Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I used the word "prayer" in the last two posts, which always causes some mild dismay among those close to me, who think I am lapsing into transcendental delusion. And they have a point. The dictionary defines prayer almost exclusively in terms of a petition or act of communication with God or other transcendental object of worship.

Believe me, I understand prayer in the dictionary sense. I spent the first twenty years of my life in transcendental prayer. Masses. Benedictions. Penances. Novenas. Litanies. Acts of contrition. Rosaries. Night prayers. School prayers. Private petitions of every sort ("Oh, God, let cute Carmen look my way."). In retrospect, it seems as if prayers were never far from my lips. And, in retrospect, I can't say that any one of my prayers was unambiguously answered.

But perhaps I did learn something from all that celestial exercise. How to sit quietly. How to compose my spirit. How to pay attention.

And that, of course, is another definition of prayer, one not so likely to appear in the dictionary. "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," wrote the 17th-century philosopher Nicholas Malebranche. "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work," agrees the contemporary poet Mary Oliver. "I don't know exactly what a prayer is," she writes in another poem; "I do know how to pay attention."

Thus, my sunrise exaltations.

Which reminds me of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told of the octogenarian Voltaire. It seems he climbed with a friend to a hill near his home in France on the Swiss border to see the sunrise. At the top, overwhelmed by the a spectacle of purple, red and gold, the old pantheist/deist fell to his knees and exclaimed, "Almighty God, I believe!" Then standing up and casually dusting off his breeches, he said to his companion, "As to Monsieur the son and Madame his mother, that is another matter."