We need prayer that will bring us to our deepest-center-self to envision a new national identity

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Praying Hands (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer.

During a baseball game on television the other night, one of the players smashed a home run into the right-field stands. As he rounded third and headed home he thumped his chest with a fist, raised his two arms and pointed his index fingers to the up-above, all with great satisfaction. I took it to be a prayer of thanksgiving.

I recalled that in February of this year, when Donald Trump addressed the matter of prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., he prayed by nicking the actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger who had taken over his “The Celebrity Apprentice”  show.

Trump noted that, when he ran for President, NBC selected Schwarzenegger as host. “And we know how that turned out,” Trump said. There was laughter in the room. “The ratings went right down the tubes.  It’s been a total disaster . . . And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, okay.” More laughter. Trump prayed a prayer of derision.

Then in June there was an international incident with prayer. During an AirAsia X flight from Perth, Australia to Malaysia, the plane began to shake radically and in no time was turning back. Later one of the passengers reported that the pilot suggested to all aboard that they might pray.

That would be a prayer of petition when the passengers asked the object of their prayers (sometimes it’s God) to do what it took to get them back home safely.

I have no idea whether people prayed on the plane and, if they did, what effect it had on the turnaround. Prayer is such a strange phenomenon because few people can really explain it because they cannot relate its tenets to their own psychological needs. Prayer can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people.

When the great legal anthropologist from Berkeley, Laura Nader — the sister of Ralph — examined the functions of law in a range of societies, she discovered that law served functions other than what we usually think of, that is, doing justice. People use the law to get even with someone, to do their enemies in, to enrich themselves. The same is true for prayer, people use it for good but also for ill.

And people do pray. According to a Pew Research Study conducted in 2014 on the prayer habits in the United States, 45 percent (for Christians it’s 55 percent) of respondents said prayer helped them with making major life decisions. They said that prayer is an integral part of their identity; it helps them envision a future of meaning.

In another study conducted in 2014, San Diego State Professor Jean M. Twenge also discovered that Americans pray but, when compared to the early 1980s, multitudes reported they never said a prayer. And during the same period the number of people who said they did not believe in God had doubled.

This is due in part, perhaps, to the third of Americans under 35 who say they have no religious affiliation; in the box that asks for religion, they check “None.” These now comprise the second largest “religious group” behind evangelical Protestants.

The Nones say they do not need religion, and in many cases God, for finding their way in life and that praying is futile. Who would they pray to anyway?

Perhaps the greatest “None” of all time was the late great American comedian George Carlin who saw the praying process as laughable. Carlin said people are gross when they pray, they treat God “crudely . . . asking and pleading and begging for favors, do this, give me that.” It might be a new car, a better job, or a steamy relationship with the cashier at the 7-Eleven down the block.

Sounding like a Thomistic theologian, Carlin argued that, when people pray, their only concern is themselves. What about God!, he asked. What about his Divine Plan! Do the “beggers” [mine] want God to alter his Plan just for them?

Over the years, Carlin said, experience has taught him that prayers are answered on a 50-50 basis: People get what they want half the time; the other half, they’re ignored. He said he reached a point where he relied on the actor Joe Pesci because Pesci “looks like a guy who can get things done.” Certainly as well as God.

Centuries earlier, the German mystic and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) said — there was no Joe Pesci yet — that he knew of a form of prayer where people could always get what they wanted.  

He said, “The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind.”  What an extraordinary claim.

And then he says, “The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things.” Another extraordinary claim. A “free mind?”

Eckhart said it’s a mind that is “untroubled and unfettered by anything.” It “has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and . . . does not seek its own interest in anything.”

The free mind “is always immersed in God’s . . . will, having gone out of . . . its own.” It’s sort of what Carlin was saying: The beginning of prayer is detaching oneself from the ends.

In his classic work, “Contemplative Prayer,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton says free-mind-prayer begins when we “return to the heart . . . finding [our] deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being.”

I started speaking about prayer and especially this kind of prayer because America is undergoing a painful identity crisis manifested in our ongoing second civil war. We need the kind of prayer that will bring us to our deepest-center-self and allow us to envision a new way to be, a new national identity.

A prayer of thanksgiving, of derision, of petition will not do. We must adopt a centering form because that puts us in touch with our collective responsibilities. Without, it we can transform ourselves into a white nationalist social order where Hitler is relied on for inspiration rather than the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.

Ordinarily I do not pray but today I will. I pray that my kids and grandkids and all those I leave behind can find a way to create a nation of communities where the needs of everyone are met, where race, class, religion, and ethnic identity do not prevent anyone from access to the means of happiness.

Mine is not a prayer of derision, it’s not a laughing matter.