Images, fragrances, flavors–they all have the power to attract or to repulse. The picture here is an original piece of stitched artwork done by a Catskill artist who was doing a theme on doors–I often imagine prayer as a kind of doorway. PR men used to wrangle with the difficulties of television because it could not be Smell-O-Vision: that is, they couldn’t bring the fragrances of meals into our homes.
An old friend of mine was a successful professional photographer in New York City. She told me a trade secret. She could not photograph real food and make it look tasty. To capture the savoriness of the real food, she had to employ props (fake food). I was surprised that anything as appetizing as a gourmet meal or garden-fresh produce had to be faked. But the failure was not in the food, but transmission of its essence by camera. After I learned this fact, I was sitting in the mental misty flats of wondering what was wrong with me for getting bored when people would talk about prayer. Then I realized that I was trying to draw a straight line between praying and garbled discussions of prayer. In doing so, my mistake was in linking my boredom of the discussion of prayer to me praying. Prayer wasn’t boring–but discussing it was.
Since then, I carry no guilt about being bored in conversations or sermons on prayer: I have drawn a clear line between description and experience. (Instruction on prayer is necessary, but that’s a different topic, altogether.) That the stellar effects of praying are not easily transmitted doesn’t spoil my joy of prayer. The effects, the fragrance-memories, can linger in the heart for decades as a kind of retro fixed point. I’d like to believe that God gives us personal memories of prayer to sustain and re-attract us. I am sure one of God’s chief desires for me is to learn that He loves me in excess of my love for anyone or anything else. Paul says as much in his prayer for the Ephesians:
“to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.” (Ephesians 3). Notice Paul doesn’t write about prayer, nor merely say, “You should love God.” He prays for them to comprehend God’s love.
Images can give us a more concrete understanding of what I am trying to say about prayer. For this, I like how George Herbert’s poem captures a kind of slideshow in words about the effects of prayer. (Charity Johnson)
Prayer the Church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well-drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
by George Herbert