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Prayer Breakfast

 
Prayer Breakfast
 
BY  GREGORY BATESON   AND  GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN
 
I am an anthropologist. And the task of an anthropologist causes him to land himself in strange places. That is, places which are strange to him but of course not strange to the people who belong in those places. So, here I am at the Governor's Breakfast in what is for me a strange place but what is for many of you a place where you belong and have your natural being.  I am here to relate this strange place to other strange places in the world where men gather together perhaps in prayer, perhaps in celebration, perhaps simply to affirm that there is something bigger in the world than money and pocket knives and automobiles. One of the things children have to learn about prayer is that you do not pray for pocket knives. Some learn it and some don't.

If we're going to talk about such matters as prayer and religion, we need an example, a specimen, about which to talk.  The trouble, you see, is that words like "religion" and "prayer" get used in many different senses at different times and different parts of the world. And what I would ask you is for a moment's agreement that at least while I m speaking you understand that what I'm talking about Is that which is illustrated by the following example. A well-known anthropologist, Sol Tax, was working with a group of American Indians outside Iowa CitV some twenty or more years ago. They invited him to the National Convention of the Native American Church which was to be held quite close to Iowa City within a very few days. This is the church whose central sacrament IS peyote - the little psychedelic cactus button which helps to determine the religious state.  Now the church was under attack for using what would be called a drug; and it occurred to Sol Tax, the anthropologist that he would be helping these people if he made a film of the convention and of the very impressive rituals which would go with it. Such a film might serve as evidence that this worship is in fact religious and therefore entitled to the freedom which constitutionally this country grants to religion.  He therefore dashed to Chicago (his home base) and was able to get a movie truck and some technicians and a stock of film and cameras.  He told his people to wait in Iowa City while he went and talked to the Indians to get their approval of the project.  What I'm going to read you is a statement about the discussion which ensued between the anthropologist and the Indians.  (This account comes from a book called Man's Role In Changing The Face Of The Earth which was a conference symposium from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, published in 1956 [CATALOG p. 17].)

They could not picture themselves engaged in the very personal matter of prayer in front of a camera. As one after another expressed his views, pro and con, the tension heightened. To defile a single ritual to save the church became the stated issue, and none tried to avoid it.  Not a person argued that perhaps the church was not in as great danger as they thought.   

They seemed to accept the dilemma as posed as though they were acting out a Greek tragedy. As he [Sol Tax] sat in front of the room, together with the president of the church, and as he listened with fascination to the speeches, gradually the reaUzation came that they were choosing their integrity over their existence. Although these were the more politically oriented members of the church, they could not sacrifice a longed-for and a sacred night of prayer.   When everyone had spoken, the president
rose and said that, if the others wished to have the movie made, he had no objections; but then he begged to be excused from the ceremony. Of course, this ended any possibility for making the movie; the sense of the meeting viras clear.

There's a curious paradox in that story. That, indeed, the truly religious nature of the peyote sacrament is proven by the leaders' refusal to accept the pragmatic compromise of having their church validated by a method alien to the reverence in which they held it.

This example, however, does not define the word "religion." It only defines the hedging which is necessary to preserve religion from that changing of its context — that reframing which will turn it into the temporal and the secular. Perhaps only too easily into entertainment.

Let me give you another example to come a little closer to what I mean by religion. To show what is to be protected from various kinds of defilement. The following poem is probably well known to many of you.  It is part of the story of a ship in terrible straits. The decks are littered with corpses who have died of thirst and one sailor, the "Ancient Mariner," survives to tell the tale. This piece is the central fulcrum — the turning point of the whole poem.  I've always found it singularly moving.

The moving moon went up the sky. And no where did abide: Softly she was going up. And a star or two beside —

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,  
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship's huge shadow lay.
The charmed water burnt a way   
A still and awful red.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white.
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black.
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things!  no tongue   
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart.
And I blessed them unaware:   
Sure my kind saint took pity on me.
And 1 blessed them unaware.
 
The selfsame moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free The Albatross fell off, and sank Like lead into the sea.

Oh sleep!  it is a gentle thing. Beloved from pole to pole! To Mary Queen the praise be given! She sent the gentle sleep from, heaven. That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck.
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were tilled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

 Of course 1 am not suggesting that blessing the water snakes made the rain come. That would be another logic from another — more secular - language.  What I am suggesting Is that the nature of this matter which we are discussing — prayer, religion and the like — Is most evident at moments of change — at moments of what the Buddhists call Enlightenment.  And while Enlightenment may have many sorts of content, and while It may be triggered by many sorts of experience, I think it Important here where we are discussing religion as related to government to notice how often Enlightenment Is a sudden realization of the biological nature of the world in which we live.  It Is a sudden discovery or realization of LIFE.

Already the water snakes give us a hint of that.  And another example which is even more vivid — perhaps less familiar, alas — is the case of Job.

Job you will remember is like Little Jack Horner.  He sticks his finger in the pie and gives to the poor, and says, "What a good boy am I." He has a God who is exactly like himself and who therefore boasts to Satan about Job's virtue.  Satan Is perhaps the most real part of Job's person deep hidden and repressed within him and sets to work to demonstrate that Job's pietism is really no good.  Finally, after infinite sufferings a God who is much less pious and pedantic speaks out of the whirlwind and gives Job three chapters of the most extraordinary sermon ever written, which consists simply in telling him that he does not know any natural history.

KNOWEST thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
Canst thou number the months that they fulfil?  or knowest thou the time when they bring forth?
They bow themselves, they bring forth their young ones, they cast out their sorrows.
Their young ones are in good liking, ...
(Job XXXIX, 1-4)

In conclusion I would like to say that I would be much happier about the world in which 1 live, about how my civilization is going to treat that world — the sorts of pollution and exploitation It is going to engage in and all the rest of that — If I felt really sure that my governors and my representatives know how many months the hinds fulfil and how they bring forth their young, a
 
Response by Governor Brown

"Since I have been in Sacramento 1 find that everyone Is coming to government to find out what's going on. I have to ask myself where does government go to find out what's going on? I suppose we have come here this morning in recognition of the fact that all that we do across the street at the Capitol is dependent upon things and forces and a spirit which none of us control but all of us must respect.

"I remember when I first heard about this prayer breakfast. I was in the seminary about fifteen years ago and was horrified to learn that my father was going to pray with Protestants.  Since that time we've all come a long way.  I think we've all come a long way individually and collectively, because many of the apparent divisions that separate people and their ideas and their philosophies and their roles are not quite as different and separate as we thought.

"Even in this country of ours — as we enter our third hundred years — it is going to become more difficult and more imperative that we recognize that we're just a small part of a very large and diverse reality that none of us really Understands very well. 

And although we see our technology and our progress and our knowledge and our data and plans and our pretenses, I can't help but wonder how much we've progressed from former ages and those people who lived in this area before we even got here — and those people who'll come after us.

"I don't have a text today but if I did I might look to the Old Testament where It Is written that pride comes before a fall.  And also where it is said that past glory leads to present weakness.  I think we have to walk with humility.  1 think we have to realize that our technology can only take us so far; that our government can only give us so much; that all of us are connected and dependent on one another; and that the apparent divisions in our country and throughout this globe are just that, apparent.  And ultimately, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we'll come to see that we all depend on one another; and this planet and Its water. Its air and the fruits of its soil must continue not only in this generation but for those who succeed it.

"There's a Spanish philosopher who said that patriotism is not so much protecting the land of our fathers as it Is preserving the land of our children.  I could ask nothing more for this state and this country and this planet."