SCAPC Blog Header

What Do You Wear When You Pray?

There’s a terrific passage in Mark Twain’s novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a {person} is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and besides I was afraid of a United Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought.”

This is a grand quote from one of America’s most original thinkers, and a quote that proves conclusively that if Twain understood himself to be an agnostic, he was certainly a faithful agnostic.

Among the ideas Twain presents in this paragraph, the one I want us to lift up today is the way in which our religious beliefs fit us like the clothes we wear.

I’ll wager we have all met people who wore the beliefs their parents handed down to them, ill-fitting as they may have felt, until one day suddenly they realize, “Hang on! I don’t have to wear this. It’s hot and itchy and the sleeves are too long. It may have worked great for my father, but it just doesn’t suit me.” And if that person is successful in his search, eventually he will find something that fits them better.

By contrast, some people may have tried on a variety of spiritual costumes for years on end, only to realize that the dress her mother wore to worship on Sunday mornings fits her exactly right after all, though the waist needs to be taken in here and there, the sleeves lengthened, and the hem raised a tad.

I’ve frankly quit trying to figure out what makes one faith fit one person and another fit someone else. But I enjoy more than ever observing the variety.

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that one of my favorite books is William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” originally published in 1902 after having been presented as his Gifford Lectures in Scotland. Church historian Martin Marty once referred to James as “someone who has come to believe in believing, and lets it go at that.” Indeed, James loved to explore the beliefs, experiences and religious practices, exotic and mundane, of his fellow creatures; and he did so entirely without judgment.

What I find in James is something to which I aspire: a generosity of spirit to listen to other people’s descriptions of their spiritual experiences on their own terms. James possessed an enviable (for me!) largeness of heart and a natural curiosity about people and their ways. You see this in his seminal research into human psychology as well as his study of religion. I don’t know if James would put it this way, but such generosity of spirit should be made easier for us simply by observing the phenomenal variety in God’s creation. God seems to be up to far more in this world than we could ever imagine.

A few years ago I was visiting a rabbi friend (I’ll mention the same person in my sermon this Sunday in a very different context), when he told me about an experience he had during a trip to Mongolia. While there, he lodged with a Mongolian family. One evening the father of the family asked my friend a question: “What do you wear when you pray?” My friend, delighted with the question, showed his host his prayer shawl. The man admired the prayer shawl and then showed my friend what he wore when he prayed. The garments fit not only each of the persons and their religious cultures, but distinctive characteristics of the deity they worship.

I suppose we could push Mark Twain’s figure of speech so far that it would no longer be helpful, but taken lightly, it seems to me not only interesting, but revealing. And, perhaps these days it is even more interesting and potentially revealing than it would have been in Twain’s time, because today there are many people who find it enriching to put on the spiritual garments (metaphorically speaking) of two or three faith traditions in order adequately to bear witness to the fullness of God as God has met them.

For some folks, this fact may be a bit frightening or troubling, but it need not be so. There are varieties of religious experience because God has blessed creation with the gift of variety.

Comments are closed.