Winter 1988, Vol.40 No. 4, pp. 308-319.

Emma Shackle:
      Prayer Landscapes and the Nature of Illusion

Where people pray bears on how they pray, and the world of art provides clues for fathoming the nature and art of praying.

Emma Shackle lives in London and teaches psychology at the Westminster Diocesan Seminary and also at Plater College, Oxford. Her previous book, Christian Mysticism, was published in the U.S. by Clergy Book Services. A new work, The Psychology of Prayer, written with L. B. Brown, will be published by the Religious Education Press, Birmingham, AL.

WHEN I was a child I left Aberdeen on the river Dee and went to live in Jerusalem. The one thing that both cities had in common was the clarity and intensity of the light.

Many Christian pilgrims visited Jerusalem. On Friday, September 4th,1953, Iñigo de Loyola (later St. Ignatius) and his companions first saw Jerusalem from afar. The company had risen at dawn and ridden the better part of eight miles when, to quote his words,

A noble Spaniard, Diego Manes, speaking with much devotion, told all the pilgrims that, as soon as we came in sight of the Holy City, it would be a good thing if each man prepared his conscience, keeping silence from then on. All approved of this suggestion and each began to recollect himself; and a little way before coming to the spot from which we could get a view of Jerusalem, we saw two Friars with a cross awaiting us. (1)
Two friars, followers of St. Francis, the cross, and the bright light of the autumn season. These were the frame of that joy "beyond all other they had ever known" experienced by Iñigo and his companions as they looked across the valley to the holy city. Migo had dreamed of making this pilgrimage ever since he lay on the weary sick-bed of his conversion and imagined himself walking barefoot to Jerusalem.

That was Iñigo's Jerusalem. But there are an infinite number of Jerusalems. My childhood Jerusalem was full of that tensionladen atmosphere that precedes war. But that did not stop me being cast as the angel Gabriel in the school play or climbing in the grove of olive trees near our house. Like many others, I left my home in Jerusalem for exile in another country.

Perhaps this is why another incident many years later made such an impression on me. We arrived in Srinagar airport in Kashmir on a day of riots. We took a taxi into Srinagar with two German fellow travelers. The atmosphere was menacing and it was clear that we would be in danger if we continued on the main road. So, we were taken to a houseboat run by a fatherly Muslim. There were two large oil paintings of Christian religious subjects adorning the main room of his boat. One turned from an Italian Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane to a view through the window of the rioters advancing purposefully over the bridge on their way to burn down buildings with European connections on the other side of the river. Safe in our ark where our host normally catered for holidaying missionaries, we relaxed after a tense day. Later, we went by stealth to a safer place.

It seemed, then, no accident that Jesus is buried in Srinagar. According to Muslim legend he did not die on the cross, but lived to a ripe old age in the beautiful vale of Kashmir. His reputed tomb is in the old city. Surely his spirit lived on in our Muslim host.

So where can Jerusalem be located? In what space does Jerusalem exist? Are our Jerusalems illusion or reality? It is easy to imagine an atlas of prayer geography where Jerusalem would feature with Mecca and Medina, Mount Carmel and Benares, Glastonbury and Chartres, to name but a few of the cities most eligible for inclusion.


The concept of illusion has been seminal in both the psychology of religion and in psychoanalysis since Freud wrote his Future of an Illusion in 1927. D. W. Winnicott reinterpreted "illusion" and put a higher value on it than Freud, seeing it indeed as the basis of human culture. André Godin, a psychologist of religion, still uses it in a Freudian way, while his co-Jesuit W. W. Meissner in his psychoanalytic work on religious experience takes into consideration Winnicott's construction of "illusion." Work on the "religious imagination" whether sociological, like that of Andrew Greeley, or more literary and philosophical, like John Coulson in his Religion and Imagination, represents just the tip of the iceberg of a paradigm shift of understanding religion in terms of story rather than creed. For instance, Paul Pruyser has distinguished the illusionistic world from the autistic and realistic worlds. He is also interested in the relation of art theory to the psychology of religion. It seems no accident that in pursuance of a brief and superficial search for the available iconography of prayer in three major London galleries, I came across a book by the art critic Peter Fuller called Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions.(2)

What I have to say is unlikely to be original except for the fact that it focuses on prayer. Any essay of this sort is Proustian in form: one memory leads to another. Do I move on to an account of the fruits of my research on pictures of prayer? Or, do I start this essay where it began originally, with my Proustian moment when buying prayer beads in an Arab shop in the West End?


Let me list first list the results of my foray on postcards concerned with prayer at both the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery did have some portraits of ecclesiastics -- John Wesley preaching, and Cardinal Manning sitting in ecclesiastical glory on his chair (John Henry Newman was sold out). But convention seems to proscribe them being seen or painted when at prayer, even public prayer. So I drew a blank on postcards at the National Portrait Gallery while picking up five from the National Gallery and four from the Tate.

First there was Thomas C. Gotch's "Alleluia" (1986), containing a group of one praying girl with her hands folded with a supporting cast of twelve other girls holding scrolls of music in their hands and singing. Dante Gabriel Rossetti obliges with a praying "Beata Beatrix;" her eyes closed and her hands open in petition on her lap: this is dated c.1860-70. Stanley Spencer's "The Resurrection," Cookham (1923-27), reminds us that outdoor representations of praying figures in Western Christian culture are most often found in cemeteries. Some of the figures are arising from their tombs in the posture of prayer in which they have been stuck for centuries. We have to move to a Catholic culture to find a representation of real people praying -- Mexican peasants seated in devotional postures around the bier of a wooden effigy of the dead Christ (Edward Burra, "Mexican Church" c. 1938).

None of these praying figures are as poignant or dramatic as Pablo Picasso's "La Suppliante" (1937, Musee Picasso, Paris), which I have had on display for the last two years. This woman stretches her hands up to heaven in a gesture of anguish and hope.

The National Gallery postcard collection furnished me with two Giovanni Bellinis, one Rembrandt, one El Greco, and one Sassoferrato. Sassoferrato (1609-1685) gives us "The Virgin in Prayer" with her eyes downcast and her head bowed. Rembrandt gives us a Franciscan monk cowled with his hands clasped. El Greco in "The Adoration of the Name of Jesus" includes Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory as well as members (all male) of the Church on earth. But it is in Bellini that we find prayer landscapes, landscapes where prayer can take place out-of-doors. His "The Madonna of the Meadow" is seated in a meadow with her baby fast asleep on her lap. She lifts her hands in prayer as she gazes at him. Behind her is a Tuscan landscape with a walled city, peasants and cattle, and a clouded yet sunny sky. Bellini's "The Agony in the Garden" shows Jesus kneeling on a little hill in a not dissimilar landscape, while the angel offers him the chalice from a blue yet cloudy sky. In the foreground, three disciples are sleeping, while in the background, the procession of soldiers let by Judas comes along the road towards the bridge over the stream which cuts the mount off from the surrounding landscape.

Here we have a picture of a man praying in an Italian landscape. Where is it actually possible to see landscapes with men praying?


Let us return to my purchase of prayer beads. The beads of Islam, sometimes known as "worry-beads," are used throughout the Muslim world. They are the ancestors of the Christian rosary. A full set can contain ninety-nine beads, each standing for one of- the ninety-nine names of Allah. This time I found shorter sets of thirty-three beads ending with two larger ones and tassels. They were distinguished by the fact that the inner core contained the names of Allah written in Arabic and that these could be seen through the green translucent outer covering. Prayer rugs were also available. Some of them were equipped with a compass so that the Muslim could safely orient himself in the direction of Mecca.

The shop assistant was holding a conversation in Arabic which was music to my ears. Her curiosity finally got the better of her. She observed that I always bought prayer beads every time I came into the shop and asked me why. The answer was that I was co-authoring a book on the psychology of prayer(3) and that I had been brought up in the Middle East. Where had I lived? Jerusalem and Baghdad. And memories flooded back, not only of Jerusalem and Baghdad, but of other cities of the Middle East and Indian sub-continent where I have also lived if only for a short time: Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Delhi, Kuwait, and Lahore.

The space that I remember best is that where the boundaries of city and cultivation meet, where buildings give way to irrigated channels and growing crops. Where the water stops and wilderness and desert begin. Over town, cultivation, and desert alike, the night sky and the crescent moon and bright stars form a roof over the entire universe. No one who has prayed in that outdoor cathedral can ever feel totally free from claustrophobia in the great cathedrals of sodden Britain.

The call to prayer rings out five times a day over city and village. European travellers constantly remark on the ease and lack of embarrassment with which working men stop and fulfill their obligation to pray. The only Christian parallel that springs to mind lies in those slightly sentimentalized nineteenth-century pictures of field workers stopping their work to pray when they hear the noon bell of the Angelus. But this is a piece of local and time-bound culture in comparison with the vast time-web of Islamic prayer.


Westerners these days see prayer as a very private activity. They reveal their "religious experiences" to researchers who come and knock on their doors because our culture knows that Gallup polls are a good thing. But once asked to put these experiences into words they need to use the stock of phrases and symbols that are culturally available to them. Many have less experience of the language of Christian prayer than of the language of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. Prayer language and prayer craft are globally available not only to travellers but to all inhabitants of large cities. The success of a religion is no longer measured in territorial but in pragmatic terms. If one type of language, ritual, or meditation does not seem right for us we can try out another type of language, ritual, or meditation. We can be religious or a-religious or anti-religious atheists. What, one might ask from another perspective, is God going to do this time about the Tower of Babel?

My childhood gave me only two religious cultures to grapple with, yet that was hard enough. Middle Eastern landscapes gave way to the Sussex countryside when I was uprooted from Baghdad and sent to a Catholic convent school in England. Our chapel had been the banqueting hall of the summer palace of the archbishops of Canterbury. Saint Dunstan had lived and worked in the forge on this site and had been tempted by the devil beside his sacred well. He had retaliated by grabbing the devil's nose with his tongs and sent him on his way to cool his nose in all the other waters of surrounding Sussex. They contain ferrous metals today as a result of this contact, but Saint Dunstan's well was full of sweet water: there was a certificate with an analysis of the chemical composition of the water pinned up by the wellhead. The chapel contained the Victorian tomb of the American foundress of the Holy Child nuns, Cornelia Connelly.

These were the furnishings of a self-conscious Catholic landscape in an England where the Roman Catholic hierarchy was restored only in 1850. Admittedly, it was an indoor landscape. But it was almost as rich as the Middle Eastern landscape and connected to it by subterranean labyrinths. We sang hymns about Jerusalem the golden and the hill far away outside the city wall (but within it the Jerusalem I had known). King Solomon's great prayer was read out on the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, then on March 7th, that same King Solomon who in popular Islamic iconography is portrayed with his court of men and djinns and the hoopoe bird who first brought him news of the Queen of Sheba. (The hoopoe is also the star of a famous Persian mystical poem by Farid ud-din Attar, The Conference of the Birds. Perhaps he bore some relation to the white dove who symbolized the Holy Spirit.) We even had the tomb of our own saint. Had I been further east in the Muslim world, I would have come across tombs of holy men where grace can be gained by true worshippers.

Cornelia Connelly's story provides an example of truth being stranger than fiction.(4) Born in Philadelphia in 1809, she married an Episcopalian clergyman, Pierce Connelly. He became convinced of the truth of the Roman Catholic faith and set off for Rome with his wife and two children. Cornelia was received into the Church in New Orleans but Pierce waited until he reached Rome. They returned to Louisiana to teach in a Catholic college. There, shortly after the tragic deaths of Cornelia's third and fourth children, Pierce told Cornelia that he had a vocation to the priesthood. This vocation could only be realized if Cornelia herself agreed to take religious vows. Cornelia, once again pregnant, gave her consent. Three years later both she and Pierce entered religious life in Rome. Cornelia's youngest son was near her with his nurse; the two older children were at school. By 1846 she was in England with her children, charged with the task of educating Catholic girls. By 1848 Pierce had abandoned his vocation and taken the three children to Italy. Cornelia decided to abide by her vocation. She never had a natural relationship with her children again.

Cornelia's history does not lose either its poignancy or its capacity to disturb. Her suffering and the use she made of it made her an educator of distinction on par with Miss Beale and Miss Buss. When the black madonna was placed in the lady chapel by her tomb and the church was stripped of its Victorian icing-cake finery, the atmosphere ceased to be that of a mausoleum. The spirit of a more compassionate Catholicism seemed to bring her peace.


There has been one simple question behind these explorations. Where do we actually see people praying? Where can we find a landscape with people praying? It seems unlikely that we will learn to pray unless at some point we share in a landscape with people praying.

Where are the places that people pray? They pray in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other sacred buildings. But the people who go into these buildings are likely to be connected with existing religious communities or guests of these communities. Tourists also come to sacred buildings not to pray, but to look. English cathedrals often put aside a chapel for prayer and make provision for the lighting of candles, a prayer act that belongs to many religions.

Sometimes the community who prays in the sacred building overflows out of it and processes in the town or village or goes on pilgrimage to a shrine. Sometimes we find a shrine within a private house or school or work-place. Civic ceremonies are a feature of life of some communities. I shall never forget the prayer which opened a rodeo in Texas: such a prelude would not be normal at a horse-show or race-meeting in Great Britain.

Cemeteries are places where there are praying figures. Tending the graves of one's ancestors is seen almost universally as a religious duty. The battlefield is another place where men pray and write poetry. Poetry and dance are natural expressions of prayer.

There is a book of fifty photographs called The Face of Prayer by Abraham Menashe(5) These photographs were taken in the United States, Mexico, Portugal, Israel, Singapore, and Bali. Unfortunately, Menashe did not visit the Islamic world and take pictures of the workman stopping his work in order to turn to prayer. Menashe's pictures range over pilgrims on their way to Fatima, worshipping by the Wailing Wall and in the Armenian church in Jerusalem, more worshippers in the Hindu settings of Singapore and Bali, and pictures of praying people in many settings and traditions in the United States. I should like to comment on three of these pictures.

The first is of the Balinese mother kneeling on the ground with her little son on her lap and her even younger daughter beside her. Her daughter has her hands palm to palm at the level of her forehead in the correct prayer gesture but the mother's hands are raising those of her son above his head. Here is a text for those who believe that we learn to pray through learning the body language of prayer.

The second shows a woman seated by a cross marking a grave in a cemetery in Mexico. She has lit two candles and strewn flowers on the grave and now, sunk in meditation, just sits by the grave. So also do the mourners on Good Friday in the Mexican Church picture by Rubbra sit by the ikon of the dead Christ.

Then there is the most Islamic picture, the picture of the back rather than the face of prayer. His carpet-bag beside him, the priest in his soutane on the way to Fatima kneels and says a prayer on the outskirts of a busy market. Here is a landscape where prayer and work can co-exist and strengthen one another.

There are many ways of reading the gospel. I have long ago concluded that someone who was bred if not born in the Middle East cannot read it in the same way someone born and bred in England. Perhaps one clue to this reading can be found in Gilsensan's stress on the practical nature of Islam as its distinguishing characteristic:

Practical is the key word in my view. For God and his umma [community] are active in history. They have a covenant that is lived out not only in the five pillars -- the profession of faith that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet," the observance of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan, the giving of alms, the making of the five daily prayers, and going on the great pilgrimage to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. It entails also a general sense of practical readiness for whatever the power of God disposes is small matters or in great. Believers have their guide and model in the sunna and hadith, which deal with the most mundane aspects of everyday life and behavior as well as the general principles directing the community.

This practical readiness is far closer to a simple characterization of the Islam that is any image of either passive resignation or fanatical impulse.(6)

No one can forget the way in which the phrase "Insh'allah (if God wills)" comes into almost every conversation. If the Qu'ran is a practical handbook, its nearest Christian equivalent must be the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the book which has more articles on it in the field of psychology of religion than any other.

But the gospels can be read in this way too. So much is in the imperative mood -- seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened up to you. Remember the sparrows and the lilies of the field. They are all under the providence of God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Walk two miles with him, not just one. Sell all you have in order to buy the pearl of great price. Lay up treasure in heaven ....

The way of the gospels can be seen as an experiment, not as an undertaking that cannot be started until you can assent with your whole heart to every article of the Creed or all thirty-nine articles of the Church of England. John Coulson finds this reading of the gospels latent in Newman's Grammar of Assent.

Landscapes with persons praying can be observed from the outside, but insofar as they exist, we still possess the possibility of joining and learning about prayer by joining with others who pray. Thus, we may find out something of other prayer landscapes, landscapes delineated by such geographical and climatic metaphors as the "ascent of Mount Carmel" and the "dark night of the soul;" or the pilgrimage of those birds led by the hoopoe seeking the Simurgh, the king of the birds. Only thirty arrived at the court of the king, there to realize that they, these thirty birds (si murgh), were themselves the Simurgh whom they were seeking.

Prayer is only an abstract noun. It is people who pray. The landscapes in which they pray may be as illusory as the Jerusalem that Ignatius saw within the living Christian framework of the Franciscan friars and the cross. But the intensity of his experience of the outer and inner Jerusalem had measurable effects on many lives for many generations. Still, the friars were vastly relieved when he left Jerusalem because he was a most difficult pilgrim. The Islamic point that might be made is that no one can become a pilgrim without setting forth on a journey to another country.


  1. Cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography (ed. John C. Olin, trans. J. F. O'Callaghan, London and New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
  2. See D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books 1971); André Godin, ed., From Cry to Word (Brussels: Lumen Vitae Press, 1968) and The Psychological Dynamics of Religious Experience (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1985); W. W. Meissner, S. J., Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984); Andrew M. Greeley, The Religious Imagination (Los Angeles: Sadlier, 1981); Paul W. Pruyser, "Lessons from Art Theory for the Psychology of Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15, 1 (1976): 1-14 and Forms and Functions of the Imagination in Religion,' for the Consultation on Social, Scientific and Religious Perspectives on the Human Condition, 1980); and Peter Fuller, Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions (London, 1985).
  3. L. B. Brown and Emma Shackle The Psychology of Prayer (forthcoming).
  4. Cf. Juliana Wadham, The Case of Cornelia Connelly (New York: Pantheon, 1957).
  5. Abraham Menashe, The Face of Prayer (New York, 1983).
  6. Michael Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam: An Anthropologist's Introduction (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1982), p. 17.