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By George Elder, 6/26/24

When referring briefly to the “Lord’s Prayer” in my last Post, I realized that I have written little about prayer. That is doubtless because prayer as it is usually understood—communicating with the Divine using words, spontaneously or according to a formula, silently or audibly, alone or in a group—has long lost its effectiveness for me. Indeed, the “power of prayer” is at a low level generally in our culture. We may hear the phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” but it is merely reassuring and not meant to be taken literally. A prayer might be said at the start of a public meeting, but not everyone is paying attention.

The problem seems to be that prayers aren’t being heard by the Divine. When did you last receive an answer to prayer? If not recently, then the prayer was a monologue—a one-way attempt to communicate with God. Even Jesus’ prayers in the Bible are monologues: “Why have you forsaken me?” No answer.

Today, of course, one can hardly expect an answer from God—when belief in the existence of a supernatural, transcendent Being has also ebbed.

Historically, however, prayer has been at the center of the religious life. As Friederich Schleiermacher, an important theologian of the nineteenth century, put it: “To be a religious man and to pray are really one and the same thing.” (“Prayer,” Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan) Socrates agreed to a philosophical discussion “after duly calling upon the gods.” To which Timaeus added: “at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God.” (Timaeus 27)  

Islamic ṣalāt (Arabic, “prayer, worship, hallowing”) is a striking example of prayer going beyond words—toward action, i.e, symbolic action or ritual. Called to prayer before sunrise (“prayer is better than sleep”), Muslims pray also shortly after noon, late afternoon, before sunset, and at night. They do not pray at exactly sunrise, noon, or sunset, lest it appear that the sun—rather than the Invisible One—is being worshipped (unlike the “Sunrise” tradition of Hinduism and even Christianity).

Yet Allāh is somehow Present in a cube-shaped shrine at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. So Muslims pray not only at certain sacred times but also in the sacred direction of the Ka’bah (“cube”). They do so according to a cycle of prescribed gestures: standing, bowing, prostrating, kneeling, repeated at least twice.

It is easy to see prayerful ritual leading to the idea that all nonverbal behavior can be prayerful—provided one has the right religious attitude, no matter what one is doing. In this way, one can actually “pray without ceasing,” as Paul exhorted in a letter (I Thessalonians 5:17)  

Jung wrote in his own Letters, “If we believe, then any discussion about prayer is superfluous because it is self-evident. But if we don’t believe, it seems to me pointless to talk about prayer” (I.216) Indeed, most of his patients could not “believe” in a metaphysical Divinity that the traditions of prayer assume.

Yet Jung also wrote in a letter:

I have thought much about prayer. It—prayer—is very necessary because it makes the Beyond we conjecture and think about an immediate reality, and transposes us into the duality of the ego and the dark Other. (I.338)

Here, he is referring not to the metaphysical Other but to the dark other side of the psyche, the collective unconscious where the “God within” can be found—even by a modern person. And with that divinity it is “very necessary” to maintain communication in order to live well, to be whole.

Obviously, this is a private communication and not one ritually prescribed. Nor is it a monologue but a dialogue between ego and Self: the ego asking for help from the archetypal psyche, the archetypes needing ego consciousness in order to be realized in everyday life. Jung valued the alchemist’s short prayer: “Help me, that I may help you.” (II.120)

For this new form of prayer, a new method is required. Jung called it “active imagination”—whereby one engages the unconscious in fantasy:

One concentrates one’s attention on some impressive but unintelligible dream-image, or on a spontaneous visual impression, and observes the changes taking place in it. Meanwhile, of course, all criticism must be suspended and the happenings observed and noted with absolute objectivity. Obviously, too, the objection that the whole thing is “arbitrary” or “thought up” must be set aside . . . . Drawing, painting, and modelling can be used to the same end. . . . it can easily pass over into the auditive or linguistic sphere and give rise to dialogues and the like. (CW 9i, par. 319-320)  

In other words, one can actually learn to “talk with God.” But if one never hears anything unexpected or is never criticized or told to do something one does not want to do, this new way of praying is just fantasy—and not active imagination.

Marie Louise von Franz has written two very helpful essays on this subject found in the collection, Psychotherapy (Shambhala). She shows how active imagination is a “dialogue” with the unconscious not only in fantasy but in actions—writing down one’s dreams, drawing significant images, keeping a journal of reflections, etc. She says we should do these things to the best of our ability since we are dealing with sacred energies. They are, after all, acts of prayer.

With these thoughts in mind, let us turn to the “Lord’s Prayer” as taught by Jesus to his disciples who wanted to know how to pray. A short version is found in the Gospel of Luke, but the longer one—in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13)—is probably older and has become the standard source. I will use the King James Version since it contains classic English phrases.

“Our Father which art in heaven / Hallowed be thy name.”

This is the so-called first petition, showing us that the Christian God is imaged as a good “Father”—making us his “children” (but without a “Mother”). He is in “heaven,” i.e., the sky as a sacred place and as far away from “earth” as possible. That is because two thousand years ago, consciousness had to be encouraged to distance itself from the involuntary instinctual side of life (symbolically, from "Mother Earth”) to establish a sturdy ego and sufficient will power. That is changing now, and “depth” psychology points to what is sacred in the opposite direction.

In the Ancient Near East, the “name” of a divinity was very important since knowing it allowed one to “hallow” or worship correctly. We, of course, have to find the “name” that functions for us as individuals. Our dreams help, but so does active imagination.

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”

These are the second and third petitions. God is now a “king”—supreme Authority—and we are his “subjects.” That repeats the motif that the ego’s power is inferior to that of the Self. And it is true that an ignorant or inflated ego needs to subordinate its will to the Greater Will.

The risk, however, is religious passivity. Dialogue with deity requires an adult position of one’s own (“Yes, you want me to do that, but let me explain what it is like out here in the real world.”) Jung said his motto was, “Deus et homo.” He emphasized the "and."

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

This fourth petition is controversial because it contains a word that appears only in the Lord’s Prayer of the New Testament. The word is epiousion, translated here as “daily,” but no one knows exactly what it means in any other context. Perhaps it means only what we need for now, “this day,” rather than every day as implied by “daily.”

St. Jerome thought it meant supersubstantialem in Latin when he was translating from the Greek. That led him to thoughts of the Eucharist, the “supernatural” Bread and Wine, that allows Christians to assimilate the Body and Blood of their Savior.


Jerome’s solution is doubtful, but Jung liked it—since it led away from prayer for “bread” as food and other material things toward “spiritual” nourishment. As he put it: “Physical hunger needs a real meal, and spiritual hunger needs a numinous content”—i.e., symbols from the archetypal psyche, full of energy for a meaningful existence. (CW 10, par. 652)

Edinger comments: “I think prayer, psychologically understood, is active imagination. It is not a request for anything specific. It is a request that the unconscious reveal itself with an image of some kind, which can then lead to a dialogue” (New God-Image, 97)

I agree that I should not have prayed for a bicycle as a boy (I didn’t get it) and Janis Joplin should not be praying for a Mercedes Benz (her song a delightful parody). But I think it is legitimate if you are in bed with Covid to imagine Asklepios in the room and to ask him to help keep the symptoms mild and not long-lasting. And if this ancient Greek god should respond, in imagination, by touching you with his staff or allowing you to touch his healing serpent . . . so much the better.

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

This fifth petition in Matthew sounds financial, so Luke changed “debts” to “sins.” Others have suggested “trespasses.” Whatever the words, Christians have long understood the meaning to be that we owe God attention and loyalty—but don’t give it. We prefer, instead, to trust our own plans without taking into account the Other side of the psyche. We forget to “pray” . . . until the attempt to go it alone fails.

Amazingly, the unconscious is willing to “forgive” when we get back on track.

Jesus says there are consequences, namely, that what we learn in our relationship with the unconscious should be applied to our relationship with other persons. We should “forgive our debtors,” i.e., their forgetting to take ourselves into account. Indeed, von Franz has written that relationship with others “is the social problem of our time, par excellence.”  (Golden Ass, 171)

 “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

These, then, are the sixth and seventh petitions that end the Lord’s Prayer. Although there is an additional verse in Matthew—“For thine is the kingdom, etc.”—it was added by the early Church and not what Jesus taught his disciples. Moreover, this “doxology” ignores what we have already discussed: that suddenly the image of God is no longer positive (a “Father,” a “King”) and instead a “Tempter,” like Satan himself. 

In his New Testament epistle, James vigorously disagrees:

Never, when you have been tempted, say, “God sent the temptation;” God cannot be tempted to do anything wrong, and he does not tempt anybody. Everyone who is tempted is attracted and seduced by his own wrong desire. (James, 1:13-14)

As we noted in the previous Post, Jung says that view of Deity blames the “human” ego too much and does not acknowledge how dangerous the “divine” unconscious forces can be—especially when ignored. It does not explain the scale of Evil in human history.

Nor was it Jesus’ own experience. He was “led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matt. 4:1-11) The Jerusalem Bible admits in a note, “The Holy Spirit: The temptation was therefore willed by God.”  And what were these temptations? To turn stones into bread for a meal, to force providence by throwing himself off a high place, and to solve the political problem of Roman occupation by gaining all the kingdoms of the world. This is materialistic, externalistic religion. Jesus resisted. So should we.   


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