Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a Lutheran visionary and martyr of the church—has long been revered for his insight into the spiritual make of humanity, translating theological complexity into prayer, essay, and sermon for a flock forever plagued by struggle. For Bonhoeffer, as for Luther, the spiritual journey is a trying one, but perhaps less trying than we make it out to be. Some of his most profound theological insights come in the form of prayer—prayer inspired by his own battles with the sufferings of a dark world. From these enlightening, moving meditations, we come to know a different sort of Christianity and a renewed sense of self—both of which are turned upside down and relieved of the human lust for control. In one particular prayer, Bonhoeffer writes, “O God, help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you: I cannot do this alone.”
In an age when prayer has become muddied with cultural over-usage and abuse (i.e. “praying” for possession, power, and wealth), Bonhoeffer roots us again in the primary purpose of prayer: to let go of that which make us turned in on self, and to refocus our energy on our relationship with the divine.
The reason I’m delving into an observation on prayer is because I see it both misused and misunderstood. So often on Facebook, in the wake of tragedy and loss, I see statuses rife with “prayer”—a convenient, culturally-embedded synonym for “thoughts” and “condolences”. This stems, no doubt, from the founding of our nation on Christian principles, and from the pervasiveness of Christian vocabulary in American culture, but it has become almost secular. I worry that the invocation of “prayer” is simply what we do when someone suffers a loss; we don’t really know what we mean when we say things like, “Please keep my family in your thoughts and prayers after the death of my grandmother,” or “Pray for my mother as she begins chemotherapy this week.” These are events that make us vulnerable, that make us need the divine more than ever. But when tragedy hits, “prayer” is called on by self-professed atheists and devout faithful alike who use the word as a cultural recognition of pain and suffering. For many who do not believe in a deity, prayer is simply a consolation, a means to assuage fear and doubt and a somber recognition that pain is a human reality.
To my mind, this kind of “prayer” is roundly irresponsible. I confess that Christians don’t own prayer anymore than they own faith and spirituality, but prayer in its best, purest form runs far deeper than epithelial comforts—it is an opportunity, as Bonhoeffer so simply, so beautiful paints, to acknowledge what we lack and to turn our lives once again to the power, protection, and will of God. In suffering, we come to the core of who we are and what we believe, and while it is often painful, we call on our broken faith to reconnect with the divine—the only power that can offer any whole and lasting comfort in devastation beyond our capacity for repair.
While Bonhoeffer writes poignantly of mankind’s relationship with God in a Christian framework, prayer is manifested in countless ways throughout humanity—in mantras, meditations, chants, the silence of our chaos-ridden minds, giving, humbly receiving, suffering with grace, and innumerable other forms. And yes, the deities to whom these prayers reach are varied in their character and description, but they are still divinity, and we still reach for relationship with them through prayer. It is a moving, humbling, wrenching experience that—with patience and trust—sets us on the path to healing and wholeness.
But what of “Facebook prayer”? What I see, in popular media and bites of information churning in modern social hubs, is the commandeering of prayer for comfort without the responsibility that it demands. Prayer is a gift, and it is for us, but it requires us to give ourselves to what we cannot know, but trust with wholeness of heart and mind. On Facebook, on Twitter, on message boards and in countless other online, virtual spaces, prayer seems to be a catch-all for what culture demands we say when things go sour. But what does it mean to us? To anyone? Is it a request for guidance? A call for advice and comfort? Or is it simply a culturally accepted way to recognize loss and lack where it appears, and move on, having fulfilled our cultural responsibility?
Perhaps my criticism of modern iterations of prayer is too harsh, but I believe it’s a practice worth a second look. What are our motivations for invoking prayer? And when we say our hearts are bent in prayer for others, are we just paying it lip service because it’s what we are supposed to do? Are we ok with prayer being a sometimes-arduous discipline of faith while also being a cultural politeness?
From where I stand—and, I believe, where Bonhoeffer and Luther stood—I think it’s time we prayed about this prayer business. We need to invest—earnestly and with openness—in what prayer is, and how we choose to use it.