Each month of this semester the Faculty Center at BYU is sponsoring a panel discussion of prayer. The participants are Julia Boerio-Goates (Chemistry), Thomas Griffith (University General Counsel), Roger Keller (Church History and Doctrine), and James Siebach (Philosophy). The format of these discussions is that one participant speaks for twenty minutes, then each of the others responds for ten, then we open it up to questions.
Last month, Professor Goates, a Catholic, gave an excellent presentation on formal prayer. She talked about her experience as a faithful Catholic, comparing and contrasting it to what she knows about Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices. She was never in the least bit offensive, and often had things to say that were well worth talking about. A moment that stuck out for me was when she talked about how the ritual and repetition of saying the rosary was such a comfort to her when her father was dying. Formality and repetition filled in, keeping her going when she was unable even to think. As we talked during the Q&A session about whether there is anything comparable for Mormons, one member of the audience suggested that hymns often fill that function.
Today we held our second meeting, with Tom Griffith addressing the question, “Is there an LDS concept of prayer?” This session also went very well. I won’t try to transcribe everything he said, but let me share some of my notes:
Tom went to three sources for thinking about prayer, Joseph Smith’s First Vision (including both the canonized version and the others, especially that of 1832), the prayer circle in the temple, and the Book of Mormon. Drawing on each of these, he talked about different kinds of prayer and different aspects of prayer. For example, he pointed out that Joseph Smith’s prayer was not only a prayer to know which church was the one he should join, it was also a prayer for forgiveness. Indeed, Tom pointed out, Joseph’s consciousness of his need for forgiveness seems to have been at the forefront of his mind quite often, if we are to take the number of times that the Lord tells him his sins are forgiven as an indication. Further, Tom reminded us that the prayer that resulted in the First Vision was, according to the 1832 account, a result of meditation on nature and the human condition, as well as a response to scripture and the awareness of his sinful state.
From Joseph’s experience, Tom concluded that one important kind of prayer, though one perhaps often neglected, is that in which we are alone, kneeling, and speaking aloud with God out of the desires of our heart. (A story about his experience with his daughter illustrated the importance of kneeling: She wanted to say her prayers in bed, but he insisted that she kneel. When she asked why, he responded–in what he described as a rare moment of inspiration–”Because he is our king and we always kneel before the king.”)
Tom suggested that two impetuses drove Joseph to his knees in the grove, and that the same two impulses should be at the heart of our prayers: the desire to repair the breach between God and ourselves that is caused by sin and the desire to discover what or duty is in relation to other persons. (In Joseph’s case, this was the question of which church to join.) Tom referred to a talk by Elder Eyring, in which Elder Eyring said that we ought not to be overly concerned with our own purification. Instead, we ought to be concerned with our relation to God and others, and if we are concerned with that, then the Holy Ghost can purify us. Tom suggested that perhaps too much of our prayer is concern about ourselves and our desires rather than concern for that breach and concern for what we can do in our relations to others.
To talk about the prayer circle without betraying his covenant, Tom went to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
The prayer circle is a part of Latter-day Saint temple worship, usually associated with the Endowment ceremony. Participants, an equal number of men and women dressed in temple clothing, surround an altar in circle formation to participate unitedly in prayer. . . . The formation of the prayer circle suggests wholeness and eternity, and the participants, having affirmed that they bear no negative feelings toward other members of the circle (cf. Matt. 5:23-24), evoke communal harmony in collective prayer–a harmony underscored by the linked formation, uniformity of dress, and the unison repetition of the words of the leader. [. . .] Prayer in circle formation can be traced to many early Christian sources. In the apocryphal Acts of John, for example, participants are bidden to “make as it were a ring, holding one another’s hands, and [Jesus] standing in the midst” led the prayer (James, p. 253). Other texts require the participants to prepare by washing or reconciling themselves, or to receive secret words and signs, or to dress in special clothing; some suggest a ritual ring dance.
Referring to Hugh Nibley’s essay, “The Early Christian Prayer Circle” and to the student manual for the Old Testament, Tom said,
In contrast to the First Vision, which was a solitary experience that led to a journey to a communal experience, the prayer circle is a communal experience that is the near culmination of a symbolic, covenant-driven journey before the veil, and was the final act before entry into God’s presence. Both involve elements of the horizontal at-one-ment, being united to others through Christ, and the vertical at-one-ment, being united to God through Christ.
Finally, Tom spoke of the kind of prayer and answers to prayer we find in the Book of Mormon, of what Terryl Givens has described as “dialogic prayer,” “an individualized, dialogic response to a highly particularized question” (Hand of Mormon 217).
I think that he surprised many in our audience when he said that he had rarely, if ever, experienced that kind of answer to prayer. But that surprise was prelude to another: once when he had the opportunity to speak of such matters with a member of the Twelve, Tom told that person of the absence of direct, dialogic answers to his prayers. Elder X responded, “The kinds of answers you are talking about are a gift of the Spirit. Evidently, you don’t have that gift.” After a slight pause, Elder X added, “Neither do I.” Then they talked about the variety of forms that inspiration can take.
If you are in Provo on March 10, consider joining us for the next discussion: 4:00-5:30 in room 455 of the Martin Building.