I do not see prayer as a manipulation of reality. It is rather the recognition of the limitation of the self, an intentional turning of the self to the light, of the part to the whole, the individual to the community and to God. It is the very encounter of the energy of the self with the energy of creation. Perhaps it is out of this that miracles may occur. And who knows, it may be out of this that prayers are answered.
Harvey Gilman, writing in The Friend, 24 October 2014
Prayer can sometimes seem an odd subject to a Quaker. Despite books like David Johnson’s A Quaker Prayer Life, many of us – as Harvey Gilman says earlier in this article – prefer terms like prayerfulness or opening to prayer, especially when our mind throws up memories of “saying our prayers”, or of the sometimes mechanical “prayers of intercession” in a church service.
But Gilman goes on to describe his understanding of prayerfulness as “a disposition of the Spirit, an intention of the soul, even when words fail, even when one does not know what is needed. ‘I cannot pray’ is a form of prayer.” This is more like it. True prayer seems to me to consist not so much in presenting God, or whatever we imagine to be God, with a list of requests, demands, petitions to be filled, as in answering the call God places on the heart.
I once wrote,
“The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by us at the time.” (Johnson) This is perhaps the key to understanding what is involved in the practice of contemplative prayer. It requires an utter, implicit trust in God to pray like this, unknown and unrewarded even by ourselves, which is of course part of the paradox of prayer itself. The call to prayer, and the trust required to pray with no visible “answer”, is pure grace; such grace is only to be reached in prayer.
We cannot know what is going on in prayer because we cannot know what God is. We can only know God; and it is in knowing God that prayer becomes the inevitable attitude of the human in the presence of the divine. If this is so, then not only is Quaker worship a kind of prayer (and I am convinced that, whatever else it may involve, it is) but many other encounters with the Light may be prayer also. George Fox encountered God before he knew where exactly in Scripture to find him:
Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.
That opening came from beyond Fox. It comes from beyond me. If it did not, I should never have thought of praying. All through my teens and early twenties I had sought for what was beyond myself, beyond the boundaries and conclusions of my senses and my mind – for what was real, in fact. But it was not until I reached the end of my own resources, and something far beyond my self – that I had glimpsed in the childhood stillness that follows serious illness, or alone in the sunlight orchard behind our house – called to me, that I knowingly encountered the divine as an adult. Yielding to that at last was prayer, and it has remained true for me that prayer is no more than a response, something not initiated by me, nor an action of mine, but merely an opening of what little in me is true to that which is love, and truth, and light itself, and always life.