Prayer: The Other Curve
Do you have eyes, and fail to see?
Do you have ears, and fail to hear? – Mark 8:18
The old theologian spent his declining years in a one-room apartment in Flushing, Queens. When I received the invitation to his funeral, I drove down into New York from my home in Western Massachusetts, parked uptown, and jumped on the train. Though decades had passed since I’d fled the city, the downtown local was still the same. The flickering fluorescent-lit cars rushing headlong through stretches of grimy darkness … station stops plotting a descent into the heart of midtown. My urban instincts kicked in. That is to say, I zoned out.
At Times Square I switched to the number 7 train. Rent is cheaper out in Queens; the number 7 is a tin can filled with the threadbare aspirations of tired immigrants. The clatter of the tracks seems to be their ode – an Emma Lazarus remix: Bring me your tired, your poor … your Eritrean cabbie sleeping off the dregs of his night shift … your Cuban gentleman in the fading shirtsleeves of his exile … your Haitian healthcare worker … yearning to breathe free. Send these the tempest-tossed … to the pullman kitchens and walk-up tenements of Flushing.
A Teeming Sight
After Hunters Point the train leaves the tunnel and crawls up onto the elevated track. The subway car fills with a long draught of early afternoon light. In the gaps between the buildings the East River opens out, revealing a wide swath of the Manhattan skyline on the far shore. Barges inch up the waterway, planes circle, a ceaseless stream of cars course up and down FDR Drive. It is an impossible vista, a monumental sight that struggles to contain its portion of teeming humanity.
I want to share it with those around me. I want others to bear witness.
The scales fall from my eyes. In that moment I see that everyone is carrying a device. I appear to be the only conscious person in the subway car that is not looking into a screen. Every face is curved into an attitude of submission to their phones.
Centuries ago, in his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther speculated on the nature of human sin. Humanity, he wrote, is:
curved in upon himself to such an extent that he bends not only physical but also spiritual goods toward himself, seeking himself in all things. Now this curvedness … is a natural defect and a natural evil. Hence, man gets no help from the powers of his nature, but he is in need of some more effective help from the outside.1 Incurvatus in se. Curved in on self.
Luther reserved his deepest frowns for the sin of hubris. Standing on Augustine’s shoulders, he refined it by making it physical, by giving us the image of a person so hunched as to be incapable of looking up, insensible to surroundings, numb to any possibility of wonder outside the self-referential. The sin, for him, is our intention to usurp the rightful place of God. But even as Luther condemned this spiritual myopia, he conceded that it’s hard to defeat. “This curvedness,” he said, “is a natural defect.” We are naturally enamored with our everpresent, fearsomely impressive, inexhaustibly fascinating selves.
Yet I can’t help wondering, as I consult my iPhone, whether Luther himself might not temper his righteous pique if he could only check out this dazzling doohickey. I wonder if he would have been able to resist. Luther could not have anticipated the ubiquity of the funny cat video, the incessant barrage of the Twitter feed, the infectious joy of carpool karaoke. If being intoxicated with our own ingenuity is a sin, we are helplessly awash in its baleful light.
The theologian’s funeral was in a red-brick church on Roosevelt Avenue. Back in the 1970s he and my late father shared an office at Trinity College in Singapore. His sons were my first playmates.
As my friends, now middle-aged, eulogized their father, my mind wandered back to the Singapore of our youth. I remembered the crew of Malay guys we ran with, how we used to knock mangoes from the trees with long bamboo poles, and how, during the monsoon season, the short violent bursts of afternoon rain were our time of wonder. When our parents were sure not to be looking, we sat in the deep monsoon gutters by the roadside, and let the gathering water push us down the hill.
At length, the funeral’s presiding minister called us to join him in prayer. As every head bowed, I saw it again – the curve. The posture of prayer looked startlingly similar to the attitudes of submission I’d seen on the train.
The Hegemony of Cool
In the Information Age, our data-hungry incurvatus appears to be less a moral hazard than our natural a state of being. I’ve heard tell of infants who learn to swipe before they learn to make eye contact with their parents. My pre-teen boys plug in before they get out of bed in the morning. Middle schoolers measure their self-worth by the capricious gauge of social media “likes.” We have shown no willingness to question the hegemony of cool.
In all this Martin Luther was prescient – we are becoming Homo Incurvatus, a new creature who cheerfully forsakes intention and free will in favor of the screen’s next captivating banality. This in-curving is not just a social concern, it’s a spiritual one.
What, then, is the response of the spirit? Luther’s words resound across the gulf of five centuries. We are “in need of some more effective help from the outside.” Prayer depends on the possibility of something beyond self. It moves outward toward mystery and wonder. It is Theodore Parker’s long arc, bending towards justice. Prayer is the other curve.
Simply by virtue of being alive we are in the presence of ultimate value: the love of neighbor, the health of creation. But to be fully alive we must be attentive to the wonder these things bestow: to know love, taste mango, grow old together, watch barn swallows sweep the evening on.
Gracious God, help us to realize Christ’s promise. Give us eyes to see, and ears to hear. Amen.
The Rev. Mark Koyama ’15 M.Div. is minister of United Church of Jaffrey in Jaffrey, NH. His degrees include an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Union Theological Seminary (1994) and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (2010).
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, edited by Wilhelm Pauck, The Library of Christian Classics (Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 218-219.