Entering the Divine Reality Through Prayer, Part One

In a previous post, I talked about ways to open a door into the divine reality that Christians call the Kingdom of God. I mentioned prayer in passing before going on to talk a lot about ritual, which I suppose is an occupational hazard for Episcopal priests. But now I want to return to prayer as a means of entering the Kingdom of God, the Courts of Heaven, the Beloved Community. To discuss this, I will again turn to the anthropology of religion, and in particular to Tanya Luhrmann’s book How God Becomes Real.

Luhrmann uses the term paracosm to refer to the meaning-making system that faiths develop to make sense of the divine reality. She writes that

A paracosm…is a private-but-shared imagined world sufficiently rich in detail that people become engaged in the stories and can return to them again and again, exploring them from different angles, reliving different moments, recasting the scenes as if they were there, even adding new chapters to the story. Many paracosms are created by fiction, and it is the text that people share. When a religion becomes a paracosm, the religious institution provides the narratives, in rituals and sermons and tales told around the campfire. If a follower takes those stories and begins to live within them, they grip the private imagination so powerfully that—I will argue—they kindle the sense that they are true. The faith frame comes to seem salient, and gods and spirits feel more real.

Obviously, I believe that God and spirit are real, yet I find the term paracosm very helpful when thinking about my faith. There is a great, mysterious something that I have encountered at several points during my life. After my first encounter, I cast about for meaning systems (what Luhrmann calls “faith frames”) to help me understand the divine reality that I had briefly been able to enter. I studied Japanese and Chinese religions, became enamored with Black Elk Speaks, and read Richard Bach as I dabbled in New Age religions. Then, through a series of encounters, I returned to the faith frame of my youth. 

My early experiences as an adult Christian were filled by a restless fascination with saints. Again, Luhrmann is helpful as I reflect on this. Drawing on the work of R. Richard Wohl, she uses the term parasocial relationships to describe the way we form close bonds with people we’ve never met, or with people who are wholly invented. Fans of a film or tv or book series can become so invested in the characters that they treat them as loved ones, sometimes with dire results. Fans of the BBC show Sherlock, for instance, became so invested in the idea that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were in love with each other that they never forgave the creators for failing to write this romance into the show. Worse, some of these fans regularly attack the actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife, treating her as an imposter or someone who manipulated him into a relationship he couldn’t possible want. They’ve cultivated a parasocial relationship with both the character of Sherlock and the actor himself, and have tried to design the narrative that surrounds both persons. 

Luhrmann makes it clear that religious people form these parasocial relationships with manifestations of the divine, be they saints, boddhisatvas, gods, or spirits. Christians create these relationships with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, and, in some denominations, with saints. Saints are (mostly) historical figures, but the amount of miraculous legends that grow up around them indicate that people keep the story going long after a saint’s earthly life has ended. In many ways this is good and appropriate. Christians learn their faith by means of exempla, the example of another Christian’s life and teaching. When I read my beloved Teresa of Avila, I form a relationship with her through the words she left to us. When I pray using the methods and means she taught, I feel her guiding me, even though she died almost four hundred and fifty years ago. I feel that I can refer to her as a friend and mentor, without ever having encountered her during her earthly life. When I used the term Beloved Community to refer to the divine reality, I am referring to the company of saints like Teresa.

But my main parasocial relationship is not with any given saint, but with God. Prayer is the main way that I cultivate this relationship. Luhrmann spent some time researching evangelical communities in California, and found that they cultivated an ability to hear God’s voice when they prayed. I don’t really hear the audible voice of God, but I do experience God’s response to my prayers. God doesn’t bring me things, like a kind of Santa Claus for grown-ups. But I do sense God communicating to me through creation — through the under-shadows of leaves, the budding of flowers in Spring, the lean and graceful heron gliding over a lake. When I write, paint, or play music, I often feel God’s presence. When I study scripture, I experience God guiding my studies, bringing me just the right author to read, or just the right insight drawn from reading, at just the right time. Through these moments of contact with the divine, I enter through a door into the divine reality. I think of all of these moments as prayer.

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