David Jasper, an Anglican theologian who is a major figure in the field of literature and theology, in his review of my book, The Contemporary Jesus, could affirm that this book is truly literature and theology at the very cutting edge of thought, and, dare one say, ďprayer.Ē This response to my most recent book came as a deep surprise to me, this had never occurred before, indeed, I am unaware of any contemporary theological book being identified as prayer, and this, too, is a deep distinction between pre-contemporary and contemporary theology. Theology had always been thought of as a form of prayer, just as deep thinking itself had been so identified, and while this has occurred in our world only in Heidegger and Levinas, it is perhaps most absent in theology itself, where prayer itself has become a deep mystery. This is a mystery which had long summoned me, and just before the death of God controversy broke I had been involved in a project to prepare a text on the contemporary reality of prayer, a text issuing from reflections on prayer from Trappist monks in their monastery in Conyers, Georgia. Claude McCaleb had been responsible for this project, he was an editor and publisher at Bobbs-Merrill, who later married my sister, Jane, and he was responsible for Bobbs-Merrill becoming for a brief period the major publisher of radical theological books, they had also sponsored two conferences on the death of God theology, and we even attempted to establish a radical theology journal, but this floundered when I could only procure enough articles for one issue (my first disillusionment with fellow radical theologians). I had taken Claude to the monastery, and when he learned that many of the monks there thought very little of contemporary books on prayer, he induced them to initiate a project that would rectify this grave deficiency.
The idea was that a group of about half a dozen of the monks would meet weekly to discuss the actual meaning and praxis of prayer today, I would be there to do no more than act as a moderator, the sessions would be recorded, and then later we would edit these for publication. Let me say at once that I had a deep rapport with these monks, deeply respecting them, and, yes, respecting them theologically, nowhere else have I encountered a community so deeply Christian and so deeply radical at once, and their project was more radical then mine, I never doubted this, and I still do not doubt that nothing is more needed today than a genuine theology of prayer. They were determined to end every distinction between the sacred and the profane or the heavenly and the earthly in the understanding and practice of prayer, to draw forth prayer itself as act or life itself, and more specifically to understand Christian prayer as a profoundly incarnational prayer, one realized in the depths of life and the world itself, and one whose occurrence is a universal occurrence in full actuality or full life itself. To cite but one example, the only contemporary book on prayer that they could take seriously was Teilhardís The Divine Milieu, now this is remarkable not only because Trappists could think highly of a Jesuit book on prayer, but because this is a book that so frequently is deeply condemned in orthodox Catholic circles. Of course, I had long known that contemplative monks are deeply independent of the Catholic hierarchy, but I encountered here a genuine freedom in the monastic life which I have never encountered in secular life, and certainly never encountered in the university world.
Unfortunately this project was never completed, perhaps it was far more difficult that we initially realized, indeed, I suspect that nothing is more difficult today than understanding prayer theologically, not that we have a psychological or sociological understand of prayer, we certainly do not, but I sense that the deepest theological challenge today is an understanding of prayer, although this may finally be simply impossible. One of the most intriguing theological challenges of our new world is the deep popularity of liturgical and meditative music, perhaps only here is genuine music responded to in ďpostmodernity,Ē only here that depth in music can be heard universally, or only here that depth in our world is manifest at all. While it is true that music is universal in the world of religion, and can retain its power even when the mythical or doctrinal expressions of religion are in abeyance, this is most striking if not most paradoxical in our new world, when theology has either disappeared or become wholly frozen, and yet a genuinely sacred music exercises deep power, and apparently far more so than any other form of music, or any other form of art. Is ours a world in which only the purest forms of the sacred can induce a deep response, and is this accompanied by a deep if not ultimate dissolution of every other form of the sacred, thus bringing a crisis not only to every institutional expression of religion, but to every expression of our culture itself?
Music is our only art in which the sacred is truly universal, and so much so that it is extraordinarily difficult to discover a genuine music which is genuinely profane, perhaps if only for this reason even in the twentieth century our major composers are more deeply religious as a body than any other body of artists, and if the musical performer is more deeply disciplined than any other artist in our world, this could be understood not only as an ultimate but as a sacred discipline, and truly sacred in its very ultimacy. Although my own theological work is most deeply dependent upon Christian epic poetry, it has always been deeply inspired by music, and I have long given deeper attention to music than to any other art, hearing in music a power that I could apprehend as a theological power, and ultimately a power that is the power of prayer itself, so that if only here even we are given a genuine language of prayer. Is it possible to translate that power into an open theological language? I believe that this has occurred again and again in our purer literary works, and while I know full well that I am incapable of writing such a work, I did attempt a novel that was given to this goal, a novel entitled ďLaura: A Portrait of a Contemporary Saint,Ē a project much affected by Leon Bloyís judgment that there is but one sorrow and that is not to be a saint, but far more affected by the goal of attempting to discover a contemporary language of prayer.
One of the major accomplishments of literary scholarship in our world is in our truly new biographies of our great novelists, wherein it is demonstrated how fully our novelists have incorporated their own lives into their novels, and while I would never compare myself to such novelists, it is true that my novel revolves about an ultimate initiation of Lauraís that parallels my own initiation into Satan, and that here only a voyage into the depths of darkness makes possible a genuine language of prayer. Perhaps I was attempting to discover in Laura what I cannot discover in myself, a truly Shamanic initiation, one releasing the purest light out of the purest darkness, a light which is a genuinely embodied light, and one only possible by way of a pure embodiment of pure darkness itself. Of course, I was deeply influenced by Dostoyevsky, and by Bernanos, too, once again we encounter the deeply Christian motif of the Descent into Hell, and I had become persuaded that a genuine Christian sanctity is possible only by way of this descent, and although it is true that this is a universal movement in the Christian epic, it is virtually absent from Christian theology, which itself could be a reason why our modern Christian theology cannot be a theology of prayer.
It is difficult for me to understand how I could ever have thought that I was capable of writing a novel, I certainly lack all the powers demanded of a novelist, all perhaps save one, and that is a certain kind of introspection, an introspection seeking the deepest moment of oneís life, and attempting to unfold that moment as a liberating moment, and a liberation most deeply from oneself. This was the intended core of this very mediocre novel, but the challenge which overwhelmed me as the greatest challenge, was writing Lauraís internal reflections, and above all her reflections upon that initiation which had occurred in a suddenly discovered clearing in a dark wood, then she was immediately hurled into a center of darkness, and a center which she thereafter knew as ultimate center itself. I attempt to call forth that center as a primal source of deep power for Laura herself, and while I wholly fail to capture it in Lauraís own language, I would like to think that it at least evoked in the reactions of others to Laura, and perhaps abstractly called forth in Lauraís reflections upon Spinozaís God. Many of my literary colleagues were persuaded that it is impossible for the novel to be philosophical or theoretical, but I think that this is true only of the English or of the contemporary novel, and while I could only write a novel that is against the grain, I think that every great novel is finally theological, and most theological in its purest language, a language finally evoking God and God alone.
But is it possible for our language about God to be a language of prayer? Perhaps this is true only in literature, and in our deepest literature, so this all too mediocre novel of mine might be thought of as a writing-experiment, an experiment to see if it is possible for the theologian to employ the genre of the novel in seeking a language of prayer, with the presumption that a language of prayer is impossible in our contemporary theological languages. Here, we must accept the truth that prayer is inevitably a deep mystery to us, a mystery that we might approach by acknowledging that genuine prayer will inevitably be truly other than everything that is manifest or namable as prayer to us, and that it might well most be real where we least expect it, and where it is most unnamable as prayer. I could not say that I have known more than a few who could practice anything that I could know as prayer, but then I believe that we all pray in our most unguarded moments, or our moments when we are least ourselves, and just as I have never been able to abandon prayer, I find it very difficult to believe that this is possible for anyone, just as I cannot believe that ultimate barriers between us can be released apart from prayer. Now even if this is true, is an actual language of prayer possible for us, and a language in genuine continuity with our traditional language of prayer, or a language in continuity with our liturgical and meditative language?
Once I entered into community with a group of California Congregationalist pastors seeking a new Christian life, they implored me to write a creed for their project, this I foolishly accepted, and at the publisherís request it was included as an appendix to The Genesis of God. This is not only an apocalyptic creed, but a creed which I intended as an apocalyptic prayer, and a prayer which I trust can be heard in an actual reading of the creed:
I believe in the triumph of the Kingdom of God, in that Kingdom which is the final life of the spirit, a life incarnate in Jesus, and consummated in his death. That death is the self-embodiment of the Kingdom of God, and a death which is the resurrection of incarnate body, a body which is a glorified body, but glorified only in its crucifixion, which is the death of all heavenly spirit, and the life of a joy which is grace incarnate. That joy and grace are all in all, offered everywhere and to everyone, and invisible and unreal only to these who refuse them, a refusal which is everyoneís but a refusal which is annulled in the death of the incarnate and crucified God, and transfigured in that resurrection, a resurrection which is the actual and present glory of the Kingdom of God. Amen.
If nothing else I hope that this creed makes manifest how far the Apostles Creed is from apocalyptic Christianity, but it is also intended to make clear that a genuine creed is a genuine prayer, so that a genuine language of belief is a language of prayer, and when creed loses that ground it truly becomes heteronomous or demonic.
My youngest sister Nell is the one in our family most like myself, she became a genuine poet, and had herself moved from a deep Catholicism to a deep atheism, and yet there is a true consistency in this move, as her mature poetry is clearly a poetry of prayer, and while possessed by a genuine rage, which in its radical feminist form was often directed at me, she simply cannot escape a language of prayer in her own deeper poetry. I sense that this is true of every genuine poet, and finally true of us all, and yet nothing is more difficult today than the actual language of prayer, we all know the deeply disruptive consequences of the Catholic Churchís adoption of a vernacular liturgy, with apparently no prior awareness of the extraordinary difficulty of translating a liturgical language into a vernacular language, and above all so in our world. W. H. Auden once remarked to me that he resigned from the commission preparing a revision of the Book of Common Prayer because he was alone in that body in being determined to preserve a sacred language of prayer, and alone because he was the only poet in that group, the only one with a sense of sacred language itself.
This is a deep problem in our world and it is dramatically manifest in late modern or contemporary translations of the Bible, and while it is true that most Biblical scholars have little sense of the sacrality of language, and are trained in such a way as to dilute or dissolve any such sensibility, the deeper problem is the chasm between our contemporary languages and the languages of those worlds which gave us our classical translations of the Bible, in this perspective we can see that the death of God is embodied in our language itself, and hence inevitably embodied in contemporary vernacular liturgies or contemporary translations of the Bible. At one time I was deeply affected by the liturgical movement in the Catholic Church, deeply caught up in its determination to wholly transform a medieval hierarchical liturgy into a truly communal liturgy, one inspired by its demonstration of the profound transformation of the liturgy which had occurred in its medieval development, with a consequent call of return to a pre-Constantinian liturgy, and even a return to a primitive Christian liturgy. Unfortunately that liturgy is deeply apocalyptic, thus seemingly wholly alien to our world, unless our world is finally an apocalyptic world, and hence one open to a truly apocalyptic prayer.
The liturgical scholar who most affected me was the Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix, whom I once consulted about my own possible monastic vocation, his book, The Shape of the Liturgy had a deep impact upon me, and particularly so its crucial section on the most important of all the words in the Christian liturgy, anamnesis: ďDo this in anamnesis of meĒ (I Corinthians 11:25). While commonly translated as memory or remembrance, Dix insisted that this must be understood as re-presentation or renewal, not an interior memory, but far rather an actual calling forth of the Crucifixion itself, a liturgical enactment and renewal of the one source of redemption, this is the real work or action of the liturgy, and in participating in the liturgy we actually participate in that re-presentation or renewal. Although Dix minimizes the apocalyptic ground of the liturgy, this is overwhelmingly clear in Paulís account of the institution of the Eucharist, for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lordís death until he comes (I Corinthians 11:26). Certainly the Eucharist which Paul celebrates is an apocalyptic Eucharist, and one could surmise that the very absence of the Eucharist from the Fourth Gospel is the absence of an apocalyptic enactment, just as its centrality in the Book of Revelation is the centrality of an apocalyptic enactment.
Again and again I have been deeply affected by Kierkegaardís insistence that the deepest difference between Biblical faith and paganism is that the latter is grounded in remembrance and the former in repetition, the one in a backward movement of return and the other in a forward movement of repetition, and this deep insight certainly illuminates both apocalyptic prayer and an apocalyptic liturgy, here prayer and liturgy are not a backward movement of remembrance or memorial, but rather a forward movement, and a forward movement finally directed to apocalypse itself. Yet this is the very movement which is most deeply transformed both in the ancient Christian liturgy and in ancient Christian prayer, as a backward movement of eternal return ever increasingly dominates the liturgy and the prayer of the Church, and a primitive Christian prayer and liturgy all but disappears. Why is this of so little interest to the historian of Christianity or to the theological world itself, have we lost all sense of apocalyptic prayer, or simply all sense of prayer itself? I believe that at no other point is the death of God more fully manifest in our world, and yet apparently only a death of God theologian can see this, is this because it is only in understanding the death of God that we can understand the depth and ultimacy of our actual condition?
There is substantial critical agreement that Barthís deep transformation of his own work proceeded from his discovery of and book on Anselm, that Anselm who is the Western theologian above all others for whom theology itself is prayer, and we can discover a progressive diminution if not reversal of this identification in the subsequent development of Western theology, at no other point is there a deeper chasm between Eastern and Western theology, so that Western Christians have inevitably been drawn to Eastern Christianity at this crucial point, and even if Byzantine theology is truly alien to the West, Russian Christianity has had a deep impact upon the West in late modernity, and I must confess that I most purely discovered the death of God in Dostoyevskyís The Possessed. And here the deepest and purest language of the death of God is a language of prayer, Kirillov is clearly both an atheistic and an apocalyptic saint, and this is a pure atheism that is a pure apocalypticism, so that Kirillov lives and dies an apocalypse that is an atheistic apocalypse, and yet an atheistic apocalypse that is an anamnesis of Jesus himself. Theologically, what is most remarkable about Kirillovís language is that it is so deeply a language of prayer, this can even be observed in its agrammatical structure, a language that must distance itself from all established grammar, only that dissonance here makes possible a language of prayer, and a truly apocalyptic language of prayer. Is this a language evoking the death of God as the ultimate apocalyptic event?
Upon reflection I gradually came to realize that the deepest language of the death of God is a language of prayer, I have come to think that this is true even of Hegel, and in the Phenomenology of Spirit the purest enactments of the death of God are explicitly enactments of kenosis, this, too, can be understood as an anamnesis of the Crucifixion, and if here pure thinking is an ultimate thinking of self-negation or self-emptying, such self-emptying can be understood as prayer itself, and as a genuinely apocalyptic prayer. Of course, this movement is fully explicit and undeniable in Blakeís mature work, but could this possibly be true in Nietzscheís proclamation of the death of God, can we understand the language of this ďMadmanĒ as a language of prayer? Certainly this is an apocalyptic language, must it therefore of necessity be a language of prayer, is it possible to enact apocalypse itself apart from apocalyptic prayer, or apart from a language renewing or reenacting Jesusí eschatological proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom of God? Nietzscheís is the first philosophical language to be a fully explicit apocalyptic language, is that possible apart from apocalyptic prayer, or apart from an apocalyptic anamnesis of the Crucifixion itself?
The very word anamnesis became overwhelming for me, and just as I could see how its original Christian enactment had been overwhelmingly transformed in the prayer and the liturgy of the Church, I became ever more open to the possibility that it had truly been reborn in a uniquely modern atheism, and most clearly so in the apocalyptic enactments of that atheism. But how can such enactments be understood as enactments of prayer, if there is a truly unique Christian expression of prayer, and if this is enacted in the earliest Christian liturgy, could this enactment be a truly apocalyptic enactment, and one which undergoes a genuine anamnesis in every subsequent apocalyptic enactment, and even does so in a seemingly atheistic enactment? Certainly one deep and ultimate enactment is shared by ancient and modern apocalypticism, and that is an absolute Yes-saying, an absolute celebration of the deepest possible Yes, one occurring in response to the Crucifixion itself, and thus in response to the death of God. Paulís eucharistic language calls forth this death more decisively than does his purely theological language, and if we proclaim the ďLordís deathĒ as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, is that not the deepest possible liturgical action, and the deepest possible liturgical prayer? But is that a liturgical action and prayer which can be understood as becoming universalized with the uniquely modern realization of the death of God?
Is it possible truly to say Yes to the death of God apart from prayer, or is Yes-saying itself possible apart from the deepest prayer, and is this a Yes-saying first corporately enacted in the Eucharist itself? D. G. Leahy is the only thinker whom I know who has actually and fully attempted to think the Eucharist, and if this entails a transformation of the missa solemnis into the missa jubilaea, this is a truly apocalyptic transformation, and one which can be understood to be in genuine continuity with the original Eucharist. True, Leahy can understand my theology as an inversion and reversal of the Eucharistic substance to the form of the dark identity of the immediate actuality of experience, an inversion and reversal which is a Black Mass (Foundation, page 536), an abysmal theology which also can be characterized as a ďnon-Eucharistic Eucharistic externalityĒ (Foundation, page 468). Leahyís understanding of Matter or the Body itself is simultaneously an apocalyptic and a liturgical understanding, here totality itself is a eucharistic Body, but a eucharistic Body only insofar as it is an apocalyptic Body, and a eucharistic Body which is the transformation of God as God, hence a eucharistic Body which is the apocalyptic resurrection of God.
Now if this is the first time that a eucharistic language has fully been employed as a language about God, this may well be the advent of a genuinely liturgical theology, one which has never occurred before, and when it does occur it can only occur as a purely apocalyptic theology, and an apocalyptic theology enacting the cosmic and total Yes of the missa jubilaea. Leahyís thinking is not only a pure and total thinking, but it is a pure thinking which is pure prayer, perhaps this is a primal reason why Leahyís work is so comprehensively ignored in our world, but it does fully demonstrate that pure thinking can be pure prayer, and perhaps inevitably so in a genuinely apocalyptic thinking. Why should we think that Anselmís thinking is a genuine expression of prayer whereas Hegelís thinking clearly is not, or that Augustineís thinking is clearly a prayerful thinking and Nietzscheís thinking certainly is not? Is this because we simply cannot imagine a uniquely modern expression of prayer? And also because we cannot imagine a uniquely modern apocalypse? But this has certainly been given us, and most clearly given us in a uniquely modern epic poetry, a poetry which can be understood as prayer, and is even explicitly enacted as prayer, and even as a fully liturgical prayer, in Finnegans Wake.
The occasions in which I have had the fullest sense of communion with an audience have been those in which I attempted oral readings from Finnegans Wake, then I did actually experience something of what Leahy understands as the missa jubilaea, a truly cosmic mass, but a cosmic mass which is an apocalyptic mass, and one being enacted in our very midst. Everyone can seemingly be open to this mass, for this is a truly universal mass, and I simply cannot imagine how anyone could truly or finally resist it, or anyone who could hear it, and even if it can only be heard as an ultimate chaos, here that chaos is an ecstatic Yes, and a Yes that is inevitably celebrated insofar as it is heard. An ultimate and final celebration is a decisive key to this mass, and if such a celebration has always been the deepest center of the Eucharist, and one whose history goes back to the very advent of humanity itself, so that every genuine mass is a universal mass, the very presence of this celebration is a witness to the enactment of this mass, here celebration itself is deep prayer, and a deep prayer inseparable from ecstatic joy. Clearly that joy can be evoked by oral readings of Finnegans Wake, then if only vicariously we participate in this mass, but if we actually and fully hear these words, that very hearing could only be a sacramental hearing, one inseparable from the brute actuality of these words.
Is an ecstatic joy possible for us, but that is also to ask if
an apocalyptic prayer is possible for us, and here we must inevitably recall
the closing words of the Christian Bible: ďAmen. Come, Lord Jesus!Ē
This is perhaps the purest of all apocalyptic prayers, it certainly was
a center of the original Eucharist, and here we can understand that the
ďreal presenceĒ is an apocalyptic presence, and one not confined to the
missa solemnis, but universally present in a missa jubilaea, an ecstatic
celebration which is the celebration of life and body itself, and a celebration
of that universal body which is an apocalyptic body, so that to hear joy
itself is to hear this body, and not to hear it in ďheaven,Ē but to hear
it on ďearth,Ē or to hear it in the deepest immediacy of life itself.
True joy may well be the deepest mystery in our midst, but that joy is
the consequence of an ultimate and final Yes, and if apocalyptic prayer
is a praying of that Yes, here is our deepens summons to prayer, and a
prayer which we hear when we hear joy itself. Have I heard that prayer?
Yes, and heard it even if only hearing it in others, and heard it in truly
hearing others, then silence truly ends, and then we ourselves can only
say Yes. That Yes truly is apocalyptic prayer, and an apocalyptic
prayer which we pray in actually saying Yes, so that if we have ever said
Yes, and fully and actually said it, then even we have known apocalyptic