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The art of prayer

The following article by the Rev. John Thorpe (Chaplain, St. John’s Episcopal School, Dallas, TX) is the Foreword to a book in progress, a photo-essay by art teacher Mr. Martin Delabano documenting the prayer wall which he created and upon which, for fifteen years, students at St. John’s have lifted up their prayers to Almighty God. Delabano’s own explanation of the installation, along with pictures of the prayer wall in full use, can be found on the ECVA website.

For centuries, it has been common in Western culture to think of art as something that happens in the artist’s own mind or as something that erupts while the artist is laboriously communicating that vision into the medium of choice: a sculptor’s stone, a painter’s pigments, a musician’s sound. Modern art, however, in a flash of insight, sees that the traditional story of art is missing a vital third character: the audience. Art is meant to be shared, to be seen, to have its chance to interact with and to impact the human community. While the artist’s own concept of his or her message is vital to the development of meaning, it is not the final word: in the end, the whole world has a say in what a piece of art means. Words cascade through history, impacting minds and hearts all along the way. Music burns itself into our memory and galvanizes whole generations of eager listeners into action. Pictures amass their thousand-word influence through a thousand minds over a thousand years — or sometimes all in one powerful instant. Art plants a seed in the human soul that can blossom, like Jesus’ mustard seed, into a voluminous tree, able to sustain the life of a community (or corrupt it) over many generations. Art is meant to be public. Art is given to us that we might change the world.

Prayer is also an art. It need not be elaborate, just as art need not be elaborate to be powerful. Like art, prayer expresses the inner yearning of the human soul: in prayer, our souls reach toward God as God reaches toward us. We sometimes think that a prayer only has meaning in the mind of the one who prays, but that simplistic story of prayer is missing not one but two vital characters! The first is God, whose mind alone can impart meaning to the universe. Like a sculpture that allows the viewer to empathize with the deepest self of the sculptor, prayer allows us to have empathy with and through the Divine: to be led to view the world through God’s eyes and discover the meaning that his intent imparts. This process changes our hearts as individuals and transforms us into the image of our Creator, revealing God himself as the ultimate self-portrait artist: his favorite medium is the human soul.

But the other character missing from our simplistic understanding of prayer is community. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. No prayer stays in the prayer closet: “And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you openly” (Matt. 6:6). Our longing for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done rockets silently out of prayer rooms, churches, chapels, unspoken sighs, our private souls — and joins the massive, explosive display of God’s glory, eternally resounding in the heavens. The prayer of the faithful cascades through history, moves angels into action, amasses untold influence over a thousand years or in one powerful instant, builds up or tears down the seemingly monolithic structures of human culture — all because God the Artist allows us to assist Him in making bad things good and dead things live. All the universe testifies to this condescension, a great cloud of witnesses that are able to see, if even only a glimpse, through God’s eyes, able to understand that this divine-human relationship of longing and fulfilment is meant to be shared with others in a vast, communal gathering. Prayer is meant to be viewed, to be public in a universal way, so each cosmic viewer may arrive independently and simultaneously at the same conclusion (because it is the only conclusion at which a person can possibly arrive, when the whole is viewed) — that God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). Prayer is meant to be public, as God’s glory is meant to be public. Prayer is given to us that God might change the world.

The prayer wall at St. John’s puts our school squarely in the middle of God’s activity in changing the world. Each piece of paper proves the yearning of a human soul toward God. Each one testifies that, as much as we long for God, God’s immeasurable love longs infinitely more toward us. Each one was written silently, privately, carefully, in an intimate moment, with a fervent and almost fearful hope. But together they explode into a massive, even explosive display of faith: faith in the truth of God the Lover, faith in the power of God the Maker, and faith in the creativity of God the Artist. Although these prayers mark a clear, almost brutal picture of human suffering both here in Dallas and around the world (made all the clearer by coming through the eyes of children), still more clearly, outshining every evil, rings out the message of redemption in Jesus Christ.

“There is a God!” it explodes. “A God who makes my math test and the suffering of millions around the world equally a part of his great work; a God who loves more and loves first; a God who hears and answers prayer; a God who makes bad things good and dead things live; a God who, by his Art, redeems the world!”



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