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Praying and acting are two of the most annoying activities in the world. If you’re not someone who does them, that is. There is something absolutely infuriating for people not involved in the theatre or the church in seeing someone carrying out either. Religion and the arts may do more harm to society in other ways and they may promote more inaccurate beliefs about the world at other moments. But it seems that for people who aren’t involved, these two provoke the most irritation.

praying handsI see this in all sorts of reactions, from the jibes on Guardian forums about “talking to your imaginary friend” to the scorn directed at “am-dram” groups assumed to be full of ineffectual and trivial people. Indeed, the way these terms are used in everyday speech suggests the same attitude. For example, when someone is described as “going all am-dram” about a minor problem, or “start praying” is the advice given about a disastrous project with no hope of success. Both imply that there is something inherently false and pointless about either activity.

It’s that sense of falsity which seems to provoke such frustration in people who don’t pray or act. Not that putting on a play or saying a prayer is evil or corrosive, but that it’s phony and pretend. It looks like a deliberate and dedicated turning away from the world as it actually is. Instead of having real conversations, and being a real person, people who pray or act seem to be refusing to accept reality. They look as if they’re determined not to deal with either the opportunities or the horrors of the world, hell-bent instead on pretending.

Those watching are annoyed and frustrated by the sheer perversity of it. More than that (and worse than that, perhaps for the British) they’re embarrassed by it. It’s undignified, it’s not behaving in a reasonable or adult manner. It’s a betrayal of the potentials and the duties of human life, to flounce away into a fantasy world. This is a trenchant critique of both praying and acting, when done badly or insincerely.

But it’s not what it feels like for many of us who do pray or act. (Or indeed for those of us who do both.) That elaborate and sometimes exhausting “pretence” is our way into reality, not an escape from it. I don’t mean this to prove anyone right, or anyone wrong, but simply to try to explain what it can feel like. Opening ourselves up to God in prayer is opening ourselves to the presence which underpins and sustains the world. Calling on God isn’t a plea to float up above the earth and escape, but to be immersed so deeply in reality that we find communion with the truth.

John Robinson’s book Honest To God provoked a lot of controversy in the 1960s, but it did popularise a metaphor of God as depth rather than height which feels right to many people. My own prayer life often feels less like soaring than plunging. I have the occasional heady feeling of detachment and lightness, but more often it’s like sinking, descending into darkness and wonder.

Acting can be a similar search for the truth, an attempt to reach meanings via a suspension of the normal rules of conversation. I think it was Alex Andreou who said that when he gave up law to become an actor, he didn’t become richer, or more successful, or more glamorous. He said, if I’m remembering him correctly, that he didn’t even necessarily feel happier. But he did feel more like himself. The “pretending” of acting is a discipline which can open up human identity in arresting and creative ways.

hand languageIt can also force attention to the world around us. Making meaning with objects onstage, whether that involves a chair, an Elizabethan ruff, a ray-gun or all of these, brings the human body into relationships with these objects. It invests them with meaning, and it causes the audience and actors alike to weave together those meanings into narratives, plots and emotions. At times there can be so much meaning it’s nearly unbearable: coming offstage it can feel like the world that meets you is so real and so alive that it’s like vertigo. I’ve always thought cast parties were partly a way to deal with this theatrical version of the Bends.

Both acting and praying require a suspension of the behaviour expected of people in everyday activity, and in doing do they can challenge those everyday expectations. Perhaps it’s not only the phony appearance of acting and praying, but their uncomfortable disruption of behaviour, which provokes irritation. The complaint that people who do either “think they’re better than other people” is possibly a reaction along these lines.

That suspension takes many forms, but John Goldingay and Kathleen Scott Goldingay point out one in a recent issue of the journal Theology. They describe praying through the Psalms, many of which didn’t particularly correspond to their own feelings or the words they would have prayed at the time. They realized that “in praying prayers or praises that didn’t correspond to our own circumstances, we were identifying with other parts of the Christian community, and the world community…one need not be praying for oneself”. Here the Psalms are used to dislocate the individual praying for a moment, as they voice feelings of despair, lament or hope which correspond to other people’s lives. (The Goldingays were particularly concerned with the people of Darfur at the time.) Thus the practice of praying through the Psalms – which might look even more foolish and false than simply talking to an imaginary friend – allowed them to enter into solidarity and intercessory prayer.

As I said, this isn’t an argument in favour of either praying or acting; I don’t expect it will convince anyone of the intellectual rightness of either. But however much they look like attempts to turn away from the world, they are really attempts to enter more deeply into it. They can make the world startlingly, overwhelmingly real. They can explore other possibilities for that world, and critique its systems. They can suspend our loud sense of ourselves and allow us to listen to another, deeper, presence. They are serious games.