The human species is distinctive in at least three ways, said poet W. H. Auden. We are the only animals who work, laugh, and pray. I have found that Auden’s list provides a neat framework for self-reflection.
At work, Christians unabashedly excel. Our forefathers invented the Protestant ethic, after all. We value the work ethic so highly, in fact, that we let it gobble everything in sight. Our churches run like corporations, our quiet time fit into a Day-Timer schedule(ideally on computer software), our pastors maintain the hectic pace of Japanese executives. Work has become for Christians the only sanctioned addiction.
The art of prayer we should have mastered by now, but I have my doubts. It is tempting to turn prayer into another form of work, which may explain why prayers in most churches consist mainly of intercession. All too rarely do we get around to listening.
I’ve notice that biblical prayers (as seen,for example, in the psalms) tend to be wandering, repetitive, and unstructured–closer in form to the conversation you might hear in a barber shop than a shopping list. I am learning about such prayer from the Catholics, who have a better grasp on prayer as an act of worship. Oddly, for those who do it all day –Thomas Merton, Macrina Wiederkehr, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Teresa of Avila–prayer seems less like a chore and more like a never-ending conversation.
In laughter, the third leg of Auden’s triad, Christians trail behind the rest of the world. Christians have a great advantage over other people, C. S. Lewis wrote: not by being less fallen creatures in a fallen world. For this reason, I think we dare not forget how to laugh at ourselves. One can only parody what one respects, just as one can only blaspheme if one believes.
It occurs to me, in fact, that laughter has much in common with prayer. In both acts, we stand on equal ground, freely acknowledging ourselves as fallen creatures. We take ourselves less seriously. We think of our creatureliness. Work divides and ranks; laughter and prayer unite.