Prayers of Absence

About a year ago, I was lecturing to undergrads at Emory University for a class on “Religious Approaches to Illness, Healing, and Suffering.” This particular lecture was called “Lamentation: Prayers of Absence.” Six months earlier, I had brain hemorrhage, but I promise I wasn’t just inflicting a maudlin panache on the students! This was just how the teaching schedule worked out.

The class was designed to be interdisciplinary, introducing religious studies concepts to non-majors, like the many pre-med students attracted by the bioethical bent of the class.

Throughout the semester so far, we’d read Tanya Luhrmann’s careful account of American prayer practices that conjure God’s presence, that make God comprehensible.

Even more fundamentally, we’d spent time on Clifford Geertz’s famous and influential definition of religion:

“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

So far, our discussion of illness had dealt with ways religious practitioners use practices such as prayer to respond to illness. In Geertz’s terms, prayer is a thing people do “to make suffering sufferable.” Luhrmann, more sensitive to the sincere beliefs of her conversation partners, nevertheless parses prayer partially in terms of what it accomplishes—psychologically, and sociologically.

Today, on Good Friday, in light of a suffering surpassing reason, I thought I would share this lecture, to suggest one simple fact.

Sometimes, we don’t pray because God has made our suffering make sense.

Sometimes, we pray because it doesn’t.


“I am thinking that we all probably know by now that the title of our class is ‘Illness, Healing, and Suffering.’ If, instead, you thought this was chemistry for the last two months…I have some very bad news…

For the last few classes we’ve been discussing prayer as a practice related to healing. Today is the last day in our prayer unit, so I think it’s fair to quickly review:

From Luhrmann, we’ve learned that prayer is trained, but training for what?

Geertz would say that prayer is the training of “long-lasting moods and dispositions.” I’m going to expand this definition a little bit, and say that prayers of the kind we see in Luhrmann are about teaching you a certain way to see the world.

We’re all very different people, but let’s pretend, for the moment, that we occupy the same world. More immediately, we are currently all in the same classroom, the same basic space. But I can tell you, since I’m lecturing up here and my heart-rate is definitively elevated: things look a lot different up on the stage here than they do in the seats [note: we were in one of those old auditorium rooms with a raised stage, and about 100 students].

It isn’t just a matter of position; I’ve been up on the stage before when others have lectured, helping to move things around or take notes on the board, and that usually doesn’t make me nervous. What’s changed here is something about how we see the world. I’m seeing it right now as someone giving a lecture. And, right now, I’m training myself to see the world in this way. So, if I don’t do so hot this time around, well, hopefully it will be a little bit better the next time!

The point is that the ways we practice certain activities—like prayer—not only affect how we think about things but cause very real changes in how we see the world, and thus how we behave in it. We’re being trained in these different ways of seeing the world all the time.

When you have a system that tries to train you in a kind of total way of seeing the world, of understanding how it works, what it means, and what you should value in it, we call that a cosmology.

This is an important term, so I want to make sure we’re clear on it. For the purposes of this class, a cosmology is something that orders your world by training your perceptions, behaviors, and values. Very basically, cosmologies are ways of making sense of the messy business of the world.

It would be pretty tough to try and navigate an ocean without knowing where North, South, East, and West are. Cosmologies give you coordinates for navigating life.

To give an example: in the reading you did for today, Fr. Bryan Massingale talks about privilege and racism. Now, when Fr. Massingale is talking about privilege and racism, he’s mostly not talking about any praticular person being racist or privileged. It’s not simply individual acts. He is imagining racism and privilege as structures that can order your world, and conditions how you behave. In this sense, racism is a cosmology.

We all inhabit many different, and sometimes conflicting, cosmologies. Fr. Massingale in this reading is trying to highlight the contradictions between a Christian cosmology and a racist one. Both of these things order your values.

Let’s take some time, and think of a cosmology we’re each embedded in at Emory. It can be something that extends beyond Emory if you’d like, but just think of one.

Now, think of a time when a cosmology of yours, a sense of order, was disrupted. These experiences can sometimes be intense: medical crises, loss, fights with people close to you that disrupt a sense of family.

But though they can be unpleasant, let’s see if we can keep in mind some of these intense feelings that come from the dissolving. It’s from those kind of experiences that we can begin to talk about lament, a kind of prayer that is very different from the ones we see in Luhrmann. To start talking about lament, I wanted to take a quick moment to look at a piece of art that some of you may be familiar with:

Here’s some basic background: This painting is called the Third of May, 1808, by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. In the early 1800s, Napoleon began a series of wars across Europe. In 1807, he invaded Spain in a bloody occupation. De Goya, a Spaniard, painted this piece several years later to depict the massacre of Spanish civilians by French troops.

If we think in terms of cosmologies and the falling apart of order, does anything about this painting stand out?

Spain was a Catholic nation. France had been a Catholic nation, until the Revolution and Napoleon had built a secular empire. For some time, wars in Europe had often been these little back and forth things—I grab a little bit of land here, you grab a little bit of land there. But in the Napoleonic Wars, for the first time in quite a while a country was engaged in wholesale conquest. Napoleon wasn’t just coming for a little piece of Spain, he was coming to destroy the entire country. To many people, they thought of Napoleon as a devil, a dark force seeking to destroy the monarchy, the Church, and their entire way of life.

So let’s look at the painting again:

What is in the light?
What is in the shadow?

What about the man with his arms up? Some critics have interpreted him as being a symbol of Spanish resistance in the face of Napoleon. Maybe. But with the Church covered in shadows, and in front of the faceless firing squad, I see him more as a figure raising his hands in protest: “Why?”

That “why?” is the heart of lamentation. We’ve spent time with Luhrmann thinking about kinds of prayers that train you to hold God close, so close you can see God across the table when you grab coffee. That kind of prayer is a way of making God present.

But I’m suggesting that there’s another kind of prayer: prayers that rise up from a deep sense of absence. Where is God? How could there even be a God when this terrible thing has happened? Within the Hebrew Bible, the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, and there are countless expressions of just how senselessly awful this is. Later, in Christian’s New Testament, Jesus borrows some of these words as he’s on the cross, right before he dies:

“Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani”— My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

But as we’ve seen—and unfortunately all probably know, in larger or smaller ways—this isn’t a phenomenon limited to the sudden apparent absence of the Abrahamic God. It is responsive to the falling apart of a cosmology, a way of ordering the world that no longer seems to make sense, but had been so natural to you that it was part of your whole way of being.

Imagine being in the middle of the ocean en route to a distant island when suddenly you realize that your compass is broken, maybe has been broken the whole time. You no longer have any coordinates, no way to differentiate things from one another, and no idea where you are.

On its own, this sounds more like despair than a form of prayer. But there is more to lament than just watching things fall apart. What is it that Fr. Massingale thinks makes lament valuable?

Lament shows the brokenness of systems, and helps us see that we need alternatives.

Do you remember what Geertz said about religion and suffering? He said it “makes suffering sufferable.”

Think about this, and please, let me know if you have an answer, but:

If Geertz is right, and that is all religion does, then how can religion ever change anything? How could it even change itself? All that prayer could do is cover over what hurts, like a numbing agent.

The thing about anesthesia is that, on its own, it doesn’t actually heal any wounds.

Fr. Massingale is suggesting that lament is a process of owning the pain that arises when a cosmology falls apart, so that you can begin to imagine a better cosmology to replace it.

Over the next weeks, we are going to talk a great deal about suffering at the levels of the personal, the social, the biomedical, and the political, beginning with four classes on HIV and AIDS. While Luhrmann’s work does a clear and important job highlighting a form of prayer that keeps God present even in tough times, I think we’d be poorly served if we thought that this kind of prayer is the only way that we can understand religious experiences and suffering.

There is also the possibility of lament, of cries that begin in a broken cosmology, asking “why?” when nothing makes sense, but which open up the hope that maybe, by admitting something is wrong, we can begin to build something better. In the coming weeks, as we begin to look at suffering in both social histories and personal stories, let’s try to listen for this kind of prayer in the testimonies we hear.”


Perhaps an inconclusive suggestion, playing coy in the space between religious studies and theology. This was not a confessional classroom, and the perspective I provided via Fr. Massingale’s writings were one of several faith traditions they were being exposed to.

At a time when many are in need of hope, my mind keeps coming back to this lecture, and to de Goya’s haunting Third of May.

I keep thinking that sometimes when prayer seems the most sensible is when we need it least, and in those broken moments, when we need it most, it isn’t because it makes the chaotic world make sense. No one needs a lifeboat on a calm ocean.

In the midst of chaos, Christians in particular are eager to look to the certainty, the completed promise, of the vacant tomb. And they’re right—I’m obliged to think there’s no better place to look.

But before—or at least alongside—the vacant tomb, there is a decidedly occupied cross.

Tomorrow will be the Easter Vigil, and we will do our best to remember the hope that this promise means.

But for now, on the night of Good Friday, I will resist the urge to think of prayer as merely something that “makes suffering sufferable.”

Because sometimes, at least for a moment, it doesn’t.


To follow, if you’d like

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