Why Praying Sucks (Sometimes)

Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capcity in excersie.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

If this is true, then I may have discovered both the cause and the solution to a perennial problem that keeps me from walking “the narrow way.” Of course, it is very unlikely that Mill, being an atheist, is here thinking about ways that we can experience the “noble feeling” of delighting in the Divine, but his insights might still be applicable to a life of Love. John Piper has eloquently pointed out that a part of walking the Divine path is to find delight in this walking. (He calls this “Christian hedonism” and explains this concept here.)The perennial problem that plagues my psyche’ (soul) is this: I cannot always find that delight. Or, in Mill’s words, I have (sometimes) lost the capacity for “nobler feelings.”

Before diagnosing and curing this numiniously noxious disease, I must clarify something in my mind. In light of some recent thoughts in this post and this post, the relationship between divine duty and delight has me quite confused. Previously, I thought that walking the Divine path just was eudaimonia, i.e., the most fulfilling life I could live. Then, after experiencing the things that inspired the writings found in the aforementioned posts, I began to think about this possibility: the Divine path is not one of “fulfillment,” but rather of “meaning.”

(There is, of course, a sense in which living a “meaningful” life can be fulfilling, but by these two words, I mean to denote two different types of ethical life, even though, strictly speaking, they are both fulfilling in some sense. The difference between these two lives is hopefully made clear here and here.)

It is quite possible that this new kind of ethic, one that maximizes meaning in one’s life, is compatible with a duty to delight. Indeed, this is precisely what we see in Harold Crick at the end of Stranger than Fiction (as mentioned in this post). Something very specific is going on here: Crick’s delight changes. The delight is never the final and ultimate end. It occurs in an indirect and subordinate sense. Our initial delight cannot lead us, but must follow the dictates of divine duty. I think I understood this already, but I had forgotten.

The cause of my problem may be, as this quotation suggests, that there are things that are ruining my capacity to delight in the Divine. One of those things might simply be the lack of the nourishing of the spiritually sensitive aspects of my self. This is interesting, for it implies that the less effort I make to cultivate my soul, the less I will be capable of experience the joy of that cultivation. Translation: the less that I pray the more it is going to suck when I pray in the future. This is especially significant in that it provides an additional motivation to cultivate my soul when the delight is not present, aside from the “fact” that it is our duty to.

The second insight into Mill’s suggestion is that there could be influences external to the practice itself that “suck the delight” out of that act. This is interesting. I have no idea what exactly these sorts of things would be in the case of a Lover, but it at least explains why I find myself bored out of my mind in “spiritual disciplines” even when I have been practicing them regularly.

Mill’s suggestion, it turns out, might not be to far from something that Jesus suggested:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Jesus’ words here seem to be a warning: don’t loose your salt. It appears that Jesus is particularly concerned about the salt’s “tastiness.” Salt was the spice of the ancient world. It made stuff taste better, and so perhaps Jesus is saying that true Lovers make the world “taste” better. Implicitly, Jesus is recognizing that there are things that can cause us to loose that. We can loose our ability to be the delight of the world. Mill’s claim, then, perhaps applies to something that happens before we loose this ability. His claim is something like this: we can loose our ability to delight in the Divine. From here, it is quite easy to fail to abide in the Divine, and apart from It, we can do nothing, we cannot be the salt of the earth. (Is that true? Perhaps only in a panentheistic sense.)

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