Parsimony and Prayer

Nerd word of the day: parsimony.

In common usage (as if any usage of a word like that is really “common”), parsimony means the quality of being stingy or cheap. We campus ministers consider it a virtue.

But in a more specific sense, parsimony denotes economy of explanation.  It’s a word often used in conjunction with Occam’s razor, a philosophical tool used to carve out the simplest explanation among many hypotheses. According to Occam’s razor—or the law of parsimony—the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions toward its solution should be given priority.

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. The fancy words simply mean that we’re most likely to discover truth by pursuing the simplest path toward it.

Occam’s razor is like the Pirates’ Code: it isn’t a law so much as it is a guiding principle. But it has wide application, from science to theology to math to carpentry. And more often than not, it works.

Prayer is no exception.

Much of my adult Christian life has been punctuated by a struggle with prayer. I’ve read books that offer methods for praying, and others that decry such technological approaches. I’ve tried to define it through research and through observation. I’ve asked a lot of questions and not come up with too many answers.

More than that, I’ve found the act of praying itself very difficult, especially when I approach the subject without a guide. My own extemporaneous prayers tend to be a garble of platitudes and shopping lists. How on earth can I ever expect to be made perfect in love when I can’t even get off the starting line in terms of prayer?

Lately, however, I’ve remembered again what I’ve always known to be true, even though I ignore it: that simple prayer is the best kind.

My latest renewal came thanks in part to the youth at our church. As part of a retreat weekend I helped chaperone, they gave me a prayer bracelet. Over the course of about fifteen minutes, it leads me through some of the simplest of prayers, most often the Lord’s Prayer and the “Jesus prayer” of the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Perhaps those formulaic prayers don’t have the same passionate cries of extemporaneous prayers; they certainly don’t convey passion in any of the normal American forms. But they remind me of a few key things.

Prayer is about openness to God, not about giving orders.

The divine connection in prayer happens independent of my emotional state.

The more complicated I make prayer, the greater the likelihood that I will get in my own way.

Simple prayer is often the best prayer. Thank God for the CUMC youth’s prayer bracelet, and for Occam’s reminder.




3 thoughts on “Parsimony and Prayer

  1. Eric, the CUMC Youth (and their leader) are very thankful for you and the work you do as well. We are honored that our small token touched your heart. Excellent post, as always.

  2. Another way to think of Occam and parsimony is the ever popular KISS principle–Keep It Simple, (Stupid/Silly)! I’ve always tried to honor that, especially in prayer. One thing that I find useful is to pray without words. That is, to bring a picture into my mind of a person or situation for whom/which I am praying. It keeps me from getting tangled up in the verbiage, and from worrying whether I’m addressing the right need.

    Grace and Peace, Bev

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