Taylor: Habits that shape our thoughts

I wonder if the practice of using words in prayers leads us to imagine the entity we think we’re talking to.

I talk to my dog, sometimes. She doesn’t answer, but the way she rolls her eyes expresses her opinion of my wisdom.

I used to talk to my cars. Of course, in those days my cars needed all the encouragement they could get. Today’s cars are so competent that they should be encouraging me. However, that would require them to acknowledge me as a sentient being, not just as the potential source of human error.

Talking to someone you see, has to treat the other as an intelligent entity.

And I wonder if that’s why so many people find it so difficult to stop thinking of God as a super-person.

My minister was one of those people. He went through a crisis of faith on a recent retreat. (Yes, ministers have crises of faith too. A few are honest enough to admit it.) He had accepted intellectually that God does not sit on a cloud or hover in outer space. But that realization had not yet hit him emotionally.

The insight came while studying the crucifixion stories. Mark’s gospel says that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” The curtain prevented ordinary people, and lesser priests, from seeing into the sanctuary where God was supposed to live. Only the High Priest ever went behind the curtain.

But when the curtain was ripped open, everyone could see that there was no one there.

Like the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the temple curtain hid the truth from the people. Or more kindly, perhaps, allowed them to retain their comfortable delusions.

The torn curtain tells us that God does not live in a particular place or time, does not need to be fed by ritual sacrifices or appeased by abject confessions.

Yet the habit of speaking to God in words, honed over 20 centuries of liturgical training, reinforces our conviction that there is a real person there—behind the curtain, as it were.

About 10 years ago, the Banff Men’s Conference asked me to facilitate a workshop on whether God had caused the Indonesian tsunami. A group of 20 or so men worked through a flow chart, analyzing options and possibilities. At the end, they agreed unanimously that they could not hold God responsible.

And then one man asked, “And yet I still pray to God. And I expect God to respond.”

I wonder if the practice of using words in prayers leads us to imagine the entity we think we’re talking to. Someone like us, but different. Someone like us, but separate.

It’s not necessarily cause and effect. More like a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Because we use words, we expect someone to listen; because we expect someone to listen, we use words.

For years, I berated myself for not having a more active prayer life. When I tried to address verbal messages to God, something felt wrong. Now I realize that I simply didn’t know how to connect with a presence that isn’t a person or a thing.

Instead of trying to talk to God, I could have taken a cue from Eastern religions, and simply let myself be absorbed into the universality of God.

And thus become one with the holy One.