We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the human soul. We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community of prayer.
It is not safe to pray alone. Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of community; that public worship is preferable to private worship. Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other. To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both….
[The] truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer. The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety….Our relationship to [God] is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.
If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a devotee of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most profound thinkers on prayer and spirituality in the last century, perhaps in any century, Heschel always leaves me with a sense of wonder. I took this reading from his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God. He observed that prayer constituted “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”
In this reading, Rabbi Heschel suggests that our spiritual lives depend on our common prayer, and our prayers remain somehow incomplete when we restrict ourselves to private prayer. That good rabbi argues that private prayer and prayer actually depend upon each other. He calls this a spiritual symbiosis; private prayer and prayer in community need each other for either to be able to thrive.
This offers an answer for both those whose prayer life consists merely of attending church on Sunday morning, and for many (if not most) of those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” (In my experience, many of the latter are those who’ve been wounded or hurt by the Church at some point, and have simply decided that their spirituality is safer in private.)
In the final section, Heschel clearly offers a gloss to Martin Buber’s classic work, I and Thou. Rabbi Heschel suggests that the really important relationship is We and Thou. Most of us belong to many communities of faith. We’re members of churches or parishes, prayer groups, study groups, families, religious orders or just people who gather together for prayer, study and accountability. Each of these support, enhance, complete and inform our private prayer and our spiritual lives.
In one sense, our collective prayer and our private prayer are like the two levers on a pair of pliers. Neither of them have a great deal of utility alone; together, they combine to achieve their purpose.
We not only enrich each other; we come to depend upon each other. And somewhere in that process, we discover that these relationships are icons for the relationship which really sustains us: our relationship with the Living God.
Be blessed today, and be a blessing,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis