Does prayer make any sense in a modern secular context? We fortunately live in an age of reason. But we live also in an age that has changed the subject of its worship. If you travel to any big capital, you will find that the tallest, most impressive buildings are banks.
That may give you a hint of the modern worship of money and consumption. We live in the age of plastic and consumerism, distraction and novelty. In the western world we have glorified disillusionment. Nothing is sacred to us, we no longer create stone temples near the sea, or small sanctuaries in sacred woods or springs. We make oil refineries near the sea, and grey cities filled with noise and pollution, created by our need to consume products in order to keep us distracted, to fill our metaphysical void.
People used to be far more irrational in ancient times. But they also lived closer to Nature, life and death were more present in their everyday life. They told stories to children, seating by the fire, under a starry sky, and used poetry to express things that were not to be explained in profane terms. In ancient times poets never recited without first invoking the muses. They “knew” that in order to create magic, the rational part of our self alone was not enough. Without the help of some connection to a “higher realm”, an over-rational poet never achieves real beauty.
A kind of prayer that may make sense
Ancient Stoics prayer was not about asking the god to change the course of things on their favor, but rather to give them the temperance to endure, the courage to change, or the wisdom to understand the course of things. A kind of self-conditioning, asking to our inner daimon (spirit) to be up for the task or the ordeal ahead. There is something beautiful and humble in their way of praying.
We should see prayer as a spiritual exercise, something that help us to reconnect with something greater than our “self”, that remind us there may be more in this cosmos than the world of visible objects.
“O beloved Pan and all ye other gods of this place, grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure.” Socrates
“Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return.” Marcus Aurelius Book IV, part 23:
Πᾶν μοι συναρμόζει ὃ σοὶ εὐάρμοστόν ἐστιν, ὦ κόσμε: οὐδέν μοιπρόωρον οὐδὲ ὄψιμον ὃ σοὶ εὔκαιρον. πᾶν μοι καρπὸς ὃ φέρουσιν αἱσαὶ ὧραι, ὦ φύσις: ἐκ σοῦ πάντα, ἐν σοὶ πάντα, εἰς σὲ πάντα. ἐκεῖνοςμέν φησιν: ῾ὦ πόλι φίλη Κέκροπος:᾿ σὺ δὲ οὐκ ἐρεῖς: ῾ὦ πόλι φίλη
“Do you will, O God, that I still remain in life? I will then remain as a free man, as a noble man, as You did wish it. For You have created me unhindered in regards to what is my own. But now, O God, do You have need of me no longer? Be it well with You. I have been, until now, remaining here in life for You alone and for no other, and so now I shall obey You and depart.”
– adapted from Epictetus, Discourses 3:24
Cleanthes hymn to Zeus:
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree
Controls all, hail, Zeus, for unto you
Must your creatures in all lands call.
We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.
Wherefore with songs of praise your power I will proclaim.
Look! yonder Heaven, that round the earth is wheeled,
Follows your guidance, still to you does yield
Glad homage; your unconquerable hand
Such flaming minister, the heftless brand,
Wields, a sword two-edged, whose deathless might
Pulsates through all that Nature brings to light;
Vehicle of the universal word, that flows
Through all, and in the light celestial glows
Of stars both great and small. A King of Kings
Through ceaseless ages, God, whose purpose brings
To birth, whatever on land or in the sea
Is wrought, or in high heaven’s immensity;
Save what the sinner works infatuate.
No, but you know how to make the crooked straight:
Chaos to you is order; in your eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did harmonize
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One word through all things everlastingly.
One word – whose voice alas! the wicked spurn;
Insatiate for the good their spirits yearn:
Yet seeing see not, neither hearing hear
God’s universal law, which those revere,
by reason guided, happiness who win.
The rest, unreasoning, diverse shapes of sin
Self-prompted follow: for an idle name
Vainly they wrestle in the contests of fame:
Others inordinately riches court,
Or dissolute, the joys of flesh pursue.
Now here, now there they wander, fruitless still,
For ever seeking good and finding ill.
Zeus the all-bountiful, whom darkness shrouds,
Whose lightning lightens in the thunder-clouds;
Your children save from error’s deadly sway;
Turn you the darkness from their souls away:
Vouchsafe that unto knowledge they attain;
For you by knowledge are made strong to reign
Over all, and all things rule righteously.
So by you honored, we will honor thee,
Praising your works continually with songs,
As mortals should; nor higher reward belongs
Even to the gods, than justly to adore
The universal law for evermore.
Pythagoras’s Golden Verses: