Updated: Mar 28
Prayer works, but there is a misapprehension as to what it is and so it is rarely done correctly. The popular view is that you offer a prayer to God and then God, like an oriental vizier, flips open his book on Mr. Smith, mulls his indiscretions and discretions, and then, perhaps, decides that it’s about time to cut him a break, since he’s been so humble about it, and so answers his prayer. This view is almost entirely wrong, and it explains why when you see, say, residual Christians praying in public it almost always looks contrived and awkward (men just don’t like to abase themselves in this way anyway)—it’s because, as with actual atheists or secular people, even the people who pray today think “it’s a custom we must preserve and maintain” but they cannot credit, find it too childish, that there is a giant man with a white beard who will “answer” the request and suspend the laws of physics to do so.
There are people who say “we don’t think that when we pray, it’s more complicated than that!” and yet when they are pressed on the matter, especially by atheists, you get a lot of equivocation and mumbles and the general impression is that they want it to be true, want to defend their faith, but can’t admit that the model really is “giant man in the sky reviews your conduct, gives you a reward”. Otherwise, they might say what I’m about to say—and I don’t think they’re malicious (tho perhaps some Satanic force covers it up), rather I think they’ve genuinely forgotten or have themselves been so beaten down by modernity they can’t comprehend what I’m about to say.
It’s like the Catholic priest who said to me, “I feel that today the problem is people can’t see the stars.” Now, if you read this site regularly you’ll know the stars are the star-entities, the gods, the faithful in heaven, but when the priest said that to me there was no understanding behind it—I think it was “just something he said” without any understanding as to what it meant, just a comforting sentiment. He was NPC, in other words—much as people will say, with great solemnity, “I feel a good Mass is the answer to the crisis in today’s Church” or “Have you tried prayer? It really works”; and yet if pressed to explain why they say that they cannot do so—because it’s really just a pro forma they repeat that might as well amount to “think good thoughts” and “hope there’s a God” (there probably isn’t, but things are grim enough already without thinking that, eh?).
The first point to note is that prayer is a practical activity, just the same as when you fix a bicycle tire—except it’s an organic activity, an art, and not a mechanical operation. This is important to understand because the popular conception is that the prayer is offered and then is “received”, “considered”, and “rejected/accepted”—to think that way about it is as if you had a flat tire and looked at it and said, “Please repair yourself,” and then were disappointed that it didn’t repair itself (there isn’t such a thing as a bicycle pump, you might conclude—the bicycle pump is a myth that was developed by primitive man, but we’ve eliminated the possibility today; people in the past who said they had bicycle pumps lied or spoke metaphorically—a modern bicycle-vicar appears at your shoulder and says, “In a sense, are we not all the bicycle pump?”).
However, there is a bicycle pump—as usual, it concerns the magical will. To recap: the goal in magic is to achieve desireless desire (actionless-action, or wu-wei as the Eastern traditions have it)—so magic constitutes a series of techniques to purify the will so it is no longer subjected to, for example, that terrible jittery feeling when you jump on a log and walk for a bit but then think “I’m walking on a log, I better be careful not to fall off” and then immediately start to try to control the situation and then fall off.
There are many techniques to purify the will—the poet Rimbaud went in for “derangement of the senses”, lots of eccentric behaviour; some people, like the ancient Greeks, go in for ecstatic dancing; some people make sigils, little symbols into which they project their desires; some people walk a maze in a cathedral on their knees while reciting the rosary—there are many techniques, but the commonality to all is that they want you to escape calculation and schemes.
So prayer is a form of magic that binds the will; it’s a practical operation to remove the “jittery”, “acquisitive”, and “calculative” mind—and while that has a mundane psychological aspect, as in if you’re a funambulist trying to walk a high wire and want not to “think” about your steps, there is also a genuine aspect that is metaphysical—as in the purified will may achieve acts that suspend cause-and-effect relations.
This is why prayer isn’t just “putting a request in” to an entity out there—“God helps those who help themselves,” and with prayer you’re in a collegiate but hierarchical relationship with the divine principle, as with a team captain and a winger in a rugby match. In other words, the divine principle will act through you (although that should not be taken to a mundane level, “I prayed and God told me to go to the shoe shop and buy a new pair of shoes and that solved the pain in my feet—this is the ‘miracle’ of Jesus.” That is the metaphorical modern approach to recoup religion when people can’t believe anymore; if you think prayer is just that you’ll never get the real benefit, you’ll just get a Jungian “prayer helps me access my unconscious which solves my problems” benefit).
We’ll take a case where it’s something someone might really turn to prayer for—a parent or child has a serious cancer diagnosis. In these cases “the jitters” are immense, the person really wants it—really wants the problem solved. So you need a major magical operation to bind the profane will to let the magical will operate; for example, the maze walk operation described above, as in the image of Chartres cathedral that heads this page, might have to be performed seven times (an esoterically significant number) or more.
For it to work, you would have to stand before the labyrinth each time and picture your relative recovered or recovering—picture the cancer shrivelling away. The point of the walk on your knees is to then obliterate that desire, to sublimate it into the divine will that flows through you. I imagine that even if you are very upset about a major illness that navigating a stone maze on your knees for an hour or more while chanting the rosary would be sufficient to make you forget it (to “not care”—and it’s that moment, when you give up, you get it).
What I have said is not some fool-proof “cancer cure”, to treat it as such defies what magic is (will-less will, actionless-action)—prayer is an art, it has to work with the individual circumstances and psyche-ology (I put it like that because this is about the soul, not profane “psychology”); and there is a further awful possibility—people don’t know their “true will”; i.e. they may come to you and say they want to use prayer to help their father recover but deep down they want him to die so they can inherit his estate and get him off their back.
Man really is this awful and it’s another reason why prayer often doesn’t work—people haven’t confronted the fact that deep down what they really want is disgustingly selfish, and if the true will isn’t purified it won’t work. It’s why Blake says “sooner strangle an infant in the cradle than nurse an unacted upon desire”, yet most people are backed up with unacted upon desire—so they’ll tell you they want a relative to recover because they covered up all their rancid true will with “good thoughts” for years (you don’t know what you really want, you only think you do). This is why prayer often fails.
Hence it’s well-known that prayers work best when genuinely not for you—n.b. women like to say they pray for each other but they also reliably hate each other, so their prayers are usually inert or malicious; they will also tell you, as a man, they pray for you or went to church to pray for you but this is usually a manipulative lie.
Due to the serendipitous way magic works, a very convinced atheist may find a simple prayer works if he’s thrown into a highly dangerous unexpected situation that disturbs his normal mind—say, a shipwreck. This is because the sudden shock and his decision to pray “surprises” the magical will, binds the profane will, and then causes the magical will to operate—perhaps some wreckage then bubbles to the surface to cling to when all seemed lost.
It’s very much about surprise, and it’s not unrelated to that idea from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance called a “gumption trap”—the idea being that you work all morning on a fiddly piece of mechanism in your motorcycle engine and then reach a point where you’re “stuck”, reason seems to break down and your mind is a ball of string; it’s at that moment you have to have the courage (or prescience or humility) to stop and go drink a Coca-Cola and have a cigarette—at a certain moment, when the mind relaxes into the cigarette and Coke, the solution will come, like a word on the tip of your tongue. It will “click”, as psychotherapists say. In its more mundane aspect, prayer can be a way to induce this state (to solve difficult problems).
It is statements like the one above, often purposively misused to look clever, that lead to misapprehensions about magic and prayer. People who want to look clever or who read things with an insincere literalness say, “738 says Coca-Cola and cigarettes are magic, forms of prayer—he’s an idiot, I’ve smoked cigarettes and drunk Coca-Cola and nothing happened”. Atheists act in the same way as regards religion—it’s about an inability or unwillingness to extract the meta-semantic, perhaps simply stupidity.
Prayer is about distraction, binding, and elimination of the profane will—so, for example, if you’re athletic and do a martial art an ideal time to pray would be after a long bout; not for victory—though maybe for victory next time—but for anything. This is because after heavy exercise your mind experiences a certain “blankness” combined with elation; it is just such a state, a zen no-mind state, where the magical will operates; so that is the moment to visualise what you want (alternatively, you could sublimate the desire into the bout before it began—the entire bout so becoming a “prayer” or magical operation itself).
What I want to convey is that the efficacy of prayer is very much up to you, and not in the sense that “I’m really trying” or “I’m really asking” (although that might work if you really do work yourself up over it)—for example, Dionysian dancing in an ecstatic way would undoubtedly be more effective than a standard Lord’s Prayer for three minutes. The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is that man is conceived as radically estranged from God, who is like some distant vizier in Prince of Persia who may or may not respond to your urgent requests—and may throw you in the flaming pit if you don’t grovel sufficiently. Hence less than “asking for it” you need to visualise what you want and then purify yourself to let the divine will work through you—this will grant results.
Europeans don’t really think in “grovel terms”, as Semites do—it’s more the case that the divine is a fire, we are sparks in the fire; the sparks are not the fire—not equal to it—but are intrinsic to it. Hence when we pray, when we use magic, we purify the divine within to allow it to act—it’s our practical actions, partly experimental, that make prayer work.
While all forms of prayer, even a quick steepling of the hands, work in the way so described and may work to an extent, the situation I have described above is the means by which to achieve maximum efficacy through prayer; and it seems to me to make more sense at base—it is an art with an individual component guided by tradition (which is augmented by its rhythmical aspects related to number in its esoteric dimension).
What I have said could apply to all faiths and “none”—i.e. even to an individual practitioner. Obviously, formal faiths provide formidable “tools”, such as the maze at Chartres, that once understood (it also has a symbolic value) are very powerful—and could even be replicated in miniature as, say, a garden ornament that doubles as a spiritual instrument (the labyrinth in the garden). The bottom line is that prayer is a practical activity and not a “let’s throw this out there as a last resort, hopefully it will work”—and it is also literally miraculous, not just a means to access the subconscious to “solve problems”.
[Incidentally, I know all this is true because as I finished it the woman next to me in the café said, “Yes, as they grow up they get more free will and drift away from you but they come back to you in the end.”]