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Thinking Out Loud

What Do You Wear When You Pray?

by Michael Jinkins | May 05, 2015

What do you wearRecently Jay Warthen, a two-time alum (1977 and 1985) of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, sent me the following quote from Mark Twain in response to a blog I had posted. The quote is from Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

“I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a [person] is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and besides I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought.”

This is a great quote from one of America’s most original thinkers, and a quote that proves conclusively that if Twain understood himself to be an agnostic, he was certainly a Protestant agnostic.

Among the several ideas Twain presents in this tightly packed paragraph, the one I want us to focus on today is the way in which our religious beliefs fit us like the clothes we wear. I’ll wager we have all met people who wore the beliefs handed down by their parents like an ill-fitting suit of clothes until one day they suddenly seem to realize, “Wow, this heavy wool three-piece tweed thing may have worked for my great-great-grandfather, but it just isn’t me!” The next time you see this person at prayer, they’re worshipping in something that fits them better. It can go the other way too, of course. Someone may have been seen for years trying on first this spiritual costume and then another, only to realize that the dress her mother wore to worship fit exactly right all along, though she needed to take it in here and there and raise the hem.

I’ve simply quit trying to figure out what makes faith fit the person, but I suspect that much of fitness is reflected in Anne Lamott’s reflection that “All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things.”

One of my all-time favorite books is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (originally published in 1902 after having been presented as the Gifford Lectures in Scotland). Martin Marty referred to James, in the Penguin edition of this classic this way: James “seems at times to be someone who has come to believe in believing, and lets it go at that; to be a voyeur of experiencers, and then let them go their way.”1 This is probably true, provided we also realize that at least one of the experiencers of believing on whom William James reports in his book is none other than William James himself.

What I find in James is something toward which I hope we all aspire: a generosity of spirit to listen to other people’s descriptions of their spiritual lives on their own terms. William James was helped in doing this because of his own largeness of spirit and his natural curiosity. I hope that the motivation for my own desire to do this is a generosity of spirit helped along with a belief that God is up to far more in this world than I can possibly ever imagine. No matter what any of our creeds may confess (and some of our creeds are far more generous on this point than some of us), God is not bound to meet humanity according to our rules; so it only makes sense that God meets others in ways that are appropriate to their cultures and societies and tribes.

A few years ago, I was visiting with a rabbi friend. He had recently returned from a trip to Mongolia. While there, he stayed with a Mongolian family. One evening the father in this family asked my friend a question: “What apparel do you wear when you pray?” My friend was delighted by the question, and he showed his host his prayer shawl. The man admiringly examined the shawl and showed my friend the clothes he put on to pray.

I suppose we could push Mark Twain’s figure of speech to the point where it would no longer be helpful. But taken lightly, it may be not only interesting but also potentially revealing. And it is even more interesting and potentially revealing today when there are folks who find it necessary to put on the spiritual garments (metaphorically speaking) of two or three faith traditions in order to adequately bear witness to God as God has met them. There are varieties of religious experience because God has blessed creation with the gift of variety.


1Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Classics, 1982), xxvi.

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