From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Praying for the Awful Grace of God
by Ed Simon
No portrait exists of the seventeenth-century prophetess Anna Trapnell, because she was not of the station for whom people made portraits. Poor daughters of Stepney shipwrights didn’t have paintings made; women whose parents hadn’t baptized them were not fixed in stained glass. But God, or whatever you call Her, doesn’t just visit those in whose likeness icons are made. In 1654, when Trapnell was in her twenties—the exact year of her birth being unknown—she traveled to Bridewell Palace and sat in ecstatic vigil against the increasingly tyrannical theocracy of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. She spent twelve days in a trance, speaking paradox and poetry, prophecy and prayer, predicting the collapse of the government so many had initially welcomed after monarchical absolutism. Attended by non-conformists, dictating to an amanuensis, Trapnell repeated prayers like “The Voice and Spirit have made a league / Against Cromwel and his men, / Never to leave its witness till / It hath broken all of them.” She was apprehended and put on trial for witchcraft, but against all our presumptions of her era she beat the charge. She was simply too popular, too brilliant, too powerful for the state to end her ministry.
It’s strange to consider the political power of prayer, especially against a state that also enshrines its efficacy. Some on the left assume that anyone who talks too much about prayer has an agenda, usually a reactionary one. After all, there are plenty of contemporary Cromwells legislating and dictating their religious beliefs. With men like this—they’re normally men—it’s easy to forget the radical, awesome, subversive power of prayer, even while those we’re resisting claim it as their own too. It’s easy to grow cynical after being perennially offered “thoughts and prayers” in the never-ending wake of American bloodletting, but what if we took prayer seriously? What if we embraced it in all its awful grace? What if we answered the Cromwells of America as a vast legion of Trapnells bursting with prophecy? Then we’d have a real revival. Then we’d have a revolution.
Any system worth resisting is at its core religious, but any effective means of resistance must be religious as well. “Religion” need not mean what we’re normally told it means, a limited definition focusing on beliefs and rituals. All sorts of things are religions: capitalism is a religion; fascism is a worse one, democracy a better one. Religion has to do not only with sanctuaries and scripture, but also with meaning, with how we orient ourselves to things of ultimate significance. The language that facilitates this meaning is sometimes called prayer.
Empty “thoughts and prayers” are really anti-prayers, negative speech acts that mock the actual function of divine language, and part of their nihilistic power is that they engender cynicism. But we must not forget the profound subversiveness in speaking prophecy, in opposing tyrants while genuflecting before the infinite. Sitting Bull, watching the Sioux Ghost Dance across the western prairies, understood that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, understood it too. So, of course, did Anna Trapnell. Every Ave Maria repeated by the detained immigrant child, even after their rosaries have been confiscated by an ICE agent; every prostrate Salah performed by the Syrian refugee; every funeral prayer for the black son murdered by the police or the classmate shot in the classroom; all the Serenity Prayers dutifully mouthed by junkies and drunks; every ecstatic hymn of praise uttered by a drag queen—these are acts of opposition against authoritarianism, enacting revolutionary love by their simple existence.
There is a pragmatic and moral utility in the use of prayer by the progressive religious revival our nation is undergoing, as embodied by movements like the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. But prayer’s radicalism goes deeper, finding its full measure not in objective effects, nor in whether it can convince a deity (or your fellow citizens), but in the temporary establishment of your own little republic, your own garden, utopia, paradise. In prayer, we see intimations of a better world. A glimpse of perfection—not in a place, but for a period. A psychic balm for this world, for in that awful grace we remove ourselves from life’s transitoriness. Prayer displaces us from the fallen world of Twitter screeds, newsfeeds, and push notifications. In such true privacy there is an anarchic freedom. “Do not let our spirits be colonized by the depressing fear of our oppressors,” seminarian Lauren Grubaugh prayed at a memorial following the hideous events in Charlottesville. “Transform our minds that do not think of you existing without these heavy chains we have placed on ourselves and on each other.” True prayer has always been about that one thing: the removing of chains.
Take action today:
Consider getting involved with progressive faith organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign.
Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions and a commentator on religion and politics. He is the author of America and Other Fictions and Furnace of this World: 36 Observations About Goodness.