Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jean-Louis Chrétien on Prayer, Second Installment

This is part two of my projected series of indefinite length on Jean-Louis Chrétien's analysis of prayer. To recap, Chrétien is a young French phenomenologist, theologian, and poet whose work remains largely untranslated, and whose exposure to the American academic world is therefore fairly slight. Even the European students in our program do not often recognize his name. My professors, however, have spoken of him in hushed tones of reverence and with restrained enthusiasm (too much would be unbecoming for a professional academic, of course). Chrétien's French is quite beautiful, I have been told; fortunately for me, much of the beauty survives in his English translations, miraculously.

The man himself. 

Chrétien is rumored to live quite the hermitic life. Writing in isolation on a typewriter utterly devoid of affectation, in what I fancifully imagine to be a secluded French country house filled to the rafters with books, Chrétien only set up an email address at the urgent request of his publisher after his unreachability very nearly drove his literary agent off the deep end.

But while Chrétien seems to seclude himself from living humans, his work is bursting with connections that he sketches between representatives of far-flung intellectual eras and traditions. Most of his interlocutors are long dead. Their dusted insights help propel a search that has guided his entire philosophical career so far; in a retrospective millennial essay surveying his work over the preceding decade, he states that his overarching goal has been to describe the "excess of the encounter with things, other, world, and God"—an encounter that "requires, most imperatively, our response, and yet seems at the same time to prohibit it." ("Retrospection" in Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Unforgettable and the Unhoped-For (New York: Forham University Press, 2002), 121.)

Before moving on to the analysis of prayer, a brief note on the meaning of the above quotation: "excess" here may be roughly understood to mean a surplus of content that defies our attempts at grasping it through our understanding. Excess is frequently associated with the experience of the sublime, which leaves a person speechless, awe-struck, overcome. Another site of excess would be an encounter with God (theophany), which cannot but overwhelm a finite subject. Chrétien, then, has sought to reveal this surplus as something that leaves traces in even the most common experiences of wholly unexceptional things. In his perspective, something has pushed us to lose sight of this basic dimension of excess, but it remains, for those who are willing to "relearn to see the world."

* * *

The essay "The Wounded Word" appears in translation as a part of the previously mentioned collection entitled Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn": the French Debate by Dominique Janicaud et al (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000). I now wish to start exploring the development of Chrétien's analysis, in the hope of eventually teasing out a viable account of the essence of the act of prayer.

A bold statement opens the piece: "Prayer is the religious phenomenon par excellence, for it is the sole human act that opens the religious dimension and never ceases to underwrite, to support, and to suffer this opening" (p147, all page references are to Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn"). Prayer is our mode of access to the religious dimension. How can this be? Aren't there other aspects of religious life that do not begin and end in prayer, that are essentially different from it? Perhaps—but, as Chrétien points out, "[i]f we were unable to address our speech to God or the gods, no other act could intend the divine." Therefore, he writes, "[w]ith prayer, the religious appears and disappears."

Now Chrétien is clearly writing about prayer, but he is also working here to locate his piece within the philosophical context described in the first installment of this series. An analysis of the paradigmatic religious phenomenon, if sufficiently rigorous and methodologically pure, could open up the world of religious experience for legitimate phenomenological investigation. This, I have to believe, is one of Chrétien's goals—to demonstrate that such a phenomenology is possible.

But back to prayer. Chrétien wishes to write a paper rather than a book, and this requires him to impose a limitation on his analysis right from the get go. Prayer, he says, will be considered as a "speech act," loosely understood—but this isn't just an arbitrary narrowing of the field of play. Chrétien actually thinks that the vocal aspect of prayer may get to its very essence, as immediately after introducing the "speech act" qualification, he proposes a guiding question for the rest of the piece: "[i]s vocal prayer merely one form of prayer among others, or is it the prayer par excellence, the sole one in relation to which all others can be defined and constituted, either by derivation or privation?" (149). This question is so detailed as to be mostly rhetorical, an anticipatory statement spoken with an upward intonation at the end so as not to appear too confident. But even if it were a more sincere question, we may still expect the vocal aspect to play a salient role in limning the essence of prayer. Chrétien's treatment of silence is particularly compelling to watch as the argument unfolds.

With the main points of the introduction behind us, we are on our way to being knee-deep in the lake of Chrétien's analysis. Seeing as his essay is very dense and runs to almost forty pages, I intend to save most of his arguments and insights for future installments. But I will close this post with the first descriptive element disclosed by this phenomenology: prayer is situated, Chrétien writes,
in an act of presence to the invisible. It is the act by which the man praying stands in the presence of a being in which he believes but does not see and manifests himself to it. 
 - "The Wounded Word," 149. 
So prayer is embedded in a person's act whereby she purposefully makes herself present to a being that she believes in, although she does not see it; she believes herself to be in this being's presence, and "manifests" herself to it. We could also say that she discloses herself to this being, that she wills herself to "be" before it. The monotheistic belief in the omniscience of God illuminates an important aspect of this move: though a praying person may believe herself to always be in the sight or presence of God, in prayer she intentionally directs herself towards God, as though to meet his invisible gaze, and willfully presents herself to him.

This self-manifestation to the invisible leaves the praying person in a state of extreme vulnerability; everything is given and nothing is held back. The preparations of ritual cleanings, the use of certain garments, bodily gestures and movements of all kinds—all of these, Chrétien writes, "can be gathered together in a summoned appearance that incarnates the act of presence" (150, emphasis mine). Incarnates the act of presence—what could that mean? Well, venturing one interpretation, it means this: our presentation of ourselves to the invisible being to which we pray is actually embodied in the physical acts of prayer. When we kneel, light candles, don vestments, doff our caps, and so forth, we are symbolizing our self-presentation to the divine, and in a way, effecting it.

This is why bodily or ritualistic actions symbolize rather than signify the act of presence: because the gestures and acts are unified with the central act of self-manifestation, and bring it to "incarnation," as it were, allowing this act of self-manifestation to involve the whole of the person praying. Prayer is not just an offering of an idea or a thought or a plea to God, in this account; Chrétien wishes instead to say that prayer is the offering of our whole selves to God.

* * *

And that brings us about a tenth of the way into the essay. Almost all of the riches are still ahead for us. Anyway, thanks for reading! I hope you return for installment three. By then we should really be cooking with gas. 


  1. Neat! I don't really have anything intelligent to offer in the way of conversation, but I did have a question. Does Chretien (or you, in your examination of his essay) ever address the sacraments at all? I'm wondering how some doctrinal approaches to baptism and the Eucharist jibe with the assertion that "bodily or ritualistic actions symbolize rather than signify the act of presence."

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kevin! With regards to your question, Chrétien does address the sacraments at least obliquely; since he's attempting a phenomenology of prayer, they enter consideration only insofar as they facilitate the "incarnation" of the act of presence—which, in his analysis, has to do with the subject's intentional self-manifestation to the invisible being to which/whom he prays.

      Since the analysis is meant to tease out the universal essence of prayer (debatable whether it's possible, or whether he succeeds), differences in doctrinal approaches to e.g. the sacraments are beyond his scope. It would be interesting, though, to see how different theologies interface with his claims about the experience of prayer.

      Also, I've recently picked up a lot of traffic from your blog! Thanks for putting me in your sidebar (and, more importantly, for the quality of the material you put up on your blog).

  2. I find this subject fascinating, Marty. I am looking forward to the third installment.

    1. Thanks Leanna! I intend to deliver installment number three within a few days. Hopefully we'll cover much more ground than we were able to for this post (i.e., more than three pages of the text), although the essay is so rich and deep and replete with references, it would feel wrong to work through it much faster. Thanks again for reading -

  3. Waving to Martyn to show him that I really am rooting back through the blog!

    Just paused here to say that I'd really like to see some bits of the poetry... Never heard of this writer. Perhaps in another post I'll find more.

    1. Hallo Marly!

      Thanks a ton for all the comments—you have become one of the most thoughtful and detailed commenters to grace my blog, and with how infrequently people stop to remark on anything, I really appreciate it.

      Chrétien's poetry exists only in French, I'm afraid, but if you do happen to speak or read it, his wikipedia page may be of some use in tracking down a volume or two:


    2. He is not young by the way. That is not a picture of him... He would be of a similar age of Jean-Yves Lacoste and Jean-Luc Marion, who are both in their 60s.

    3. Yes you're right. It's my professor ; he's not young and he doesn't look like that. The man on the picture is Patrick Kéchichian.
      Here you can found his portrait http://www.academie-francaise.fr/sites/academie-francaise.fr/files/styles/medium/public/chretien.jpg?itok=qlwZ3ado

    4. Hi, all,

      Thanks for your comments! I have since updated the post with a correct picture. I appreciate your pointing out my error.