If there is one thing so central to Christianity that, should it go missing, it would cause at least a double take, that thing would be prayer. Though certainly not something exclusive to Christianity, prayer for the followers of Christ has been the center point of worship and personal devotion since the words of Jesus were first recorded by the gospel writers. And prayer has been one of those things that many in the pews have wrestled with time and time again. Mary Oliver, in her poem Praying, gives voice to that struggle – the human desire to do things just right, to find the perfect inspiration and the exceptional words. Instead, Oliver writes, we should just “pay attention” to whatever is in front of us, and then “patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate.”
The point of prayer is to get on with the praying, as Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:16). Or as Martin Luther put it, “nothing is so necessary as to call on God incessantly and to drum into God’s ears our prayer that God may give, preserve, and increase in us faith.”1 If we think about God as a relational God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intertwining and intermingling – then prayer is a way to enter into relationship with that God. And as we speak our hearts into prayer, we open a space for a response. This point is beautifully illustrated by Oliver at the end of her poem:
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak
South African conceptual artist James Webb has taken on this central element of faith in his installation James Webb: Prayer on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece, which had its premier in 2000 when apartheid was abolished in South Africa, is now in its tenth iteration and the Chicago presentation is both the largest and the first in the United States. The installation process begins with Webb recording people at prayer in a specific community, in this case metro Chicago. The recordings are then played back via speakers placed on a red carpet in the gallery. In order to listen to the recordings, visitors must first remove their shoes, and then bend over or kneel on the carpet to get close to the speakers – in poses that resemble those common in praying.
For the practitioner or the observer, Webb’s work asks the viewer to consider the meaning and significance of prayer by getting up close and personal with it. I wonder, in our life together, what we might do to take a second look at how we pray?
1. Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther.” In The Annotated Luther Vol 1: Word and Faith. Edited by Kirsi I. Stjerna. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 366.