Perhaps the hardest part of prayer is that at the end of the day, no one is there. No matter how many aids we use; icons, pictures, prayer books, candles, mood lighting, confession booths, or prayer closets, the observable fact is as patent as the a toddler’s inquiry; “Mommy, who are you talking to?” To anyone watching there is simply no one at the other end of the line. We jabber on and on yet to every observer we are simply speaking to the air.
This problem of prayer is the plague of modernity. Though throughout much of history humanity has almost ubiquitously held the notion that when they lifted up their voice to the heaven there was some deity, however aloof, brutal, cruel, or distant, who would hear their supplication. Yet enlightenment, industry, and modernity have instilled in us of the West this pervasive doubt. When we now turn our petitions heavenwards we are overshadowed by disbelief.
Paul Newman’s classic film Cool Hand Luke offers a poignant look at the conflict of humanity facing the prospect of a vacant sky. Social misfit Luke has found himself on the wrong side of the law, serving a two year stint on a chain-gang for cutting the heads off parking meters. The film follows his refusal to bend to the system bearing down upon him. In the course of things his clashes with authority finds him in the rain, shouting at the man up stairs.
“Love me, hate me, kill me, do anything” can often be a common injunction the person going to pray finds themselves expressing. It is seemingly inevitable that prayer will ultimately find a person disillusioned with the one to whom they pray. While they may experience moments of staggering clarity, matchless beauty, or transcendent peace, those who pray are often not without the opposite testimony as well; agonizing nights, lonely days, haunting hours of self refection without solace. In prayer one stares at God until convinced they are staring merely at air, that nothing is there at all.
It is an isolating moment. Returning to the place where so much grace was once found to discover instead lonely emptiness with small relief. There is only air. Only emptiness. Only despair? What is one to do in such moments? Is there a way through the air to a God again? One turns for comfort to the familiar friend to whom so often they confided to find this very friend the one whose absence occasions the need. There is only air.
Anger. Hate. Shouting. Fear. Trembling. Shaking. Desperation.
All these emotions and more are ignited at the thought of the God-made-air, the No-One-There. Like Luke we are found standing soaking wet watched as a spectacle by all others, both friends and enemies, as in the mud we wrestle out our lack. We are just talking to ourself. There is no one there. There never has been. There never will be. We have been foolish all along. We have imagined ourselves more witty than the toddler’s inquiry, that we knew better than his questions of our delusion, and we are now revealed as the madmen we have been all along.
Our words whisper forth but we find no answer. We find no response. We find only air. We are the hard case and can not be helped.
Nearing the end of the film, on the last of several escape attempts, Luke finds himself at the end of his rope in a small church building looking upwards again. Here he prays again. Perhaps with more faith than before yet still questioning if it is only the air that hears him. What would this God who never answers say to him. When he is in need what response does the one there-but-perhaps-only-air offer?
Who is listening to Luke? Who will respond? Is he right in his assessment? We, like him, find ourselves talking to the air. Is there faith behind our words to bare them up to heaven? Is he the hard case or are we? Those who pray whisper to the air. There is no shame in saying it. No help in denying it. Often we feel there is no one on the other end, there is only air. No God. No one to respond. No one to care. No close friend to meet us. No comfort in our whispered, shouted, sworn, cursed, sung, wept, chanted, uttered words, only air. only air.