At the end of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, the 20-year-old Franny begins to have a nervous breakdown in the restaurant where she has gone with her college boyfriend, Lane. “All I know,” she says, “is I’m losing my mind. I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting—it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.” Lane responds by saying that “a good psychoanalyst” would say that Franny was afraid of competing. As the lunch drags on, Franny becomes more distressed. Finally she withdraws to the bathroom, where, in the final lines of the story, crushed by the spiritual deadness of her sophisticated world, she falls apart as she silently repeats the Jesus Prayer, from Eastern Orthodox Christianity: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Ego, ego, ego. The so-called sophisticated world is lousy with it. In liberal circles, where Salinger is frequently dismissed as a treacly phony, prayer often occupies a status somewhere between primitive superstition and advanced brainwashing, and sometimes both at once. There are exceptions, and exceptional people—read David Bromwich’s trenchant exposures in The Nation of the soullessness of what passes for liberal culture now—but one searches, mostly in vain, for anyone in that world who does anything for its own sake. Every action, every creative action, every word and gesture, is motivated by the desire to get ahead of the game in one way or another.
Prayer is the very antithesis of such instrumentality. Prayer exists only for itself, in and of itself; it is the purest form of attention. It is simultaneously means and end. Deep breathing is a kind of prayer. A nervous breakdown, like the one Fanny experiences, is a kind of prayer—a fearful, anxious loss of self that could, with luck, lead to the discovery of something larger than oneself. Prayer appears in the final lines of Saul Bellow’s novella, Seize the Day. Wandering, in despair, into a church where the funeral of a stranger is being held, Tommy Wilhelm leaves his tortured particularity behind:
The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears. It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.
Blind, submerged, a vessel into which self-obliterating music is poured, heading toward the consummation of his heart’s—not his ego’s or intellect’s—ultimate desire: Wilhelm occupies prayer’s pure state of selfless attention.
Love, self-sacrificing love, the love for God, for one’s child, for all of humanity—you race into a burning tower to save strangers one indifferently gorgeous September day: those are prayers. Writing is a form of prayer, said Kafka—so long as you are not thinking of anything other than what you are writing.
Some psychiatrists say that the best antidepressants are exercise and sleep, and it is significant that both are modes of self-forgetting. Antidepressants themselves work by numbing you to your mental pain. A contemporary Tommy Wilhelm, standing at a stranger’s funeral, might have eagerly checked his email. Of all the modes of self-forgetting, prayer is the profoundest. In the cases of Fanny and Wilhelm, it is as if their very biology led them to it.
Of course, everything depends on the type of prayer and on the sincerity of the person praying. Every major world religion prescribes different prayers with different objectives for different situations. The most powerful prayers are those that abolish the ego: they acknowledge the gross imperfection of the person praying and find the transcendence of a reality that binds all humans together. Even Spinoza, who considered prayer little more than a self-centered appeal, famously defined reason as seeing reality “under the aspect of eternity”—surely a kind of prayer, since one man’s belief in eternity is another man’s belief in a deity.
After eons of human cruelty and folly sponsored by religion, or religion appropriated and organized by the ego, prayer apparently has been proved by history to be an instrument of delusion supplied by the forces of malevolent authority. Few people in advanced cultural circles take prayer seriously, with the exception of religious people, whom few sophisticated, secular people take seriously. In the eyes of the liberal media, which demonstrates its virtue by summoning long-settled moral struggles as if they were still living injustices, the Middle Ages beckon whenever prayer hovers near the public realm.
Consider the liberal response to the Supreme Court’s decision, in late June, that a high school football coach had a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line following his team’s games. In the most technologically advanced, commercially driven, economically developed, and irreverent and profane country on earth, the Supreme Court decision, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, led liberals to join their warnings of a coming right-wing revolution to forebodings of an imminent religious totalitarianism, in which godless fascism would coexist alongside ceaseless praying during high school sports. “The decision,” gravely intoned the New York Times, “was in tension with decades of Supreme Court precedents that forbade pressuring students to participate in religious activities.”
This was, however, a predictably tendentious leap. No one was able to prove that the coach, Joseph Kennedy, had ever pressured any student to pray with him. Adam Liptak, the Times writer, was freely extrapolating from Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, which itself was a piece of unfounded psychological speculation:
Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval. . . . Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that gaining the coach’s approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.
Leave it to today’s liberal to see all of life under the aspect of career advancement. In Sotomayor’s world, the egoless absence of instrumentality that is the nature of prayer does not exist. The justice tries to prove the perniciousness of prayer by defining it by all that it is not. The possibility that some players might have joined their coach in prayer after the game—obviously, a prayer of thanksgiving and not a plea for a win—for the sake of escaping from the iron ego of competition, clearly did not exist for her. The idea that the coach was driven by a sincere impulse, and not by a corrupt urge for power, seems not to have occurred to her.
Neither did it seem to occur to Sotomayor that if she were right about the innate coerciveness of the coach’s invitation to pray with him, she would have to recognize that dynamic in all of its social facets. Back in class, the situation might have been reversed. Religious students who criticized Voltaire might have felt their academic futures threatened. Skepticism about Marx would have been a real career-killer. And how many modern-day Marranos must have suppressed themselves and falsely professed their admiration for Freud’s The Future of an Illusion in order to avoid endangering their prospects with the Harvard admissions office? Of course, these scenarios are absurd. And the idea that the coach would have withheld “extra playing time” from a talented player who did not pray, or that he would have lied in a letter of recommendation about a player’s level of skill because that player would not pray, is equally absurd.
As a Jew who grew up in a working-class suburb composed mostly of the children of Catholic parents, I still react sharply to any imposition of Christianity on those who are not Christian. I have the memory of a few bloody noses (mine) to prove it. If this were 1964, the Supreme Court’s decision would have struck me as out of sync with a society that was slowly becoming more inclusive. But this is 2022, when religion acting as instrument of oppression and coercion and as moral pretext for immoral acts has been exposed and denounced in all its forms, even by religious authorities themselves. Institutionalized religion moved to the periphery of American culture and society decades ago; it no longer has the power to harm or exclude. On the contrary: the increasing inability of atomized, lonely people to find solace and humanity in an escape from ego, ego, ego is the true American emergency.