Prayers ascending?

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By Ann Fontaine

Every so often someone will ask for prayers and a common response is “prayers ascending.” My questioning mind thinks – hmmm, ascending? Going up? Where? How? Since the photos of earth came back from the astronauts in space, I have had the question that the Russian cosmonauts were asking, “Where is your God? We’ve never seen Him out there in space. We circled the globe again and again, and He wasn’t out there!” If God is not out there and there really is no “up” in realms of outer space where do I locate God when I pray? Where and how do I think about God when I pray? I suppose that there is no need for location when it comes to God and prayer but it helps my praying to think of a direction.

Much of our religious language speaks of an “up there” – words that have now become an anachronism. Can the metaphor hold our religious imagination? Without location is there a place where God dwells and where we can direct our prayers?

We believe that God is not an object found in creation but the creator of all – as Genesis declares in the creed-like statements of the first chapter, it is all good but it is not God. Our faith uses objects and nature as pointers to God, but God is not in the objects themselves. Icons and other symbolic objects can be paths for prayer but like the natural world are just pointers to that greater reality of the Holy and not stopping places.

In addition to all the passages of scripture that speak of God as high above us in the heavens and our popular conception in poems like Robert Browning’s:

The year’s at the spring;

The day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in his heaven…

All’s right with the world!

Or Bette Midler singing: From a distance, I find more reassurance about the location of God and the place for my prayers in places like Psalm 139.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me;

you know my sitting down and my rising up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,

but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

Where can I go then from your Spirit?

where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;

if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me

and your right hand hold me fast. (BCP p. 794)

or in Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV)

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When I pray for someone I believe my prayers are received by the Love that is God and directed to those who need them. For me God is located in the midst of us. My prayer is often that the person will feel surrounded in and borne up by prayer. I don’t think that my prayers have taken off for outer space or gone to an unknown location. My hope is that the prayers are wrapping any one who needs them in a comforter of prayer. I hope the recipients will feel that prayer is carrying them through their days and they feel that peace that passes understanding as they receive healing or strength in their lives.

Jesus says in Luke 17: “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And that is where I put my heart and my prayer. Where do you think your prayers go? Or does it matter to you?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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6 Responses to "Prayers ascending?"
  1. Thank you Ann for this post.

    Some time ago, in 1963, Bishop J.A.T. Robinson wrote "Honest to God" in which he proposed to jettison ideas of God "out there" or "up there" in favor of God as Being that gives meaning and direction to our lives. Its impact was tremendous!

    As for prayers, doesn't the notion of ascent have something to do with incense? Particularly at the end of the day when human effort unwinds, I find it a relief to pray at Evensong "Let my prayers be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

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  2. Also in the eucharistic prayer we are bidden to "lift UP our hearts" and "we lift them TO the Lord" (or in rite I, they do go UP.)

    I think it's useful to think of prayers moving out ... outward, upward, just generally moving out of our head space and into the Godspace, wherever that space may be.

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  3. I think of my prayers as going within and resting in the Ground of Being in which we all and everything rests.

    Peace and Love

    Alice MacArthur

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  4. Ann,

    I have used that phrase, "Prayers ascending," because I've always had the image of prayers as incense drifting up and out, dispersing into the air to travel to places I can see and know about and places I can't see or know about --in short, all the places where God is.

    Katie Sherrod

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  5. I think it's helpful to think about why we conceptualize God one way or another and to sometimes try something different to remind us that God is not limited to up or down or inside or outside or male or female. For me, however, I don't think I have ever thought of such directions or images as pointing to where God "actually" is. I will always think first and foremost of prayers "ascending" because that is what it feels like to me, the sense of movement being perhaps more important than even the direction. In prayer I reach, stretch, and yearn to the high heavens and it is that movement, the longing and stretching, that takes me to God. It's not that I cannot sit and find him inside, but that's not what I "do" imaginatively. I would think that everyone should be free to imagine their prayers to God in whatever way best suits them, whether it be something imagined in terms of sight, sound, smell, touch, movement, etc. God envelops, raises, reaches down, raises us up, dances with and embraces us in countless number of ways we can only begin to imagine.

    Kathryn Jensen

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  6. Interesting thoughts.

    When I was a Christian, I was most heavily influenced by my Sunday school teachers who taught me that "Prayer is talking to God." I was also taught in Sunday school that God was always with me. So I never saw my prayers as going anywhere. God was right there and I was talking to him.

    The idea of lifting up prayers just wasn't one I heard of until much later. (I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that I attended a church that was strongly opposed to anything remotely "liturgical.")

    --Jarred Harris

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