‘In a time which demands visibility, invisible prayer is something oft-forgotten.’
It is a cinematic paradox that the character who quasi-embodies the spaghetti western genre and who moviegoers recognise instantly and associate with the genre – as well as the great three-part series in which his story is told – is most widely known as ‘the man with no name’. Sergio Leone’s epic Dollars trilogy, told over the best part of 7 hours, gave little clue as to its main character’s past, nor his moniker. Nevertheless, the nameless hero captivated audiences in the 1960s, as he still does today. Be it the mystery of the man, or his silently commanding presence, the character – played by Clint Eastwood - is among the most emblematic examples of the anonymous hero in cinema. His status as a near archetypal character tells us that great stories can be told without ever knowing who told them. Similarly, great things are often said and done in secrecy – in silence, or at the very least out of plain sight.
Anonymity is a precious commodity. Though we are social creatures, we require a degree of invisibility in order to recharge our batteries for the demands which contemporary life places on us. Alas, the times and spaces in which we can simply be as we are in solitude have been in retreat for some time. Lockdown and the day-to-day adjustments it demands has but hastened the withdrawal of opportunities for people to remain invisible. In the absence of ‘normal’ human interactions, we have witnessed the rise of online platforms which supply a cosmetic alternative to regular relationships. Such platforms have become almost mandatory – regulating working patterns around Zoom meetings during the day and imposing themselves on recreation time in the evenings. The opportunity to ‘meet’ online has itself almost become a burden to privacy and solitude. After all, where else might you be but at home? When such things were permitted, the requirement to provide names and contact details to businesses, churches, sports centres and so forth but increases our exposure. Over the past year we have, for the most part, known where our families, friends, colleagues and contemporaries were, when and where to find them…and they us.
As well as presenting a social conundrum for the introverts among us, this apparent obligation to leave a footprint of every movement, interaction or purchase can come to disrupt our spiritual sense. As opposed to the worldly need to be seen as ‘active’ or being seen to be righting the wrongs of the world, the nature of prayer and contemplation is rather less visible. Unlike a political slogan or mantra, prayer is often hidden from plain view. Its intimacy necessitates a spiritual stillness which is distinct from, or rises above, the demands of the world. We read Christ’s words in St Matthew’s Gospel: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mt 6:6). As such, prayer demands a degree of privacy.
Intimate conversation with God requires a pattern of life which allows for quiet listening, as well as the whispers of repentance, thanksgiving and petition. This contrasts with the rhythms of life which many of us have become accustomed to in recent months, appearing ever ‘active’ before the online world and often contributing to a din of chatter created by millions of equally anxious individuals cut off from spaces of silence and anonymity. In the absence of anonymity, we may tend to exhibitionism, something which the online realm fosters all too readily. In his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Robert Sarah writes, “Superficial and vain, the talkative person is a dangerous being. The now widespread habit of testifying in public to the divine graces granted in the innermost depths of a man’s soul exposes him to the dangers of superficiality, the self-betrayal of his interior friendship with God, and vanity.” The irony of our present predicament is that in distancing socially, we can become more talkative than ever, exhibiting our own personalities to anyone who will listen.
Yet, contrary to what ‘Zoom’ calls and online ‘Teams’ meetings suggest, the most necessary and indeed greatest conversations are those which most of us never hear. They are said in the quietness of the interior cell. We will not know to whose unlabelled prayers we owe much of what we have. Unlike when we leave our name and contact details in pubs and restaurants, petitions for which we ought to be thankful do not come with contact tracing details. Quiet and anonymous prayer before God is among the most noble things which any of us can do. Prayer is often where some of the greatest and most beautiful stories begin. Prayer is often most intimate when nameless to the world and is most poignantly felt when received anonymously. Much like the hero of Sergio Leone’s 1960s masterpieces, that which is anonymous leaves its mark most profoundly. In these trying times most of all - and irrespective of the demands to be ever present in the online realm - there is no better time than now to be the teller of tales of thanksgiving or rhymes of repentance to Him who always listens. At a time that needs hope and heroism, quiet and anonymous prayer is the most heroic thing that anyone can do.
Ruairidh MacLennan is a Glasgow-based multimedia journalist who previously worked in independent television production. Ruairidh graduated in modern languages and cultures at postgraduate level from the University of Glasgow, where he researched the interplay of reason and religion.’