless well to first consider its origin, its fundamental nature and purpose. It is also essential to understand the difference between the man and his false conceptions of himself. Prayer applies to every phase of man's true nature and its development. It
would hardly apply to his false conceptions of himself nor his ignorant ideas of the world, except to destroy these false states and ignorant concepts. One would not expect the law of mathematics to apply to his false desires regarding the outcome of a problem. Mathematics applies to things of its own nature and character, and its results are in strict accord with itself and not with the perverted desires of the individual. This applies to the laws of nature, of music, of art and science generally. But the application of the laws involved in any of these principles destroys false factors in the consciousness of the faithful student, and then right results are forthcoming. These results are entirely satisfying to the one applying them. There might be an exception, however, if one desired to make his income tax report figure out 5 cents when it really figured out $15.00. In other words, one should expect and plan for results commensurate with the principle itself, and not expect the principle to provide for the false notions and desires of transient phases of his own nature.
Man did not originate prayer. Prayer really originated man. That is, prayer is the assertion in man of the same force that projected him into being. True, man originated some of its forms, but prayer itself originated with man, and came into being with him, as a part of the very processes of his existence. Some writer has said that "prayer is the sincere desire of the heart." In a sense that is true.
At least all true prayer springs from man's deepest desires and his innermost nature. A study of the most ancient religions, as well as a thoughtful study of one's own experiences, reveals this fact. Take your own experiences as an example. When you are face to face with a problem in life which is greater than the mind is capable of dealing with, or that the physical strength is incompetent to cope with, the most natural thing is to resort to the practice of prayer. In grave danger, great responsibility, intense joy, or any other so-called emergency which the mind is incapable of grasping, prayer is the universal practice to which all men resort. As David wrote: "Their souls melt away because of trouble. They reel too and fro like drunken men and are at their wits ends; then they cry unto Jehovah in their trouble." Instead of leaving the practice of prayer for use only in extremities, it should be understood and applied in everyday experiences, thereby avoiding the extremity. Surely, as the old adage runs: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"; and this would be just as applicable in the case of prayer as anything else.
Carlisle said: "Prayer is and remains the native and deepest impulse of the soul of man." The mystics taught: "My worship is a virtue common to all," and for that reason they admonished their devotees to "make of prayer their inmost friend." From its practice the mind receives new calm and clarity of reason, the body receives new strength
and endurance. Prayer must, therefore, belong primarily to something deeper in man's being than his mind, and more basically within his nature than the changing conditions of his emotions or his body.
To find that deeper phase of man's nature from which prayer springs and to which its practice relates, we must learn something of the difference between permanent traits or habits within the man and those more transient phases of his being. That which changes in man's nature could not truly indicate or express his fundamental character. Only that which is unchangeable could adequately do that. The unchangeable is the inner urge to know, to do, and to be: that something within each individual which will not let him rest or be content to remain in any state less than perfection, and drives him continually on toward that goal. Only when the outer mind and emotion follows this inner urge is there peace, power, and satisfaction in life. To go contrary to these inner trends of man's nature is to increase his dissatisfaction and further throw his entire being into inharmony.
This same inner urge is common to all men in all races, in all nations, and throughout all periods of time. This, then, can be the only clue to our real nature and our potential possibility. Prayer originates in this same region of man's nature and is the natural function of man in his original state. It is the assertion of this same phase of his nature when he is face to face with conditions with which his
falsely cultivated and variable states do not function. It is as natural for man in this state — which is the real man — to pray, as it is natural for the physical body to breathe.
Prayer, like man's innermost desire, is common to all men in all periods of time, and in all races of men on earth today. When scientists find relics of prehistoric man, they find objects of worship. Wherever the human race is found upon the face of the earth today, we find also this tendency to worship, or to appeal to a force above man's own nature. Could it then be possible that such a universal impulse would not have a vital bearing upon human life? Prayer therefore becomes an inseparable and indispensable part of man's very being.
It also follows that such a natural impulse or function must find response from the very source from which man himself came into being, just as his tendency to breathe finds response in the air. It would be entirely beyond the reaches of sound reason therefore to assume that there is this cry, or urge, in the nature of man, and yet that there is no supply for it in the nature of God. Just as truly as there IS air which man may breathe to supply certain of his physical needs, so IS there the responsive and ever-present Almighty God whose very essence may be inbreathed into man's interior being to enrich his capabilities and revive his spirit and otherwise give him help and inspiration to meet the needs and demands of life. To deny the value of prayer
in human experience, therefore, would be as foolish as to declare that breathing has no function and that we expand our lungs to a void and unresponsive ether.
The impulse back of prayer and the tendency to pray might well be accepted as a sort of dependable compass in man's nature which not only reveals his potential character, but points him back to that state from which he came and to which he is now returning. Prayer is a sort of spiritual breathing which will cause the soul of man to live again, just as physical breathing, mechanically induced, has caused the body to live again.
For every department of man's being, there are not only the elements which meet his need, but there is also within him the necessary means of handling and appropriating these elements. On the physical plane of his being, his hands function with the things of form, and he accepts those things relating to his body. Also through his hands he passes on these same elements to others, or puts undesirable objects away from his body. In other words, he is giving and receiving, through the function of his hands, the elements of this three-dimensional world — food, raiment and shelter. But these things which contribute to his physical well-being are not the only essentials of life.
Man is more dependent upon air than upon things of form, and within the air he finds a source of vital sustenance to his physical being. Also, he
has lungs which function with this realm of higher and more vital supply. Through the expansion and contraction of his lungs he receives and handles the air, appropriating its essential qualities and then expelling certain qualities which are detrimental to his physical well-being.
But again there are more essential facts in man's existence than air. Without a mind, or the capacity of awareness, it would be altogether unimportant whether he possessed food, clothing, shelter, air, or even life itself. And so within his mental make-up, there is a process by which he receives conscious impressions, and these impressions become ideas, and these ideas find expression in words. This process of thinking enables him to handle elements and forces which contribute to his "conscious" life, and this thinking process handles elements of infinitely greater importance, and is possessed of vastly larger powers and capacities than any of the functions previously referred to. This receiving and expressing impressions is a sort of mental breathing, or receiving and giving on the plane of consciousness.
But there are times when the mind is dull and unresponsive, and then something awakens within the nature of man that makes it again alert. There is something working within his nature that affects the mind, very much as the mind affects the body. For instance when the stimulating effect of inward joy is apparent, man's mind becomes alert and
active. But in sadness or states of depression, the mind becomes dull and unresponsive. Therefore, there must be in the natural order of man's process of living, some vital practice that would awaken and strengthen this inner buoyancy, or whatever one may call it. There must be a practice that functions with man's innermost nature as thinking functions in the mind, as breathing functions with the air, and as hands function with forms. It must also follow in the line of sound logic that the discovery and conscious application of this "higher" practice will deal with higher and more dynamic forces, and should have the same relatively increased effect upon man's nature, as the preceding practices.
Naturally man's physical capacity is enlarged and his sphere of life is vitally increased through the capacity of his hands to deal with the various forms about him. But how much more is his capacity sustained and enlarged as he, through the process of breathing, appropriates the elements of the air. And yet these functions are as nothing without the element of thought; for without thought he could neither breathe nor use his hands to any definite purpose. So it is obvious that with his mind he is dealing with infinitely finer and more dynamic forces.
The forces with which the individual deals on the plane of his innermost being must be correspondingly greater; and there must also be a corresponding increase in the possibilities to be derived from the practice which handles forces within this
realm. One may begin to suspect the real significance of the statement of Steinmetz when he said that the "greatest discoveries of this age will be made in the realm of spiritual forces."
Just as the action of the hands utilizes the forms about man, and his lungs utilize the elements of the air, and thinking appropriates the motivating forces and capacities of the mind, so does prayer deal with the highest forces available to man; those forces which move in the ever-present spiritual ether from which all things came into being, and to which all things owe their existence. Prayer is the continued action of this same spirit, or animating force; and prayer is therefore the very breath of the soul of man and the means of utilizing the highest forces in the Universe, — even the Spirit of God.
When Jesus Christ said, "Consider the lilies of the field how they grow," he certainly must have felt that there was a process involved in the growth and development of the lily that paralleled certain processes in man's attainment. Unless this is true the illustration is meaningless. On the other hand, since the same God created everything that grows from the earth, and everything that flies above the earth, — read the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of John — there must be a single law governing all things and a similar motive running through all things from the smallest created organism to man himself. To find, then, "how they grow" would be to find at least something comparable
to the process of growth in man. With this idea in mind, let us study for a time, just "how they grow."
We all know that the growth of the lily begins within the bulb, — at least so far as its present state is concerned. We also know that that which becomes the lily is a germ of life buried within the very heart of the bulb, and that this germ of life is commonly called the sprout. The bulb itself is only the shelter and source of initial nourishment for this inner germ of life. We also know that the growth and development of the lily is in the expansion of this inner germ, which is accompanied by the disintegration of the bulb. In other words, the inner nature must increase and the outer nature decrease; and at the completion of the process the positions of the bulb and of the germ of life have been reversed. In the first instance, the germ lived within the bulb, but in the second instance the bulb has been absorbed into and lives within the plant. With Paul it might well say, "I live, yet not I but Christ liveth."
The foregoing should give us a clue as to the findings of the ancients that prayer has its origin in "deep longing and in sincere desire." This inner longing and desire must be an indication of the potential capacity which is to be developed in man. Also, in this development of inner capacity, all the outer activities of man must become subservient to it growth; any inner capacity can only be developed
as it receives the support of man's thoughts, acts, and purposes. We might illustrate this point further by another comparison.
We all know in our everyday experience that an inner desire is always the beginning of ability in any special direction. Take for instance the musician; he started his career with an inner desire in this direction, and this inner desire was developed through applying himself to the principle of music, thereby enlarging his desire until it had expanded to the point of developed character. This involved devotion, discipline, and a sublimation of his outer character to this inner desire. When this process was complete, his nature was quite reversed. Certain tendencies and characteristics that were previously foremost in his nature and conduct became secondary or disappeared completely. Along with this disappearance of old characteristics there came forth new ones, and the musician appeared. Again, in the language of Paul he might say, "I live, yet not I but the musician lives"; for his former nature has been absorbed into this new character which he has developed.
But there is a central desire deeper in man's nature than the desires to be mathematicians, musicians, or artists; yet all these spring from this same central desire as many shoots spring from a central sprout, in plant life. The central desire never changes in character, and as we have previously intimated is identical in all men. That desire is to
be "perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." Like all the rest of our lesser desires this desire is the first embryonic shoot or impulse of a potential capacity. Yet in its truest sense it is really the inner memory of the "image and likeness" in which man was created in the beginning. In fact this central desire is the memory of the real self that was with God in the beginning before the world was, and which will ever remain the same to the ending of days.
As the impulse to grow, expanding the germ of life within the bulb until it is the lily, symbolizes its prayer of progress, so is man's prayer the process by means of which his inner desire for perfection is fanned into a living flame until it becomes his manifest character. Prayer is the very process of life and power in the individual, and is in reality the most vital means of attaining all of his ideals. Nothing could be so vital in aiding him in all his undertakings as the intelligent and purposeful practice of prayer.
At this point we are attempting to call the student's attention to the fact that prayer relates primarily to the development of inward spiritual character; and only in a secondary sense does it apply to the things for which we ordinarily pray and which belong chiefly to the body with its various desires and appetites — the "bulbous" phase of our being. But even the prayer for outer things has some vital bearing upon this inward growth,
just as desiring and gaining a musical instrument, and the first amateurish attempts at producing sounds thereon, have a definite part to play in the development of musical character. So it is not to be construed that praying for outer things, and receiving them, has no part in the true meaning and purpose of prayer. Every act of prayer and every form and manner of prayer contributes in some degree to the enlargement of man's spiritual capacity. However, when one keeps in mind the deeper significance back of all outward experience, prayer becomes most vital and effective. It is not the prayer itself, the thing prayed for, nor the answer in the form of outer things or results that counts for most; but the degree of inward growth and the enlargement of spiritual character.
Two fundamentally important facts regarding prayer are to be found in the further consideration of the music student and his relationship to the musical principle. In his procedure he fulfills two essential elements of prayer. The first is the devotional application to, or study of the principle. This is to find out the nature of the principle and in which direction it moves and the manner in which it applies. Following this comes the round of daily practice where, "line upon line and precept upon precept," he trains these processes into his character. Nor does he confine his practice to the moments definitely associated with the instrument of his choice. Much of his daily thought, no
matter what he is doing, is devoted to contemplating the processes of his principle. His feelings become involved with the many operations which he has discovered. He begins to walk in a rhythmic manner, and finally, whatsoever things he does, seem to have a direct bearing upon the objective before him. All of us know the value of this complete devotion to and absorption into an ideal.
The study and practice of the student might be termed his prayer to the principle — that is, they are the equivalent of prayer in this particular field of human experience. However, his prayers are not that he may merely possess the instrument and produce sounds thereon; but they are rather for the development of his inner character, which in turn is the surest guarantee that the results which follow will be harmonious and desirable, both to himself and those about him. True, both the instrument and the sounds produced are essential factors in the development of the musician, but the important fact to note is the motive running back of these. Your Heavenly Father knows you have need of these things, but these things are not the ultimate. They are outlets for his own expression, and the object is growth of character.
The purpose of prayer is not to persuade God to do our bidding but to let God endow us with his own gift of perfection. Then the added things which outwardly correspond to our inner and real nature will be given. Prayer is not begging a God
who is unwilling to give, but rather a means by which we accept that which has been offered since the beginning of time, and of which our innermost and highest ideals are but prophetic shadows. Furthermore, man has a perfect right to anything in the way of outer forms or conditions which he can and will use for the purpose of furthering the spiritual capacities within himself and those about him.
One may perfectly understand how it is possible to be constant in prayer according to the teachings of the Scriptures, as he realizes that true prayer involves both devotion and practice. Devotion is the submission of one's mind to, and learning the ways and processes of principle. "And he lifted his eyes unto Heaven." Practice is the means by which these facts are builded into consciousness. "What I see the Father doing, that I do." Man's devotional prayer is that he may know the way of God; but the practical side of prayer is doing the will of God until his Will becomes the individual character. When Christ said, "Not my will but thine be done," he was disciplining himself to conform to that which he saw the Father doing, until it became his embodied motive for action; and that embodied motive which he defined as the Will of God was the secret of his genius.
Because prayer relates to man's inner nature, its effectiveness is in the attitude of the heart and not in the posture of the body nor in the utterances from our lips. Christ brought out this point when
he referred to those who "worship me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." And again this doctrine is emphasized when he said: "The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The forms of prayer, therefore, may be continually subject to change, but the prayer itself, to be effective, must always be the same; and that prayer is the intent involved back of all the outward forms of prayer. Prayer is, therefore, a matter of self-release and self-expression or growth, rather than a system of getting something which relates only to the bodily self.
There is another fact involved in the process of the growth and development of the lily, or of anything else in nature. That is, that while the bulb has within it the potential plant, yet the fully developed plant is the result of supplementing or reinforcing its potential capacity with the elements and forces from above itself. In other words, the germ of life must not only draw upon the substance within the bulb, but it must send roots into the earth and shoots into the air and continually reinforce itself with the elements of the earth, the air, and the sun. Its growth is merely a matter of the amount of these elements which it is enabled to incorporate into itself. This is the law of its development, for of itself it could be or do nothing.
Man's potential capacity is revealed in his inmost desire for perfection, but this inner desire is developed to the point of realized fact only through his ability to draw unto himself or receive into himself that presence and power of God — that is all life, all substance, all intelligence — in whom man "lives and moves and has his being," until, through this process of growth and expansion, his inner desire has become the realized outward fact. He must draw upon those things which increase his capabilities. He must utilize elements above his physical being if he would increase his nature. To seek only material needs and comforts, the things on the plane of his physical body, will not lift him into those realms of power and dominion which he seeks.
There should, therefore, be a direct, understanding approach to God as being more closely related to us than the air or light; a feeling that his attitude toward us is that of a loving, willing, responsive presence, ready to pour out every good gift and every perfect gift upon us. God, as the scriptures teach, is "easy to be entreated." It must therefore follow that for every element or power or possibility resident within man's inner nature, there is an infinite, responsive counterpart in the Universal Ether; and that everything within the Universal Ether — which we designate as the spirit of God — is responsive to man. All the complete nature of God is as accessible to man as radio music in the electric ether is accessible to our receiving
sets. But as the radio must be attuned to the electrical ether, so must man attune himself to the presence of God.
"Look unto me," "Incline thine ear unto me," is the practical instruction given in the scriptures regarding the most simple attitude in our initial practice of prayer. Devoted attention to the fact of God's presence and power, his life and substance, his love and sustaining strength, guiding intelligence and helpful ministrations, constitutes one of the most essential acts in the practice of prayer. This form of prayer is sometimes called the prayer of "adoration" and is most vital in its effects inasmuch as the entire nature of man expands ifo the direction of his attention.
Study yourself for a time and see how your life unfolds and expands in the direction and manner of your attention. See how your nature is vitally affected by this practice, and then from this experience reckon how definitely your life would be affected by the sustained attention directed toward God, the infinite source of all things visible and invisible.
If prayer originates in our deepest longing, the first step in our actual practice should be to understand our most sincere and abiding desires. What is the strongest impulse in your own inner nature? If you were all you would like to be in your own nature, what would you be like? What would you feel like? What would you look like? How
would you act? How would you meet life and the various situations that arise in your daily experience? Would you think, act, and feel like a miserable, sickly weakling? Or would you meet life in a masterly manner? Certainly, you would meet life as a master; in the courage, dominion, and strength characteristic of a Child of the Infinite. This state would only be a reassertion of the mastery and dominion given you in the beginning. You would face life with radiant perfection in every department of your being, and this state would only be the expression of the "image and likeness" in which you were created. All this discovery would be the Divinely planted "seed," the architectural design of your being, asserting itself and trying to find its way up through the darkness and ignorance of men into its own native perfection, intended from the beginning.
Contemplate these basic facts in your nature. Recognize that they are but the embryonic shoots of the Universal purpose in your nature. Note that there is a perfect similarity between this inner trend of your own being, and the Mighty Trend of the Universe. This would be a sort of introspective prayer in order that the individual might discover the innermost fact of his being as distinct from his mental and bodily desires, which usually occupy the attention. These outer desires will all be taken care of at a later period; but first things must come first if we would arrive at the point of highest
efficiency in the art of prayer. "Search me, O God, and know my heart," and at the same time you should be searching your own heart. "Cleanse thou me from secret faults," and we should be doing likewise, that every impediment to our progress may be removed and we may become free to travel in our own Divinely appointed course.
In this practice of introspection, or searching out the hidden things of your own heart, proceed in the attitude that there is a secret fact in your nature that is identical with the purpose of God with respect to your own nature. That your innermost desire must be the divinely planted "seed," or the stirrings of the "law" which God has written in your heart. Try to feel that the innermost desire expanding from your interior nature, is the coming back to your memory of the Self which God created and which he knows you to be. "I will bring all things to your remembrance." Also feel that all the power of God, all the forces of the Universe, are moving to bring forth this inner and potential nature; just as all the forces of nature work to bring forth the potential nature within the bulb.
The ancients called the stirrings of this innermost desire the "inspiration of the Almighty," or the breath of God. And this is true, for there is "a spirit in man (and spirit means action), and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding." Therefore, let the central theme of your
introspective prayer center around the thought that:
"There is a spirit in me, and the inspiration of the Almighty gives me understanding. The activity of the spirit of God, moving in and through and back of my highest and deepest desire, gives me an understanding of my own Divine self, and of the will and purpose of the most high God in me."
"The act of praying is the very highest energy of which the human mind is capable." — Coleridge.