Responding to my column last week about the joyful season of Lent, during which we are enjoined to fast, pray and give alms, Ed McKoy writes in The Gleaner of last Saturday:
"Taken from Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: 'And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.'
"Mr Espeut, does this simple statement about this particular public demonstration of faith, prayer, in its totality, entirely negate the modern Christian practice of church assembly that includes such a collective demonstration? And, as such, does it not also negate much of what is accepted as part of the practice of most Christian churches today? How do you explain this apparent, if not obvious, contradiction?"
Putting Brother Ed's question another way, he is asking whether the Christian practice of public collective worship (on Sunday or on Saturday) disobeys this injunction by Jesus to pray in secret in one's private room. If Jesus intended Christians to pray only in secret, then from the earliest days this command was broken, for we read in the Acts of the Apostles that the early Christians met often as a body, sometimes in the temple, and also in their homes for the "breaking of bread". In 1 Cor 14:26 the format of Christian meetings is discussed.
And so Christians must pray in groups, but also in private. Public prayer is essential, but is not enough; Jesus' words call for frequent prayer on one's own. The practice of doing your private prayer in public - "standing in the synagogues" and on the street-corners where you will be seen - this is the hypocrisy condemned by Jesus.
And so, Brother Ed, there is no contradiction between public prayer and private prayer; in fact, they complement and reinforce each other. I hear so many people say that to pray they don't have to go to 'church' (that word fundamentally refers to the assembly of believers and not to the building they meet in), but can pray at home. Well, you can do private prayer at home by yourself, but not public prayer. The Lord's Prayer begins "Our Father", not "My Father", because it is fundamentally a family prayer, a group prayer.
Interestingly, R. Howard Thompson, a frequent and thoughtful letter-writer to this newspaper, also opines last Saturday about religious contradictions. He writes: "Religious people begin with an assumption that God is beyond human reason and experience and then proceed to tell us a great deal about what He is like. This is a fundamental contradiction." He recounts how Bertrand Russell pointed out that when theologians start out with the assumption that God is beyond human understanding, it follows that they will very likely be talking nonsense when they try to speak about Him.
Both Thompson and Russell are, of course, quite correct. God is infinitely beyond human reason and experience, and our intellect cannot begin to find the words or the concepts to describe him. Inevitably, to speak about God we use human categories and, thereby, we create God in our own image and likeness. For example, we speak about "the right hand of God" as if God (who is pure spirit) has hands. And, of course, God must be right-handed because there is something sinister about left-handed people (for those who missed it, the word for 'left' in Latin is 'sinister').
And we also picture God as male, and white (usually an old man with a long white beard), and we also say that he is "jealous" and "loving". Being forced to say something about God, we end up speaking nonsense, because we really do not know what God is really like. We can only speak allegorically.
Whatever God is like, he certainly is not like us. There is a whole branch of theology which tries to speak sensibly about God. The best we can say is that God is "wholly other" than us.
And maybe the best approach to take in God's presence is silence.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon.