Scientific sense of wonder prompts chat about prayer

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 11, 2012

My grandson and I visited a showcase of science the other day and wound up talking about prayer.

While Thomas and I were chumming around for an afternoon before he headed back to university, we decided to check out TELUS Spark, Calgary’s impressive new science centre, a spacious interactive facility clearly designed to engage all five physical senses.

After engaging our own sense of taste over lunch in its cafeteria, we browsed among the hi-tech displays that were engaging the senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch among a full house of very enthusiastic pre-teens, out of school for the holidays.

The purpose of Spark, according to its promotional material, is to ignite a sense of wonder, as enquiring minds get a glimpse into life’s mysteries.

I don’t think Spark’s planners anticipated a question Thomas asked me on our drive back home, however – a question that delved into a mystery that transcends the five physical senses.

“Grandpa, tell me about your prayer life.”

Wow! It would have been so much easier to discuss why water flows down hill, why Saturn has rings, and why rattling chains and tin cans in an echo chamber can create the illusion of thunder.

But prayer?

“I know prayer is a very personal thing,” Thomas continued, “but I’d be glad for anything you’d care to share with me.”

Well, in the spirit of the day’s explorations, here’s how this grandfather answered his grandson’s genuine question:

Prayer, for me, is not just about words, I said. It’s about the soul’s on-going communication link of faith, often in stillness of heart and mind, and whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Think about your computer, I said. Most of the time when you’re on it, you’re using some application program or another – an e-mail program, a photo-editing program, a search engine, etc. That’s what you’re conscious of, and you work within their routines and words.

But operating in the background is something you’re less conscious of, something without which none of the applications could work.

I’m referring to the computer’s operating system. Except for when you’re turning the computer on or off, or adding or deleting applications, or dealing with some system problem, you’re probably not terribly conscious of it. This may be especially true in the wee hours of the night when it’s automatically connecting online to access updates that keep your computer working at its best.

So, sometimes you’re conscious of the operating system, and sometimes you just take it for granted, but all the time the computer is on, the operating system is doing its job of processing and empowering everything your computer does, allowing you access to an ever-expanding cyber universe of wisdom and knowledge.

For me, that’s sort of like prayer, I said. It’s the ongoing operation of our spirit in communication with God’s Spirit, whether I’m conscious of it or not.

Yes, sometimes I use actual words – my own or those I’ve embraced within a religious tradition. These may be formal words, such as said together as a community in a worship service. Or they may be informal words, such as when my heart cries out to God spontaneously in times of grief or gratitude.

Sometimes my own informal words are rich in phrases I’ve internalized from the prayers of others, such as the biblical psalmist (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”), or people like St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”).

Other times, my informal prayers may be my conscious mind’s eavesdropping on some silent conversation already under way between my spirit and God’s and putting words to it.

Regardless of how or when, however, prayer for me is quite simply, and profoundly, the ongoing conversation between my innermost being and its Creator – whether I’m conscious of it or not, and whether I use words or not.

And not unlike your computer operating system’s need to be online for updates in order to assure the overall wellbeing of everything it does, so my sacred conversation is essentially about what God is doing inside me for my own overall wellbeing and that of the community in which I live. In this sense, prayer is about God bringing me in line with His will, not about me bringing God in line with mine.

That’s how I tried, in part, to answer Thomas’s question that afternoon. And admittedly, such analogies do have their limitations.

But really, when science is asking all kinds of good questions about invisible mysteries, such as waves, force fields and dark matter, isn’t Thomas’s question about the invisible mystery of prayer a good one, too?


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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