BISHOP OF NEW YORK
THE LAW OF PRAYER
[Preached in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Monday, December 2, 1918, at the opening of the Women's Advent Mission of Prayer, published by request.]
MODERN knowledge has taught us that the world in which we live is not a world of arbitrary, capricious or accidental happenings, but of established order and fixed natural laws, whose Author and Sustainer governs and controls it; not apart from or by the suspension of these appointed laws, but by working with them, working in and through them. And it is of one of these natural laws that I purpose this morning to speak, namely, The Law of Prayer.
And first I ask you to note that in our human life at least, or in our human nature, the instinct of prayer is a universal instinct, which in our human world everywhere appears, in all estates and classes of men, and in all lands and ages. In all creeds, and religions, of whatsoever sort, from the lowest to the highest, the voice of prayer is heard. In the song of the Parsee priest on the top of the Persian [3/4] mountains, in the sound of the Mussulman's cry breaking forth with the sunrise from the turret stone of the Mosque; in Mohammedanism, in Buddhism, in Zoroasterism; in the Monotheism of the Jew, the Polytheism of the Roman and the Greek, the Fetichism of the African, the voice of prayer is heard, sounding through the hymns to Indra and Varuna, as well as through the Psalms of David to Jehovah. "We unroll Egyptian papyri," says a learned English scholar, "and find them filled with forms of prayer. We unearth Babylonian tablets, and amid all their sorceries and superstitions there is prayer. We translate the ancient books of India, of Persia and of China, and they too are replete with prayers." [* Dr. Illingworth, as quoted in Cambridge Theological Essays.]
Prayer is in fact the story of human life trying to come to itself through a power outside itself, and to somehow tell itself, as through an open door, its deepest, inmost secret self, into the listening ear of some sympathetic God.
And not only in the past, the less enlightened past as we are wont to call it, but also in what claims to be the more enlightened present, do we hear that voice; and again, not only among the peoples who are or call themselves religious, but among those who are not so called, by themselves or others, and yet [4/5] who, in spite of themselves, are moved at times to pray; they cannot keep God out of their thought and speech. And the instinct in them of God carries with it the instinct of appeal to God in prayer. And they do appeal to God not always reverently, sometimes irreverently and blasphemously, in cursing and in swearing. But what is cursing and swearing but the instinct in them of prayer, the appeal to God gone mad, because for a time they have gone mad.
It is an irrepressible and ineradicable instinct. It shows itself in wrath, in anger, love and fear; in danger and in death. Or when at times the heart is touched with some deep emotion, some deep and strong emotion beyond the common wont, which we know not how to express or when again, confronting some hard and perilous task which we know not how to perform, yet must perform, without any human guidance or any human aid, treading the winepress all alone, in darkness and in weariness, with none to help or understand or bring deliverance to us,--the cry for help goes up to God as through an open door, and the appeal to God is made.
There is no law of nature, of human nature at least, so deep and so strong as the instinct of prayer. It ripples through the sunshine of our purest joys; it glistens [5/6] through our tears; it makes our weakness strength and makes our strength stronger. It quickens within us the dream of some ideal life, not seen as yet, but towards which we aspire as the home of the soul in God. In human nature at least there is no other law so prevalent, so permanent, so dominant, as the instinct of prayer, and we can no more get rid of it than human nature can get rid of human nature.
Now let us go on a step further. The instinct of prayer is as we have seen a part, an essential part of our human nature. But of what is human nature a part? According to a very widely credited teaching and belief, human nature is a part of all the rest of nature, of the whole field of nature, the whole cosmic field. It is all of a piece and one, so it is alleged; one organism, one growth, one development, or one evolution, evolving and growing all the way from a molecule to a man.
Now you and I may not believe all this, although I presume we do in some measure believe it; but it is a current scientific belief that the nature of man is an outgrowth from all the rest of nature, and that being so, it is not, I maintain, a consistent scientific belief first to include man within the scope of nature and then to exclude him from the scope of nature in trying to ascertain what the laws of nature are. [6/7] And if prayer be one of human nature's laws, then I maintain again that it is just as really a law of nature to pray as the law which moves the planets or binds them to their course, or makes the earth revolve. Yes, and more real; for as we are often told, the reality of a growing thing is in its highest form of growth and not in its lowest, the last explains the first and not the first the last; the fruit explains the root and not the root the fruit. And the highest form of growth in this growing universe, so at least does modern science teach, is man, with the instinct in him of prayer. And therefore it seems to me, with a confidence just as real and sure, we may use and trust this natural law of prayer as we trust and use any natural law.
But then it is said that prayer must be used for spiritual things only and not for physical. But how is that possible? Who has a blade, a metaphysical blade, or an anatomical blade, sharp enough, keen enough, to draw the line and tell us where the spiritual in its influence on the physical ends, or where the physical in its influence on the spiritual begins? Spiritual things and physical things, while the soul is dwelling in the physical form of the body, are sacramentally united and cannot be divorced, cannot be put asunder. Patience [7/8] is a spiritual thing, a very beautiful spiritual thing; so are love and faith and hope beautiful spiritual things. But their exercise is to a great extent determined by physical facts and conditions. The soft answer that turneth away wrath is a spiritual thing and much to be desired; but the soft answer that turneth away wrath is not easily spoken when one is nervously weak and tired and all the nerves seem to be out on the surface scintillating sparks. And if we are to pray for spiritual things only, and not for physical, how shall we pray, when shall we pray, what shall we pray for; or, dependent as we are so much on physical conditions, how can we pray at all? And, as the Duke of Argyle says, the "theory of a fundamental separation between the physical and the spiritual is a theory entirely unsupported by any evidence in observation and in consciousness." [* Quoted in Cambridge Theological Essays.]
No, the law of prayer is not so limited and circumscribed as that. It has a larger range; and here in our human world, whether it be for spiritual things or physical things, or both, God works through the natural law of prayer; not in violation or suspension of other laws of nature, but by making use of and giving direction to them. That is what we ourselves can do and what we often do. Does [8/9] gravitation stop as we pass by? Certainly not and yet every time we throw a stone or play a game of ball, or, as Sir Oliver Lodge says, pump water up hill, the law of gravitation is not suspended by us, but directed by us towards some particular end of our own choosing, and made for a time at least to work our purpose out. And if that is what we can so freely do, a free personal God can surely do no less.
And yet after all, prayer is not primarily asking God for something for ourselves or others, although of course including that, and prayer involves petition. But prayer means primarily a free and open thoroughfare and right of way to God. Our human life on earth is not confined and shut within a prison house or a prison cell, with prison walls about it and a prison roof above it, and with no opening in it. There is an opening in it, which God himself has opened, through which we can escape at times from its dungeon darkness and from its dungeon fastness, out into the open, out into the freedom of fellowship with God, as for us in Jesus Christ God has been revealed. And we are free to go to God and take to him the burden which is on and in our heart, and to make before Him our requests known. Not that He will always give us what we ask. That would be foolish, for we are foolish and ignorant and blind and know [9/10] not what to ask. And yet even so, when for our good our petition is denied, it nevertheless is answered, and something good comes. Strength comes, patience comes, God comes; and "the heaven that has fled from earth returns to the heart."
Yes, prayer gives escape, gives freedom to us. And yet I must remind you that in this case, as in every case, freedom is a trust, and prayer is a trust, a solemn trust from God, which we must use for God. Or to put it in a plainer way,--prayer is not simply a careless and a casual asking with conventional repetitions; it is more than that, much more. It is the identification of ourselves, of our lives, with our prayers, and the offering up of our lives in sacrifice to God. Then prayer is real; prayer is prayer; then do we become through prayer co-workers here with God, and help Him thus more and more, both in ourselves and others and in the world at large, to work His purpose out.
Go, then, my friends; not doubting but believing, upon your Prayer Mission and your prayer work and your prayer life, and call the people to prayer; they are ready for it, are waiting and hungry for it. Go then and call the people to prayer, that they may find in God, as for us in Jesus Christ God has been revealed, their freedom and their peace!