In his deservedly famous essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson suggests that just as our “creeds are a disease of the intellect” so our “prayers are a disease of the will.”
Alone in our closets there is scarcely anywhere to hide. Five serious minutes of prayerful silence are enough to show any one how quickly our attention wanes and how ingrown our wills tend to be. Who, having ascended the hill of the Lord, can pay attention to what he has to say? Who can forget themselves in prayer rather than forgetting God?
Like peeling back a stiff bandage, prayer shows us the wound that we are. No wonder there is a palpable, if deceptive, relief that accompanies an avoidance of prayer.
In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.
Emerson distinguishes two kinds of prayer: (1) prayer as an expression of craving and private interest that petitions for some particular commodity or end, and (2) prayer as a contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. Emerson (harshly) characterizes the first as a kind of involuted begging. He describes the second as a kind of joyful, meditative kenosis. In the first, we tell God how we would like things to be. In the second, we listen for how God wants things to be.
In the second chapter of the second volume of Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought, Ostler reverses these polarities. Chapter two deals with “Providence and Prayer” and early on Ostler similarly distinguishes between contemplative and petitionary kinds of prayer while, however, privileging (as most Mormons do in both theory and practice) the latter rather than the former.
Ostler sees some value in contemplative prayer but demotes it, interestingly, for the same reason Emerson demoted petitionary prayer: it’s ingrown navel-gazing is too self-centered. Ostler describes contemplative prayer as a “form of therapeutic meditation” and “even an atheist may recommend such meditative prayer to the true believer as helpful in achieving peace of mind” (687 of 7837; all references are to the Kindle edition). Further, “it seems that the purpose of meditative prayer is to influence and change the person praying and not necessarily influence God.” Even prayer as an expression of gratitude “may merely fulfill a need of the person praying” (712 of 7837).
On Ostler’s account, true prayer gets off the ground only when we “seek in prayer a mutual and reciprocal relationship” with the Father (712 of 7837). This kind of prayer is only possible if God can be influenced by our active petitions for particular blessings.
I agree with Ostler that prayer must be actively engaged rather than self-satisfied and I agree that what we seek in prayer is a living relationship with God. I also agree with Ostler that, in order for this happen, prayer must be God-centric rather than self-centered. However, with Emerson, I’m skeptical that petitionary prayer, in and of itself, is the best way to do this. Answered petitions may most publicly attest to an intimate relationship with God, but they may not be the best way to form it.
Offering a rough phenomenology of prayer, I would suggest instead that, while petition we must, prayer deepens as it moves from petition to gratitude and, moreover, that it deepens even further as it moves from speaking to silence to hearing. This deepening of prayer in concentrated silence is a movement away from the demands of the ego and toward a profound intimacy with spirit as we enter into the rest of the Lord.
As a practical matter, I’ve written some about this before.