Saturday, January 29, 2005

Let Us Pray

If you've been following along with the Montaigne essays you can probably imagine what his views are regarding prayer. I was not surprised by "On Prayer" at all. Montaigne's view of prayer is quite strict, so strict that the Church censor made him soften up the essay a bit before allowing it to be published. Montaigne begins the essay nicely enough by saying that since "we have been granted by special grace and favor a set form of prayer prescribed and dictated to us, word by word, by God's own mouth, it has always seemed to me that we should use it more commonly." If it was up to Montaigne Christians would use no other prayer than the Lord's Prayer. The Church, of course, "may lengthen or vary prayers according to her need to instruct us," but everyone else should find the Lord's Prayer sufficient for every possible occasion. There is a good reason that Montaigne thinks the Lord's Prayer should be the only prayer used, and here is where he starts to get into trouble. You see, we have fallen into the "error" of "calling upon him [God] in every kind of need and in any place whatsoever where our weakness needs support, without once considering whether the occasion is just or unjust. No matter how we are or what we are doing--however sinful it may be--we invoke God's name and power." Sure, God is our protector, all powerful and good and has always our best interests in mind. but God is also just, and it is according to justice that God grants us our petitions. Therefore, "if we implore him to use his power in a wicked cause it is of no avail." Now here is where Montaigne got into trouble with the Church censor. Montaigne believes, "Our soul must be pure, at least for that instant when we make our prayer, free from the weight of vicious passions; otherwise we offer him rods for our own chastisement. Instead of amending our faults we redouble them by offering God (from whom we ought to be begging forgiveness) emotions full of irreverence and hatred." Now, according to the editor's note, this statement smacks of puritanism of which the Roman Catholic Church was suspicious. Perhaps someone who is Catholic can shed some light on what exactly is puritan about Montaigne's belief. It seems to me that if you are going to pray, that's the right way to do it. Prayer should not come from a place of malice, but from a place of love. That brings us back to the Lord's Prayer. Montaigne says that when we pray, "'Forgive us,' we say, 'as we forgive them that trespass against us.' What do these words mean if not that we are offering God our souls free from vengeance and resentment?" Our prayers are often nothing but an outward show and we utter words that we don't mean or understand. Montaigne suggests that perhaps everyone should have to pray aloud, that way we wouldn't dare "call on God and his help to connive at wrongdoings and to invite him to be unjust." Montaigne also suggests that we pray less often because it isn't easy "for us to bring our souls so frequently into that controlled, reformed and supplicatory state" that is required for a true and pure prayer. Montaigne takes a little sidestep to rant for a page about the Bible being translated into "the vulgar tongues." He sees it as being more dangerous than useful because when everyone can read the Bible then everyone can interpret it for themselves instead of having the Church explain what it really says and means. Obviously, this takes a stab at the Protestants and the Reformation. But this is just a short detour before he gets back to prayer. We often use prayer "as a sort of jingle" where the words don't mean anything to us but we say them anyway as a sort of magic shield. Or we beg God for things that are "unseemly or unjust." But we should be careful because sometimes God punishes "unrighteous prayers" by granting them in a way that makes us wretched. We should not beg for or demand things of God in our prayers, "we should not ask that all things should comply with our will but that they should comply with wisdom." After all, aren't the words "thy will be done" also in the Lord's Prayer? What ego people have to think they know the will or wisdom of God--any god. When it comes to prayer, I think Montaigne was on to something. Next week's Montaigne essay: I have finished reading through all of the major essays of Book One so will be going back and picking up some of the very short essays. For next week these will be: "We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means," "How the Soul Discharges its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones," "Whether the Governor of the Besieged Fortress Should Go Out and Parley," and "The Hour of Parleying is Dangerous."