In the hours and days that passed after the horror of the attacks on September 11, 2001, when the shock began to wear off and the fear began to set in, Americans flocked to their churches and flooded into town squares to do the only thing we could do: pray.
Rarely can it be found in the annals of American history when, as a people, we so willingly enjoined each other in a spontaneous and deeply-felt expression of prayer. All across the nation Protestant joined with Catholic and Orthodox while Jew joined with Christian and Muslim to utter the words of our faiths in the hope of gaining help from the one, true God. We sought wisdom, we sought signs, and most of all we sought simple answers to our most fundamental problems.
What came next were calls for the creation of ongoing opportunities for inter-religious and ecumenical prayer services that sprang up from all corners of the religious world. Dialogue became the watchword for universities and the ideas of peace and co-existence occupied the heads of adult education programs in churches across America. There was a palpable desire to learn more about religion and an even greater commitment to prayer.
Looking back, it is good that many of the so-called prayer services and dialogical programs began after September 11 are now defunct. Too many of them were visceral reactions to a devastating attack and ended up becoming a platform to apologize for the supposedly hegemonic history of Christianity. Under the banners of “tolerance,” “diversity” and “inclusivity,” too many Christians chose to hide from their beliefs in the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union, and far too many of those used these occasions as an opportunity to once-and-for-all embrace a “spiritual” life over an explicitly “religious” one.
Having said that, nine years later it is important to ask the questions that should haunt us: Where have all the prayers gone? Where are the throngs of believers publically begging God for love, forgiveness and mercy? Where is the genuine desire within the homes and communities of Christians to stand spiritually before God with an ardent desire to submit ourselves to Him?
After everything that has transpired since September 11 – not the least of which has been the engagement of two wars and an economic collapse not seen in more than a generation – one would think that this desire for an outpouring of prayer would be somewhere near as strong today as it was nine years ago. Since it is clear that the desire has waned, the time has come to renew our understanding of and commitment to prayer. We must re-learn why we pray, how to pray and what it means for our lives.
“To pray is to stand spiritually before God in our heart in glorification, thanksgiving, supplication, and contrite penitence. Everything must be spiritual. The root of all prayer is devout fear of God; from this comes belief about God and faith in Him, submission of oneself to God, hope in God, and cleaving to Him with the feeling of love, in oblivion of all created things. When prayer is powerful, all these spiritual feelings and movements are present in the heart with corresponding vigour (Theophan the Recluse as quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 93).”
Simply put, we must pray because prayer is tied to the whole point of our existence, which is theosis or union with God. The Father teaches us this in the Old Testament. Even with a cursory look at the Psalms alone we find a juxtaposition of the life of the godly with the life of the ungodly relative to prayer. We are exhorted to meditate day and night.
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the troublesome; but his will is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of waters, that produces its fruit in its season; and his leaf shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper…for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish (Psalm 1).”
We know that prayer is tied to the whole purpose of our existence because the Son taught us to pray in the New Testament. First, even as God, He set the example for us by praying. “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed (Mark 1:35).” Second, He showed us how to pray. Not only did He find a solitary place in order to be free from distraction, but also He did so early in the morning to demonstrate that prayer should be our first priority and the conduit through which we help others.
We know that prayer is tied to the whole purpose of our existence because the Holy Spirit is with us to this day, teaching us all we need to know through prayer. “‘These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name. He will teach you all these things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:25-27).”
We are always in need of reinvigorating our life of prayer not because we are witnesses to thousands of deaths, but because it is the very tool we were given to join with God now and in eternity. Jesus Himself reminded us to persevere in our prayer (Matthew 26:41) and to know that prayer is powerful (Matthew 21:22). And now, just as we willingly opened ourselves to the Holy Spirit on that particularly dark day in September nine years ago, we can find Him now if only we have the courage to listen for Him without the need of a deafening explosion.