Talking To God

This is the week to pack up the artifacts of Christmas. The creche will be returned to its box, heirloom ornaments swaddled in wrapping paper, tinsel tossed out with the shedding tree. For serious Christians, though, the spiritual message lingers: the distant Lord is as close and approachable as the infant Jesus in his manger; reach out, with word and deed, and touch the Holy One. It is not, of course, just Christians who seek Emmanuel, literally, God With Us; nor is it only at Christmas that the yearning arises. Jews and Muslims, too, evoke the intimate side of God every time they pray. "To pray," observed the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the greatest modern theologian of the spiritual life, is "to bring God back into the world ... to expand His presence." For Heschel, talking about God, which is what theologians do, was idle chatter unless one first learned to talk to God.

Talking to God: in America, as the prophet Amos put it, those conversations flow like a mighty river. This week, if you believe at all in opinion surveys, more of us will pray than will go to work, or exercise, or have sexual relations. According to recent studies at NORC, a research center, by Andrew M. Greeley, the sociologist-novelist-priest, more than three quarters (78 percent) of all Americans pray at least once a week; more than half (57 percent) report praying at least once a day. Indeed, Greeley finds that even among the 13 percent of Americans who are atheists or agnostics, nearly one in five still prays daily, siding, it seems, with Pascal, and wagering that there is a God who hears them.

Some of these prayers are born in extremis: there are few atheists in cancer wards or on unemployment lines. But in allegedly rootless, materialistic, self-centered America, there is also a hunger for a personal experience of God that prayer seeks to satisfy. Greeley's studies show that serious prayer usually begins after the age of 30, when the illusion that we are masters of our own fate fades and adults develop a deeper need to call on the Master of the Universe. In an age of relativism, God remains for many the one true absolute. In an era of transience and divorce, God can be the only place left to turn to for unconditional love. "We're all making the search, whether we know it or not," says Father Charles Gonzalez, rector of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Some of the searchers are motivated by joy-they find pleasure in communing regularly with their God. Gonzalez is one of them: "I pray," he says, "and pray regularly because I must do it to live."

Worship is one way Americans talk to God. Indeed, 40 percent attend services at least once a week. But, Greeley argues, frequency of personal prayer is a better barometer of religious commitment because it is utterly voluntary and independent of any social sanction or purpose. Rabbi Shira Stern of Monroe Township, N.J., agrees. "When people come to my temple or a church or a mosque they expect a spiritual experience," she says. "But I say that if they haven't done it [prayed] on their own before they step into a sacred place, that place is going to be no more sacred than a library or a movie theater."

Prayer is turning up in the most unexpected places. At New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson prescribes the healing "relaxation effects" that come from regular prayer and meditation. Other doctors have tried to show that prayer works even if the patient isn't the one doing the praying. In an experiment at San Francisco General Hospital, reported in the Southern Medical Journal, a researcher asked outsiders to pray for a group of cardiac patients. Even though the patients weren't told that prayers were being said for them, the study found that they recovered faster than those in an otherwise identical control group.

Americans who turned for solace to the excesses of alcohol or drugs have now filled the halls of "12step" programs, most of which rely on a regular communion with fellow addicts and with a "higher power." Psychiatry no longer dogmatically labels religion the infantile longing for the all-powerful parent. Now, some practitioners recognize stages of psychological development in prayer, moving from God as Santa Claus to God as Close Companion. Along with conventional therapy, psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber adds prayer to his work with troubled adolescents at the St. Francis Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y. "To exclude God from psychiatric consultation," says Kornhaber, "is a form of malpractice. Spirituality is wonder, joy, and shouldn't be left in the clinical closet."

Even in the university, the temple of all that the Enlightenment has distilled, prayer has found a home. "It was very rare 20 years ago to find vital, vibrant religion on the college campus," says David Rosenhan, a professor of law and psychology at Stanford University. "Now there are prayer meetings here that are attended by 300 to 500 students regularly."

For book publishers, the intense interest in prayer has been a godsend. Astonishingly, the current edition of Books in Print lists nearly 2,000 titles on prayer, meditation and techniques for spiritual growth-more than three times the number devoted to sexual intimacy and how to achieve it. "After the Bible," says Werner Mark Linz, president of Crossroad, a major publisher of serious religious books, "books on prayer are our biggest sellers."

Books, even the Bible, are only starting points. "Prayer is the fundamental way we relate to God," says Trappist Father Thomas Keating, a monk of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colo., who spends six months of every year teaching laymen and laywomen the techniques of silent, contemplative prayer. "Like any relationship it goes through stages, from acquaintance to friendliness, then on to friendship, love and finally union." The nation's 1,000 religious-retreat centers are comfort stations on that journey. Month after month, pilgrims come for guidance; the most popular centers are booked more than a year in advance. Most of the programs are ecumenical, with courses ranging from weekend prayer sessions to 30-day silent retreats directed by Jesuits, Trappists and other religious orders. For Jules Ruggles Sr., 73, of Arcadia, Calif., his yearly silent retreat is time "away from the telephone to relax and think about God."

But the search for God has proven too pressing to be left to the clergy alone. In the past decade more than 100 centers have been opened to train laymen and women as "spiritual directors." At the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., for example, laity are learning how to turn hunger for God into a lifelong spiritual quest. Because churches and synagogues rely on rote prayer, says Father Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest and Shalem's executive director, their liturgies "can be a way of evading God in the name of God." By gathering people in small groups for silent contemplation, Edwards has found that centers like Shalem "help people be directly, immediately in touch with our own reality in God."

Prayer requires making time for God. In Atlanta, Traci Sims Kimbro, 31, a Baptist, often drops briefly to her knees at the front door before she rushes off to her job as a bakery representative. At 7 a.m. in Chicago, Faustin Pipal, 70, prays for 20 minutes while exercising on his stationary bicycle. "I close my door and nobody hears me but God-I hope," says Pipal, a Roman Catholic and vice chairman of a savings bank. "If you're not as close to God as you used to be, it's because you moved, not God." Like other devout Muslims, Naji Igram, 53, prays to Allah five times a day--often retiring to a clean and quiet place in his carpet store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I don't look for anything miraculous to happen," says Igram. "The miracle is being able to speak directly to your Maker."

There are, of course, many ways of talking to God. Prayers learned in childhood or read from a book are often used to break the conversational ice. For Ron Nahser, 51, chief executive officer of a Chicago advertising agency, the most important thing in prayer "is to shut up and listen." Nahser, a Roman Catholic, usually spends 15 minutes a day doing yoga and stretching exercises plus an additional quarter hour on spiritual reading before sitting "in a quasilotus position for silent prayer." He and his wife and four children also keep spiritual journals. "What we put down there is written prayer," he says. "It's a way of following the unfolding of your life."

Most people pray at moments of crisis when a child is ill, when death approaches. But those who pray only at such moments usually experience great difficulty figuring out what they are supposed to say or whom they are addressing. Dan Shenk, a Baptist pastor who works for the AIDS Resource Center, an organization that provides services for homeless people with AIDS in New York City, routinely encounters dying men and women who try to bargain with God. "They say, 'I'll live my life in a righteous way if God will have mercy'," says Shenk. "They struggle with their preconceived notions of God. Sometimes they're afraid to lay themselves out to God."

Prayer is no prophylactic against adversity. Julie Robinson, 49, a receptionist in Louisville, Ky., often wonders "what good prayer does"-and for understandable reasons. Despite showering God with prayers, she has been abandoned by two husbands, one of whom left her deeply in debt. After her grandchild died not long ago, Robinson confesses that she found it very difficult to pray. But pray she did-and does-finding a renewed intimacy with God that goes beyond anything she has experienced with family or friends. Usually, she says, "I just thank him for what I have and ask him for strength."

Curiously, personal prayer is probably the last taboo subject for mainstream television talk shows. Has Oprah or Phil ever focused on People Who Pray Too Much? Many Americans are embarrassed to speak about their personal prayer life, even with their spouses. In counseling couples, the Rev. Wade Rowatt, professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, finds that most spouses readily discuss their sex lives while "they struggle to talk about prayer."

But as some young couples have found, praying together is the tie that really binds. Rachelle McDuffie, 20, a junior at Wayne State University in Detroit, prays every night over the phone with her fiance, Kenneth Reese, 21, before she goes to bed at night. "We pray for our families, the world situation and about things that are happening in our lives," says McDuffie. In fact, Greeley's surveys show that spouses who pray together report greater marital satisfaction than those who don't, and that frequent sex coupled with frequent prayer make for the most satisfying marriages.

Analogies between spiritual and sexual intimacy may be news to sociologists--and arouse suspicions among armchair psychologists--but they have long been apparent to students of the Bible. The longest prayer of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Song of Songs, a passionate sequence of love poems, often erotic, which the mystical tradition has interpreted as the ecstasies of the soul enraptured by divine embrace. The great mystics-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-were great lovers of God, and those like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila wrote luminously of the cycles of longing and union they experienced as acknowledged masters of deep prayer. Are such experiences reserved only for monks and nuns?

Apparently not. According to Greeley, the United States is "a nation of mystics." In a 1986 survey, Greeley reported that 32 percent of his respondents had experienced at least one transforming "mystical" experience through prayer. In "Varieties of Prayer," a study published last year with pollster George H. Gallup Jr., University of Akron sociologist Margaret M. Poloma found that what mattered most to respondents was not frequency of prayer but whether those who prayed experienced inner peace, a feeling of being led by God or other forms of "divine intimacy." Those who did were also more likely to be forgiving, politically active and satisfied with their lives.

The reports of intimacy are quite striking. Sylvia Maddox, a director of Christian education at the Reconciliation Church in San Antonio, Texas, has been developing her prayer life for 15 years. Recently as she drove to a retreat center she found herself thinking of some of her old boyfriends. "I thought that's a funny way to prepare for a spiritual retreat," she says. "But that got me in touch with the best part of romantic love-being sought and desired by the other." Then during the retreat, Maddox recalls, "I had this experience of feeling that God really desired my company. It was a powerful sense of union. I wrote about it in my journal as it was happening, and I found myself blushing. I remember thinking, 'I'm embarrassed!' The feeling was so intimate."

Many Americans are raised without any habits of personal prayer, and cannot conceive of a God who would listen if they did address him in prayer. Apart from the Hasidim, most American Jews seem particularly ill at ease with the idea of talking directly to God. "The Jewish community is the most agnostic in the world," says Steven Katz, professor of Jewish Studies at Cornell University. "Over the last 200 years, it has pulled away from its own traditional moorings, substituting a suspicious agnosticism that is manifest in a failure to pray." That negative view is echoed by other rabbis. "My father is a rabbi, and a good one, but growing up I never once heard him talk about God," says Rabbi David Wolpe, 33, a lecturer in Jewish Thought at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. In 1990, Wolpe published "The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God," which has made him something of an evangelist in Jewish circles. "I stand up in front of Jewish groups and say, 'God loves you,' and watch them wince and squirm," he says. "We've so intellectualized the idea of prayer that we have bleached it of any emotional significance."

It wasn't always thus. One Jewish tradition, Katz observes, is "talking back to God, as befits a member of his covenanted people." From the Book of Job to the dark stories of Elie Wiesel, "there is a long tradition of accusatory prayer, of holding God responsible for acts against the Jewish people and against humanity in general," he says. But Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of the best-selling "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," is tired of prayer that sounds like a list of grievances. "We've confused God with Santa Claus," Kushner charges. "Every time you have to do something hard and you're not sure you're up to it, but truly hope you'll make it, that's a prayer."

Nonetheless, petitioning God for favors is one of the oldest and most human-forms of prayer. Linguistically, the root word is from the Latin, precarious, "obtained by begging." In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself promised his disciples that "Whatsoever you ask the Father in my name will be given to you." Most Americans who pray believe that at least some of their prayers have been answered, though not always in the ways in which petitioners have sought. Dennis King, 32, a Baptist layman from Arlington, Texas, has a rule: when he prays for something, he asks only once. "God knows whether I'm sincere about what I ask for," says King. "I feel I don't have to beg because he knows what I need." Steve Gallagher, 36, a ball-room dance instructor in Los Angeles, credits God with saving him from an 11-year cocaine habit that nearly killed him. Now a born-again Christian who sometimes speaks in tongues, Gallagher feels free to call on God for even the most trivial assistance, like getting his car started and fixing household appliances. When his television stopped working, Gallagher "just asked God to repair it because I didn't have the money for a new TV."

Clearly, there is a difference between turning to God for help and expecting him to meet our every want. Jesus' own prayer to the Father was "thy will be done"-meaning, says Jesuit John H. Wright, author of "A Theology of Christian Prayer," that God wants us to have " whatever promotes our participation in His life, our union now and in eternity." Yet it is precisely this distinction that is lost when television evangelists regularly claim miraculous healings through the power of on-air prayer. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that prayers sent their way, checks enclosed, are posted to the wrong address. For example, Dallas based Robert Tilton, a self-styled "Prophet of God" who collects an estimated $80 million a year from viewers with prayers they want answered, is under investigation by the U.S. Postal Service and the Texas attorney general for deceptive trade practices and violation of the mails. In a report on televangelists, ABC's "PrimeTime Live" found stacks of apparently unread letters and prayer requests, with their donations removed, in a dumpster outside Tilton's Tulsa bank.

Unlike Buddhist and other meditative practices, prayer presupposes a God who can be addressed. Since no one has seen God, people who pray inevitably draw on their own imagination and experience. Thus, Sigmund Freud dismissed the idea of God as a figment of the unconscious mind confected out of a child's early relations with powerful parents. Today, however, some psychoanalysts believe the issue is much more subtle than Freud imagined.

According to Dr. Ana-Maria Rizzuto, a training and supervisory analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of New England East, Freud was only partly right. "Like everything else in life," says Rizzuto, "our internal representation of God is unconsciously organized by the mind" based on personal relations with other people. For example, a child who feels neglected by one or both parents may pray to God to prove she has a powerful ally and to numb the pain of not being understood. In some cases, people never get beyond the image of God they developed in the infantile state. Hence Freud's dismissal of God.

But from her own ongoing study of 120 cases, Rizzuto has found that in psychologically healthy people, this internal representation of God changes throughout the life cycle in response to other significant people and events. At the onset of puberty, Rizzuto reports, many children experience terrible doubts about God's existence as they try to reconcile inconsistencies between a benign childhood deity and human suffering. Again, at the close of adolescence, which she notes may extend well past 30, internal images of God change. Finding a loving spouse or holding a newborn child, Rizzuto says, "may alter an earlier, more negative representation of God." (In other words, there is reason to be grateful.) In short, says Rizzuto, "the God we pray to is the complex outcome of our personal relations with other people." But this does not mean that there is no God outside of this unconscious internal process. Rather, says Rizzuto, it means that this mental process is the psychological medium everyone uses "for searching out that mysterious being we call God."

Harvard cardiologist Benson has concluded that talking to God may also save your life. In the '60s, Benson found that practitioners of Transcendental Meditation could dramatically reduce stress by sitting quietly and repeating a mantra. Benson labeled this "the relaxation response" and discovered that by substituting almost any soothing sound, like the word "one," he could produce the same positive physiological response.

Further experiments, however, have turned up what Benson has come to call "the faith factor." Patients who prayed were more successful at lowering metabolic rates, slowing the heart rate and other symptoms of stress than those who used religiously insignificant words to calm their minds. Typically, Catholics prayed the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me Protestants chose the Twenty-third Psalm ("The Lord is my Shepherd ...") and Jews, the Shema ("Hear 0 Israel, the Lord is God In sum, Benson claims that the more "spiritual" people are that is, the more they are able to get in touch with a "presence that is beyond them yet close to them"-the more likely they are to experience physiological rejuvenation during meditation.

The techniques Benson teaches-silence, appropriate body posture and, above all, emptying the mind through repetition of prayer-have been the practices of mystics in all the great world religions. And they form the basis on which most modern spiritual directors guide those who want to draw closer to God. The difference is that the religious purpose of prayer--communing with God-can be lost when people use it only for therapeutic side effects. "The big watershed," says Jesuit Father Dick Rice, founder of Loyola, a spiritual direction center in St. Paul, Minn., "is moving from trying to control God to letting God direct me."

The first big step, says Rice, is to cease talking to God and start listening for God. And that requires silence, a nearly forgotten dimension of modern American life. "Silence is the language God speaks, and everything else is a bad translation," says the Trappists' Father Thomas Keating, who taught "centering prayer" to more than 31,000 people in workshops last year. Centering prayer presupposes that God makes his presence known from within and thus requires an interior quieting of the mind as well as outward silence. To do that, Keating suggests that those who pray repeat some "sacred word," like God or Jesus, to center the mind. All other thoughts, even the most religious, are to be pushed aside until eventually-with practice-nothing remains but the presence of God.

At Washington's Shalem Institute, psychiatrist Gerald May teaches a similar method. But for May, a Methodist, the focus is on the deepest "need of the heart," the desire for what he calls "unconditioned love." Whatever the phrase, the goal, says May, "is to increase comfort with the mystery of God ... Any image you have is not God. It's idolatry."

What is it like to be in the presence of God? We can rely only on the tales of witnesses. Rabbi Arthur Green of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., describes it as coming into a space "where the borders between what is human and what is God are no longer a given. As we become more vulnerable, and more human, we discover God." For others, God is experienced as an ebb and flow. "At times I'm overwhelmed with energy and an overflowing love," says James Nash, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America who participates in a biweekly centering-prayer group. "At other times it [prayer) seems like a big failure since the spiritual life is a continuous conversion."

The life of prayer, then, is a journey with God as well as toward God, a journey in which prayer becomes for those who pursue it as natural as breathing. "As long as you know you are praying, you are not praying properly," says Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who spends half a year as a hermit in Big Sur, Calif., and the rest teaching others how to respond through prayer to "the presence of God." When everything we do is prayer, the fruit is an increase in love, patience and compassion for others, leaving behind the unmistakable taste of holiness.

Following World War I, Gertrude Stein dubbed the American writers in Pub "a lost generation." In terms of religion, that epithet might also apply to those baby boomers who came of age during the Vietnam War era (19641975). Their indifference to prayer, like their absence from church, has been interpreted as a permanent turn away from God in American society. But according to ongoing studies by sociologist Father Andrew M. Greeley, the boomers are merely a generation that is out of step with those Americans who came before them and those who troop behind.

Using survey data from NORC, a social-science research center, Greeley has been able to compare the prayer habits of the "Vietnam cohort"--Americans born between 1939 and 1954--and those who preceded and followed. He finds that when the Vietnam group was between the ages of 18 and 33, 37 percent said they prayed at least once a day. By contrast, half of the first "post-Vietnam cohort" he examined those born between 1954 and 1956-prayed daily when they were young.

As the Vietnam-era cohort aged and assumed family responsibilities, the percentage of them between the ages of 34 and 49 who prayed every day increased to one in two. True, this was still less than the daily-prayer average of the pre-Vietnam group when that generation reached early middle age. Even so, the numbers show that Vietnam was only a detour on the road to Damascus. The fact that the thirtysomething generation is just as devout as the oldsters and that the baby boomers are finally catching up is proof positive to Father Greeley that the United States is becoming more rather than less religious. POWER OF PRAYER

91% of women pray, as do 85% of men.

94% of blacks, and 87% of whites.

32% regularly feel a deep sense of peace. 12% never experience this.

26% regularly sense the strong presence of God; 21% never do.

15% regularly receive a definite answer to a specific prayer, 27% never have, 25% have once or twice. TYPES OF PRAYER

42% ask for material things when they pray; of this group 59% are evangelicals; 66% are black.

Meditative prayer increases with age: 45% of 18- to 24-year-olds pray meditatively; 70% of 65-year-olds do so.

Of those who say God exists, 70% pray daily, as do 10% of those who don't believe in God.