1.) Thomas describes prayer as rational. What modern would dare say this? Today one may easily get the impression that a choice has to be made: either adopt a romantic critique of the limits of reason, in order to make room for a more passionate, beautiful, fully embodied understanding of human existence, including spirituality; or embrace rationality as universally necessary and sufficient, but with the result that things like prayer and devotion are ignored or treated with great suspicion. Given the fault lines of our culture, it seems reasonable to ask, “What was Aquinas thinking?” But to him, the connection probably seemed obvious: “prayer (oratio) is spoken reason (oris ratio).” Moreover, when we pray, we are not just feeling a certain way but rather asking that something (namely, our lives, our world) be set in order, and it is our reason which enables us to apprehend such an order (ST II-II, 83.1.c). I think Aquinas has a point. Listen to people pray. The words are not mere feelings exteriorized but rather articulate visions of the way things could be, should be, in a reasonable universe. Prayers are the mind making sense out of an apparently senseless world.
2.) Aquinas speaks of prayer as the “interpreter of desire” (83.1.c and 83.9.c). If prayer is rational, it is also erotic, desirous, full of longing. Prayer translates our restless depths into rational discourse. The key, however, is that, as Augustine says, “it is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire,” and for nothing more (83.6.c). Prayer, then, ought to interpret desires which are properly ordered not only to our own good but also to the good of others, for “this is essential to the love which we owe to our neighbor” (83.7.c). Although this may include certain necessary temporal goods (ibid.), it ultimately amounts to willing that all may fully enjoy the glory of God (83.9.c). The desire which prayer speaks is necessarily, therefore, equivalent to love.
Let us not, then, be too quick to accuse Aquinas of being a rationalist when it comes to prayer, for, in a sense, he is also a romantic. And yet, he may also provide an important corrective to the erotic excesses of romantic spiritualities which are not reasonably ordered toward the good of humanity and the praise which is due to God alone.
Reading Brian’s last post brought Anselm of Canterbury to mind. He’s a medieval who has often been read as a philosopher. He is the supposed inventor of the “ontological argument” for the existence of God: an argument which would later be polished up by Descartes and spawn centuries of debate regarding its logical validity (see Alvin Plantinga’s helpful little book on The Ontological Argument). More recently Anselm has been approached as a spiritual writer: a person of prayer and deep existential faith. Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, can perhaps be given some credit for getting the ball rolling on this more pious line of interpretation.
And yet, the question remains open: How are we supposed to teach Anselm now? As rigorous philosopher or pious monk? I faced this problem directly last semester, when given the opportunity to lecture on Anselm to a group of undergraduate theology majors. I tried to strike a balance, but I think I ultimately slid more toward the pious reading. In retrospect, I’m not sure this was ideal. A real balance seems important, if only as a way of being honest about what’s in the text. Yes, most of it is composed as a prayer, an address to God as “You.” But the second and third chapters are an argument, in which God is not “You” but “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”
In the future, I might try something like this: Anselm’s argument is a real argument. He thinks you should be able to know with certainty that God exists provided that you understand that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought. But we won’t be able to judge the validity of Anselm’s logic unless we grasp that this understanding is a lofty goal. It’s not enough to have the words in your mind. You’ve got to understand, deeply, what they mean–and what it means in particular for something to be “greater” than something else. Anselm seeks this depth of understanding through his contemplative and petitionary prayer, in which he allows scripture and his own experience to shed light on the contours of human desire, which both reveal and conceal our intuition of greatness. In this way prayer–or something like the contemplation it enables–is necessary for us to test the validity of the argument.
I recently read through Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I did so much too quickly: I spent a few hours rather than the prescribed four weeks. And yet, I find them nevertheless very enriching. I especially like Ignatius’ idea that we should meditate very concretely on particular scenes in scripture. Try to picture the place, think about who is there. Apply each of the senses: try to hear the sounds, smell the air, feel the ground beneath one’s feet, see the people and the scenery.
This technique, which appears in different ways in each of the exercises, seems to have had a profound impact on many theologians. I wonder if Rahner’s insistence on Aquinas’ doctrine of “conversion to the phantasm” in Spirit in the World has something to do with his practice of this sensory form of Ignatian meditation. Likewise, Balthasar’s project of rewriting theology from the point of view of aesthetics may very well be inspired by the aesthetic quality of this form of Ignatian prayer. Ellacuria’s turn to the concrete reality of the historical Jesus, which is followed and developed by Sobrino, also points to the depth of their Jesuit training in this sensory method.
As influential as it has been in theology, it strikes me that this spiritual exercise is not totally unlike the form of phenomenological reflection developed by Husserl (only to be expanded and revised by Heidegger and others). In both cases, the method is to take sensory intuition and to vary it imaginatively, in order to sense and understand it from every angle. Just as in Ignatian prayer, so too in phenomenology, one distinguishes profiles of experience in order to appreciate more clearly the ways in which they compose one whole. The difference, in short, is that for Ignatius and the theologians who follow him, Christ is the phenomenon par excellence.
Perhaps Jean-Louis Chretien, in his synaesthetic approach to phenomenology and theology, in works such as The Call and Response, has been the one most perceptive of this continuity between spiritual and philosophical practice.
Does Kant have anything to teach us about the unity of contemplation and action? One might doubt it, given the wedge which he drives between theoretical and practical reason. And yet, within the practical domain, he m have some important things to say. In particular, I’m concerned with his account of contemplative prayer and how it relates to his theory of moral agency.
In the fourth “General Observation” of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Harper, 1960; originally 1793), Kant briefly discusses prayer as one of four “means of grace” (the others are church-going, initiation, and communion). Means of grace are, in turn, one of three kinds of “illusory faith that involve the possibility of our overstepping the bounds of our reason in the direction of the supernatural” (the others are beliefs in miracles and mysteries) (182).
In view of these categorizations, one might expect Kant to say that prayer as such is an action pointing beyond the realm of pure reason and therefore wholly illusory. Interestingly, this is not what he says. Rather, he distinguishes two sorts of prayer. One sort, which Kant calls “verbal prayer,” can be a dangerous “superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore, nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated” (183). And yet, even this dangerous form of prayer as verbal address is good for children who need it to acquire an idea of God (186) and for some adults who need the spoken word as a kind of temporary crutch, helping them to reach the true moral disposition (185).
The other sort of prayer is something occuring within. Kant calls it “the spirit of prayer, which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing'” (183). This spirit of prayer captures the core experience of reflective faith which Kant believes is the basis for moral religion. One finds in this form of inner prayer, for which Jesus’ teaching provides the model, “nothing but the resolution to good life-conduct which, taken with the consciousness of our frailty, carries with it the persistent desire to be a worthy member in the kingdom of God” (183). Such prayer contains “no actual request for something which God in His wisdom might well refuse us” (183). Even when the “Our Father” asks God for daily or superessential bread, this, in Kant’s eyes, is “more a confession of what nature in us demands than a special deliberate request for what the man [in us] wills” (184). Moreover, there is nothing in the spirit of prayer which addresses God, attempts to work upon God, or even presupposes God’s existence or presence; rather “the man” [sic] who abides in the spirit of prayer only “adopts an attitude (even inwardly) as though he were convinced of [God's] presence” (183).
My take on this is mixed. On the one hand, there are many things to critique: (1) the false separation of verbal and spiritual prayer, which no serious thinker today could formulate so dichotomously; (2) the regulative “as though,” which disallows, it would seem, sincere faith in the presence of God, and for what reason?; and (3) the flimsy rejection of prayer in the mode of address based upon a doctrine of divine omniscience, which overlooks the consensus in the Christian tradition that prayer is not meant to give God information. On the other hand, despite the rationalism of his age (which he fosters and exemplifies) and the correlative suspicion of pietism, Kant nevertheless manages to distill a certain essential connection not only between contemplation and action (taken abstractly) but more specifically between contemplative prayer and the moral disposition which leads to good action grounded in good reasoning. The other problems aside, Kant may actually be a resource for thinking through the idea that the spirit of prayer–more adequately conceived (1) as inclusive of voice, (2) as sincerely affirming the mysterious presence of God, and (3) as a real address whose goal is nevertheless not to give information–has a lot to do with the struggle for moral agency in the modern world (for which Kant, despite–or rather because of the endless criticism–remains a touchstone).