Gomes: Prayer at Harvard Is a 'Valid Expression'


To the Editors of The Crimson:

You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the parying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. --T.S. Eliot   "Little Gidding I"

Perhaps I ought to leave well enough alone and not attempt a reply to Jendi B. Reiter's piece on my prayer at the president's installation, but to allow her assumptions about my assumptions to go unaddressed is to deprive myself of the opportunity to give the speech she wishes I had given in place of the prayer.

I would have loved to give a speech, but I wasn't asked to do that. I was asked to pray. The argument against that from of speech seems to run something like this: If no prayer is appropriate, then any prayer is offensive. On that score, there then is no way in which I or anyone else could satisfy the writer's concern.

But, it seems, if there must be prayer, it must be on her terms, designed to conform to what she thinks the appropriate boundaries are: The only acceptable prayer is that which comes from no particular place or person, is addressed to no particular place or person and is uttered by someone without any visible convictions.


Under these terms, I agree no prayer is better than such a prayer. All prayer worthy of the name is specific--from someone to someone about someone or something. Generic prayer is not prayer but platitude, and we need no more of these.

I reply to but three of the stated concerns: first, the appropriateness of any prayer at all; second, the inclusion of all others under the rubric of "Christian" prayer; third, the desire for non-sectarian prayer.

In the first case, I believe that prayer on Harvard's public occasions is not merely the maintenance of tradition, although no president has ever been inaugurated nor any degree ever conferred without it.

And what's wrong with tradition? G.K. Chesterton, no Harvard Protestant but an English Catholic, once wrote that "tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around."

The tradition of public prayer at Harvard is an old one, but it is not maintained merely because it is old: it is maintained because it is a valid expression of our spiritual ambition. Even Harvard has not yet reached the state where it thinks itself beyond the assistance of Prayer.

Who knows, as the modern Pascal might say, it may not work--but are we prepared to take the risk? I happen to believe that prayer on such occasions as this invites a sense of appropriate institutional modesty and places the occasion in the largest possible context: the mind of God.

For just such reasons our predecessors found prayer a useful enterprise against the institutional cheerleading and the innate hubris of the academy.

In the prayer in question I made no effort to make all the religions of the world fall under the rubric of Christian prayer. Quite the opposite, it was and remains my view that the prayer of a Christian falls under the rubric of a God larger than that of the Christian faith. Rather than subsume all others under my faith, I was attempting to include my faith within the largest possible context of address to God.

I made that effort, however, as a particular person, speaking out of a particular tradition and within an institution for which the language "Truth for Christ and The Church" is as much a part of its institutional identity as the more secularly fashionable "Veritas." The degrees, even for candidates in the Divinity School, are still granted under the Great Seal of the Corporation with its Latin formulation "veritas: Christo et Ecclesiae." I think the institution is strong enough to sustain these references to its formative motto.

In the third case, I appreciate the writer's concession that prayer on such occasions might be valid, although I confess to confusion as to what a non-sectarian prayer is. Is that a prayer that could not possibly give offense because it says nothing that anyone could believe or disbelieve?

Surely at least a minimal concession to the efficacy of prayer on such occasions must be that at least the person who prays it ought to be able to believe it. To allow for that is a small step toward that tolerance for which the writer presumably pleads and for which I pray, daily and on state occasions.   The Rev. Peter J. Gomes   Plummer Professor of Christian Morals