If we really want prayer, we have to give it time.
Over the past few years, I have required my students to sit in my class without any electronic devices—no laptop, no tablet, no smartphone. I point out that the time we inhabit—human standard time—is increasingly accelerated and distracted. Is this all there is? What time is it if you want to live differently than in mindless, task-driven, this-then-this time? Why are you here now? I ask them. We move so fast, ticking down the checklist of life (of course there is an app for this: TickTick). Can we even feel what this is?
As the semester passes I watch my students gradually shift from sullen obedience to a hard-wrought love for their spiral-bound notebooks and course packs. They come to cradle these Luddite tools for learning like exotic creatures from another time and another world. This low-tech pedagogy puts them out of sync with the acceleration and distractedness of clock time. Paradoxically, the short weekly breach of present-day time helps them to be more present.
My pedagogical practice teaches me, through my students, to inhabit time not simply as a continuum—the sped-up tick-tick of human standard time—but as a living in the meantime, in the breach: as prayer. What is the present if not the now of a meantime—this moment as breach? To live time in the breach is to cultivate the habit of paying attention to the pause. If you really want prayer, give it time. Breathing in, breathing out: suspension. (Suspension is the word Michel Foucault offers to define transgression: not the crossing of a line, but the line’s suspension.)
These and other bodily practices—meditation and prayer to a Higher Power I cannot quite fathom but who has kept me sober for twenty-three years—also help me to inhabit a time whose breaches, more and more, feel catastrophic. Melting polar ice, dying coral reefs, city infrastructures overwhelmed by water (New Orleans, Houston, Mumbai). Along with these events come their monstrous consequences, like rafts of fire ants moving over Hurricane Harvey’s rising waters. I suspect these fire ant mobs would qualify as hyperobjects in the hyperscale conception of time some call the Anthropocene. Faced with the Anthropocene, it is tempting to inhabit the puniness of human standard time—the time of the anthropos—as a mere geological blip on a radar that tracks eons. But for now, Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer” expresses what I’ve learned about
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
My loved ones in Texas report on Harvey’s aftermath. One friend posts a tribute to her cat, Prince Bubba, a regal Persian drowned in the floodwaters of her yard. Another friend tells the story of her waterlogged house, a lifetime of possessions reduced to bags of sodden garbage on the curb. Gathering up her soggy linens and family mementoes, she is stopped short by something tender at the back of a closet: a special box, a tiny house, flooded like her own. Mise en abyme of Houston’s devastation, the box holds a life contracted into a moment: tiny woolen animals my friend had knitted when she was six, carefully fitting each one with a tiny plastic heart. Now they are bedraggled and covered in sewage. My friend soaks them in disinfectant and lays them out in the sun to dry. To me, the gesture feels like prayer. Just for a moment, it is what matters: respite, suspension, plastic hearts tick-ticking out of sync with the flooding.