From a long-forgotten book by an old-fashioned liberal, some wise counsel about …

Archive: Prayer as communion with God

by Harry Emerson Fosdick
taken from the book, “The Meaning of Prayer”
©1915 by the International committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association (with introduction by John R. Mott)

When a man begins to make earnest with prayer, desiring to see what can be done with it in his life, he finds that one of his first necessities is a fairly clear idea of what praying means. In most lives, behind all theoretical perplexities about this problem, there lies a practical experience with prayer that is very disconcerting. When we were little children, prayer was vividly real. We prayed with a naive confidence that we should obtain the things for which we asked. It made but little difference what the things were—prayer was an Aladdin’s lamp. By rubbing it we summoned the angels of God to do our bidding. Prayer was a blank check signed by the Almighty, which we could fill in at will and present to the universe to be cashed.

Such a conception of prayer is picturesquely revealed in the confession of Robertson of Brighton, the great English preacher. He gives us this paragraph about his childhood:

I remember when a very, very young boy going out shooting with my father and praying, as often as the dogs came to a point, that he might kill the bird. As he did not always do this, and as sometimes there would occur false points, my heart got bewildered. I began to doubt sometimes the efficacy of prayer, sometimes the lawfulness of field sports.

Once, too, I recollect when I was taken up with nine other boys at school to be unjustly punished, I prayed to escape the shame. The master, previously to flogging all the others, said to me, to the great bewilderment of the whole school: ‘Little boy, I excuse you: I have a particular reason for it.’ I was never flogged during the three years I was at that school.

That incident settled my mind for a long time, only I doubt whether it did me any good. Prayer became a charm—I fancied myself the favorite of the Invisible. I knew that I carried about a talisman unknown to others which would save me from all harm. It did not make me better; it simply gave me security, as the Jew felt safe in being the descendant of Abraham, or went into battle under the protection of the Ark, sinning no less all the time.

Many of us can look back to some such experience as this with prayer. But, as with Robertson, serious doubts soon disturbed our simple-hearted trust. How often we rubbed this magic lamp, and no angels came! How steadily our faith in its efficacy gave place to doubt and then to confident detail! As experience increased, we relied not on prayer but on foresight, work, money, and shrewdness to obtain our desires.

Frederick Douglass said that in the days of his slavery he used often to pray for freedom, but that his prayer was not answered until it got down into his own heels and he ran away. In that type of prayer we came increasingly to believe. But where, then, is the old trust that used to look for gifts from Heaven? Indeed, when in anguish we have cried for things on which the worth and joy of life seemed utterly to depend, our faith has been staggered by the impotence of our petition and the seeming indifference of God. We have entered into Tennyson’s crushing doubt:

Mother, praying God will save thy sailor,
Even while thy head is bowed,
His heavy shotted hammock shroud
Sinks in its vast and wandering grave.

This practical disappointment with prayer as a means of getting things leads most men to one of two conclusions: either a man gives over praying altogether; or else, continuing to pray, he seeks a new motive for doing so, to take the place of his old expectation of definite results from God. Men used to put flowers on graves because they thought that the departed spirits enjoyed the odor. Although that superstition long has been overpassed, we still put flowers on graves; but we have supplied a motive of sentiment in place of the old realistic reason.

So men who learned to pray in childlike expectation of getting precisely what they asked, are disillusioned by disappointment; but they continue prayer, with a new motive.

“Never mind if you do not obtain your requests,” men say in this second stage of their experience with prayer. “Remember that it does you good to pray. The act itself enlarges your sympathies, quiets your mind, sweetens your disposition, widens the perspective of your thought. Give up all idea that someone does anything for you when you pray, but remember that you can do a great deal for yourself. In prayer we soothe our own spirits, calm our own anxieties, purify our own thoughts. Prayer is a helpful soliloquy; a comforting monologue; a noble form of auto-suggestion.”

So men returning disappointed from prayer as a means of obtaining definite requests, try to content themselves with prayer as the reflex action of their own minds. This is prayer’s meaning, as they see it, put into an ancient parable:

Two boys were sent into the fields to dig for hidden treasure. All day they toiled in vain and at evening, coming weary and disappointed home, they were met by their father.

“After all,” he said to comfort them, “you did get something—the digging itself was good exercise.”

How many today think thus of prayer as a form of spiritual gymnastics—what Horace Bushnell called “mere dumbbell exercise!” They lift the dumbbell of intercessory prayer—not because they think it helps their friends, but because it strengthens the fiber of their own sympathy. They lift the dumbbell of prayer for strength in temptation, because the act itself steadies them. Prayer to them is one form of mental culture.

But this kind of prayer is not likely to persist long. A thoughtful man balks at continuing to cry, “O God,” simply to improve the quality of his own voice. He shrinks from the process which Charles Kingsley describes in a letter as “Praying to oneself to change oneself; by which I mean the common method of trying by prayer to excite oneself into a state, a frame, an experience.” If he does indulge in such spiritual exercise, he must call what he is doing by its right name. It is meditation. It is soliloquy, but it is not prayer!

When a man indulges in this occasional self-communion for spiritual discipline, there is no sense of fellowship with God to remind one of Jesus’ great confession, “I am not alone, but I and my Father” (John 8:16). His meditation can be called prayer only in the qualified phrase of one of the parables, where a man “stood and prayed … with himself” (Luke 18:11).

Is not this a typical experience of modern men? They find themselves impaled upon the horns of a dilemma. “Either,” they say, “prayer is an effective way of getting things by begging, or else prayer is merely the reflex action of a man’s own mind.” But this dilemma is false. Prayer may involve some thing of both, but the heart of prayer is neither the one nor the other. The essential nature of prayer lies in a realm higher than either, where all that is false in both is transcended and all that is true is emphasized.

To Jesus, for example, the meaning of prayer was not that God would give Him whatever He asked. God did not. That sustained and passionate petition where the Master thrice returned with blood-stained face, to cry, “Let this cup pass” (Matthew 26:39), had no for an answer.

Neither did prayer mean to Jesus merely the reflex action of His own mind. Jesus prayed with such power that the one thing which His disciples asked Him to teach them was how to pray (Luke 11:1). He prayed with such conscious joy that at times the very fashion of His countenance was changed with the glory of it (Luke 9:28, 29). Can you imagine Him upon His knees talking to Himself?

Surely when the Master prayed, He met Somebody. His life was impinged on by another Life. He “felt a Presence that disturbed Him with the joy of elevated thoughts.” His prayer was not a monologue, but dialogue; not soliloquy, but friendship. For prayer is neither chiefly begging for things, nor is it merely self-communion; it is that loftiest experience within the reach of any soul, communion with God.

Of course, this does not answer all questions about prayer, nor exhaust all its meaning. Definite petition has its important place. But the thought of prayer as communion with God puts the center of the matter where it ought to be. The great gift of God in prayer is Himself. Whatever else He gives is incidental and secondary. Let us, then, consider in particular the significance which this truth has for our idea of praying.

For one thing, the thought of prayer as communion with God makes praying an habitual attitude, not simply an occasional act. It is continuous fellowship with God, not a spasmodic demand for His gifts.

Many people associate prayer exclusively with some special posture, such as kneeling, and with the verbal utterance of their particular wants. They often are disturbed because this act gives them no help, because it issues in no perceptible result at all. But even a casual acquaintance with the biographies of praying men makes clear that praying is to them a very different thing from saying prayers. One who all her life had identified with prayer certain appointed acts of devotion, properly timed and decently performed, exclaimed, ” Prayer has entirely left my life.” Yet when asked whether she never was conscious of an unseen Presence in fellowship with whom she found peace and strength, she answered, “I could not live without that!”

Well, that is prayer—”not a mechanical repetition of verbal forms,” as A. C. Benson puts it, “but a strong and secret uplifting of the heart to the Father of all.”

Let any of the spiritual seers describe the innermost meaning of prayer to them, and always this habitual attitude of secret communion lies at the heart of the matter. They are seeking God Himself, rather than His outward gifts. As Horace Bushnell says: “I fell into the habit of talking with God on every occasion. I talk myself asleep at night, and open the morning talking with Him.”

Jeremy Taylor describes his praying as “making frequent colloquies and short discoursings between God and his own soul.”

Sir Thomas Browne, the famous physician, says, ” I have resolved to pray more and to pray always, to pray in all places where quietness inviteth, in the house, on the highway, and on the street; and to know no street or passage in this city that may not witness that I have not forgotten God.”

Ask a monk like Brother Lawrence what praying means to him. He answers, “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s presence, by continually conversing with Him.”

And ask the question of so different a man as Carlyle, and the reply springs from the same idea, “Prayer is the aspiration of our poor, struggling, heavy-laden soul toward its Eternal Father, and with or without words, ought not to become impossible, nor, I persuade myself, need it ever.”

To be sure, this habitual attitude is helped, not hindered, by occasional acts of devotion. Patriotism should extend over all the year, but that end is encouraged and not halted by special anniversaries like Independence Day. Gratitude should be a continuous attitude, but all the months are thankfuller because of Thanksgiving Day. “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” is a great commandment, and to keep one day each week uniquely sacred makes all days sacreder.

So if all hours are to be in some degree God-conscious, some hours should be deliberately so. The biographies of praying men reveal regularity as well as spontaneity. One would expect John Wesley to undertake anything methodically, and prayer is no exception. In addition to his voluminous Journal, Wesley kept diaries, scores of which have been preserved. On the first page of each this vow is found: “I resolve, (1) to devote an hour morning and evening to private prayer, no pretense, no excuse whatsoever; and (2) to converse face to face with God, no lightness, no facetiousness.”

The greatest praying has generally meant habitual communion with God. And this expressed itself in occasional acts that deepened the habitual communion. But whatever the method, alike the basis and the end of all was abiding fellowship with God.

There is a viewless, cloistered room,
As high as Heaven, as fair as day,
Where, though my feet may join the throng,
My soul can enter in, and pray.
One harkening, even, cannot know
When I have crossed the threshold o’er;
For He alone, who hears my prayer,
Has heard the shutting of the door.

The thought of prayer as communion with God relieves us from the pressure of many intellectual difficulties. To pray for detailed gifts from God … to ask Him (in the realm where the laws of nature reign) to serve us in this particular, or to refrain in that—this sort of entreaty raises puzzling questions that baffle thought.

To commune with God, however, is not only prayer in its deepest meaning; it is prayer in its simplest, most intelligible form. Here, at least, we can confidently deal with reality in prayer, undisturbed by the problems that often confuse us. For the standard objections to prayer—the reign of natural law making answer impossible, the goodness and wisdom of God making changes in His plans undesirable—these objections need not trouble us here. When a man sits in fellowship with his Friend, neither begging for things, nor trying to content himself with soliloquy, but instead gaining the inspiration, vision, peace, and joy which friendship brings through mutual communion, he does not fear the reign of natural law.

The law of friendship is communion, and prayer is the fulfilling of that law. So fellowship in the Spirit may be free and unencumbered; theoretical perplexities may be left far behind. We may range out into a transforming experience of the Divine friendship, when we learn that prayer is not beggary, not soliloquy, but rather that it is communion with God.

This interpretation of the innermost nature of prayer as the search of the soul for God rather than for His gifts, has, to some, a modern sound, as though it were new—invented, perhaps, to put the possibility of praying out of reach of this generation’s special difficulties. But to call this view “modern” is to betray ignorance of what the choicest people of God in all centuries have meant by praying.

Recall St. Augustine’s entreaty in the fourth century, “Give me Thine own Self, without whom, though Thou shouldest give me all that ever Thou hadst made, yet could not my desires be satisfied.” Recall Thomas a Kempis in the fifteenth century praying, “It is too small and unsatisfactory, whatsoever Thou bestowest on me, apart from Thyself.”

And then recall George Matheson in the nineteenth century, “Whether Thou comest in sunshine or in rain, I would take Thee into my heart joyfully. Thou art Thyself more than the sunshine; Thou art Thyself compensation for the rain. It is Thee and not Thy gifts I crave.”

This view of prayer is neither peculiarly modern nor ancient. It is the common property of all Christian seers who have penetrated to the heart of praying. The intellectual puzzles are found in the fringes of prayer; prayer, at its center, is as simple and profound as friendship.

The inevitable effect of this sort of communion is that God becomes real. Only to one who prays can God make Himself vivid. Robertson of Brighton has already described for us his crude ideas of prayer in his boyhood. Listen to him, however, as at the age of 25 he writes:

It seems to me now that I can always see, in uncertainty, the leading of God’s hand after prayer, when everything seems to be made clear and plain before the eyes. In two or three instances I have had evidence of this which I cannot for a moment doubt.

An experience like this makes God vivid. But to many people, God is only a vague Being in whom they have no dealings. They have heard of Him in the home from childhood and never have entirely escaped the influence of their early teaching about Him. They have heard of Him in the church. They have heard of Him from the philosophers. And when a scientist like Sir Oliver Lodge says, “Atheism is so absurd that I do not know how to put it into words,” they see no reason to dispute.

All this is like the voice of many astronomers saying that there are rings around Saturn. Men believe it who never saw the rings. They believe it, but the rings have no influence upon their lives. They believe it, but they have no personal dealings with the object of their faith. So men think that God is, but they have never met Him. They never have come into that personal experience of communion with God which says, “I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee” (Job 42:5).

Nothing is real to us except those things with which we habitually deal. Men say that they do not pray because to them God is not real, but a truer statement generally would be that God is not real [to them] because they do not pray. Granted a belief that God is, the practice of prayer is necessary to make God not merely an idea held in the mind, but a Presence recognized in the life. In an exclamation that came from the heart of personal religion, the Psalmist cried, “O God, thou art my God” (Psalm 63:1).

To stand afar off and say, “O God,” is neither difficult nor searching. We do it when we give intellectual assent to a creed that calls God, “Infinite in being and perfection; almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will.” In such a way to say, “O God,” is easy—but it is an inward and searching matter to say, “O God, Thou art my God.” The first is theology, the second involves vital experience; the first can be reached by thought, the second must be reached by prayer; the first leaves God afar off, the second alone makes Him real.

To be sure, all Christian service (where we consciously ally ourselves with God’s purpose) and all insight into history (where we see God’s providence at work), help to make God real to us. But there is an inward certainty of God that can come only from personal communion with God.

“God,” said Emerson, “enters by a private door into every individual.”

One day in Paris, a religious procession carrying a crucifix passed Voltaire and a friend. Voltaire, who was generally regarded as an infidel, lifted his hat.

“What!” the friend exclaimed, “Are you reconciled with God?”

Voltaire with fine irony replied, “We salute, but we do not speak.”

That phrase is a true description of many men’s relationship with God. They believe that God is; they cannot explain the universe without Him. They are theists, but they maintain no personal relationship with Him. They salute, but they do not speak. They believe in the church. And especially in sensitive moments when some experience has subdued them to reverence, they are moved by the dignity and exaltation of the church’s services. But they have no personal fellowship with God. They salute, but they do not speak.

When men complain, then, that God is not real to them, the reply is fair, How can God be real to some of us? What conditions have we fulfilled that would make anybody real? Those earthly friendships have most vivid reality and deepest meaning for us, where a constant sense of spiritual fellowship is refreshed occasionally by special reunions. The curtain that divides us from the thought of our friend is never altogether closed, but at times soul talks with soul in conscious fellowship. The friend grows real. We enter into new thankfulness for him, new appreciation of him, new intimacy with him.

No friendship can sustain the neglect of such communion. Even God grows unreal, ceases to be our Unseen Friend and dwindles into a cold hypothesis to explain the world, when we forget communion with Him.


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