Prayer and memory

sermon-on-the-mountJesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mark 6:7-8) This is the verse that comes just before the Markan version of the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father. Depending o the translation one is viewing you will read references to “babbling” in prayer, vain repetitions, empty phrases, needless words – all referring to the pattern of prayer used by the pagans of Jesus’ time.

In our day, this verse is sometimes levied against Catholics for our reliance on standard prayers – e.g. the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. But then Catholics hold the same opinion about other Christian prayer which to a Catholic sense, seem long, verbose, showy and strangely reliant on the word “just” as in “Lord, I just pray that….”  Certainly, individual Catholics might rightly be criticized for repetition of standard prayers with out entering into a deeper reflection of the moment and the relationship to God. But then my long experience in ecumenical settings is that as “spontaneous” as some might think their prayer, we people are creatures of habit. There is often a formulaic structure beneath the so-called spontaneity. And that is not a bad thing – it is the value to liturgy.

Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock studies the performance of people in stressful situations that can come from performing in front of others – be it business or academic presentations or in the arena of sports from school to the Olympic stage. Her studies point to a deep pattern memory which stands in contrast to “working memory.” The former is that which comes from deep practice and repetition so that so do not have to actively recall/analyze/process – we just know. I don’t have to think about typing, I just do. I spend no energy on thinking about which finger is on what key. I just type. Beilock suggests that top-tier athletes such as quarterback Tom Brady have so much experience that they intuitively recognize defensive alignments without giving too much thought. He just knows and intuitively operates out of the deep pattern memory. On the other hand, Kyle Task, first year pro and 3rd quarterback on the same team as Brady – he is reliant on working memory. His reads and reactions take longer than Brady’s.

What does that have to do with prayer? I would suggest that standard prayers operate out of the deep pattern memory leaving working memory for contemplation about the context for the prayer. There is no need to engage working memory to construct the prayer spontaneously. But then, a lot of spontaneous prayer has its own patterns drawn from deep memory patterns, again freeing the working memory for consideration of the context for the prayer.

Style of prayer aside, all Christian denominations rightly give a special place in prayer to the Lord’s Prayer/the Our Father. But all our modern critiques of other’s payer style miss Jesus’ key point: we are not to pray like the pagans

To place the verses in context, one needs to be curious about how pagans of the 1st century prayed. In truth, there are too many cult to list and describe, but religious sociologists have noted common traits: all sacrifices and offerings required an accompanying prayer to be effective. Pliny the Elder declared that “a sacrifice without prayer is thought to be useless and not a proper consultation of the gods.” Prayer by itself, however, had independent power. The spoken word was thus the single most potent religious action, and knowledge of the correct verbal formulas the key to efficacy. Accurate naming was vital for tapping into the desired powers of the deity invoked, hence the proliferation of cult epithets among Roman deities.

If one stops and thinks about what can be inferred from the previous passage – it is saying that when one says the right words, in the correct order, in the proper sequence, at the correct moment – then one control/commands the gods. That is the definition of magic as held by scholars who study cultural anthropology.

True prayer is not magic – regardless of one’s style. Standard prayers, spontaneous prayer, or prayer without words – whatever your preferred style of prayer, remember to pray and remember the One to whom you offer up your prayers.

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