Marc De Kesel

Does love pray? Is it prayer when a lover begs for the love of his beloved?

But, first, what is prayer? The question is not unimportant, certainly not when this word gathers in itself a double meaning, similar to ‘love’ itself (see under A).

‘Prayer’ has first of all a religious meaning. Conscious as they are of their finite condition, mortals pray to immortals for favors and support. Unlike them, the gods have their realm beyond death. It is from there that humans are given life and, consequently, thence that their lives are taken. Prayers constitute a crucial element in human commerce with the divine: both as a response to gifts already given and in hope of future benefaction, humans offer gifts to their gods. This commerce, this asking is prayer.

  Guido Reni, Mary Madeleine in prayer, 1627

 Guido Reni, Mary Madeleine in prayer, 1627

Just like temples, sacrifices, processions, and all kinds of rituals, praying not only sustains humans, but the gods as well. A god to whom no one prays fades into obscurity. Remember the famous ‘Götterdämmerung’  of Wagner’s opera. Just like love, praying obeys the logic of gift-giving, i.e. the threefold procedure of giving, receiving and presenting counter-gifts. This practice precedes the ones who are acting in it; it precedes the subjects involved –which is to say that these subjects are, rather than the agent of that gift-giving, its very product. Gods, too, are only gods thanks to the prayers of mortals. 

Love is characterized by a similar structure. The lovers have to pray for the other’s loving, and they remain lovers only for so long as prayer last. It’s the praying – the love-demand – that constitutes them as lovers. 

Yet, the meaning of  ‘prayer’ has not only a religious origin, but a monotheistic one as well – and, contrary to what is commonly thought, these are not the same. Of course the monotheist, too, prays; but to be really monotheistic, his praying has to admit that in a way it is senseless, for his God is only God to the extent that he cannot be influenced by human prayers. This is the hallmark of his truth, and truth is what distinguishes him from pagan – i.e. false – gods. He is of course able to answer man’s prayers and most of the time he does so, but not because he is petitioned in prayer, but only because his sovereign goodness decides so. And in order to be faithful to his God, the monotheist has to acknowledge and to incorporate this in his very praying. 

A remarkable conclusion is that, applied to love, the monotheistic prayer puts forward love’s erotic dimension, i.e. the dimension of its unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. Each prayer longs for God, emphasizing at the same time the impossibility of that longing ever to be fulfilled. Here, we meet the deeply erotic character of monotheism. By identifying the object of human desire as an abstract, unreachable God, it confirms the primacy of desire over satisfaction, i.e. the primacy of eros over agape.  

Albrecht Dürer,  Praying hands , 1508

Albrecht Dürer, Praying hands, 1508

Yet, in its extreme consequence, monotheistic eros is highly cruel. This we learned already from the Christian cult of the pur amour. Even if the object of his desire makes him an abject subject doomed to eternal non-satisfaction, man can decide to love God nevertheless. Embracing self-destruction can be lived as man’s ultimate act of love. 

Here, in an extreme way, praying prays for nothing, but offers its mere utterance as a praise for God. Praying is praising God and, in that very praise, acknowledging that God does not need to be praised at all. 

The senselessness of my prayer coincides with its ultimate sense, just as the lack of an answer to my love is put forward as its ultimate answer.