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It can be awkward to enter a religious community that’s not your own. Especially when the people do things that you don’t do at home.

At my first Catholic mass, for instance, I didn’t know how to “pass the peace,” and I couldn’t figure out the patterns of posture – when to stand, when to kneel, when to sit. On my first visit to a Russian Orthodox church, an old woman had to push me out of the way of the priest and censer. My first experience in a Presbyterian service involved communion, and I’d never previously heard it described as a service of reconciliation. In my first Nazarene service, there was a corporate reading of scripture. What I remember most is that the people sounded like zombies.

A piece I recently read on prayer in the Greco-Roman world explores an ancient influence on prayer in the church. And I recognize in the discussion of prayer in “fictional literary contexts” an echo of my own experiences with prayer in literature, experiences that account for my reflection that the Nazarenes “sounded like zombies.” I think of the witches in Macbeth: “double, double, toil and trouble.” I also think of the Harry Potter series, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Odyssey (and others).

What I hadn’t previously realized is that if art imitates life (as well as the reverse) then these chants, spells, and prayers reveal something of both how we pray and why. It’s a revelation that’s somewhat painful. Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator? My motives aren’t pure: after all, there is this idea within me that I bring something to God with an expectation that God might give me something in return. Even when the only things I bring are an attitude of humility and a contrite heart, I expect – and sometimes demand – that God answer.

Richard Foster challenges my expectations with a section in his book on prayer, “The Most Complete Prayer.” He implies that the heart of Christian prayer is nothing more nor less than an experience of the flesh and blood of Jesus, an experience of what it means to be one in Christ, an experience of one-ness. This word from Foster helps me to know that there’s no harm in spoken, corporate prayer (and probably lots of good). But I still think we sound like zombies.

Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator?

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