Why do we pray in public? When and where is public prayer inappropriate? Are there too many restrictions on public prayer? Too few?
The dancer Manjari Chaturvedi has characterized the dancing she does as prayer. “I see my dance as a prayer,” she told the Indian newspaper The Hindu in 2010. “When we use our tongue to say the Almighty’s name it is called a prayer with words, but when we use the entire body to speak about the Almighty, for me, that becomes a prayer too.” Were I even more obtuse than I am, I might ask if restrictions on public prayer would keep Chaturvedi’s dancing at the margins of public life.
I won’t ask that question. But, if we readily recognize the way that art—dance, song, poetry, painting, etc.—can be prayerful or prayer-like activity, does it not follow that prayer can be an artistic activity? How impoverished is the public sphere when we impose restrictions on the art that inhabits it? Perhaps the art that inhabits the public sphere should include prayer.
The problem, of course, is that too many pray-ers and too many non-pray-ers don’t think of prayer as art. Too often, pray-ers and non-pray-ers alike think of prayer as a formula or an incantation, and, consequently, too often prayers sound just that way. Justifiably, non-pray-ers (and plenty of pray-ers, too) resent the condescending implications of someone’s formula or incantation cast over public life. We don’t want the government to prescribe a particular religion or impose some particular modes of worship on us, or, most of us don’t, which is why we continue to argue over prayer in public life.
But, in the same way that dance can be a prayer, prayer can be a dance. In the same way that public dance can enliven and ennoble our communities, surely prayer can dignify and inspire public life. One needn’t accept a Muslim concept of God to appreciate Chaturvedi’s Sufi-inspired version of Kathak dance. One needn’t ‘believe’ in God at all to feel the existential melancholy of the “Kyrie Eleison” rendered in Melismatic chant. Our public sphere might be more sublime if we worked harder to fill it with such art. And our public life might be more lovely if that art included more prayers—in parks, at basketball games, in government buildings, even in schools—that work harder than they usually do to dignify human experience.