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Jul 062016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the ninth section titled Reflection II:  Because We Must: The Call To Prayer.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection II
Because We Must
The Call To Prayer
(Part 9)


Richards

Photo by Michelle Evans

Richard’s Answer To Question #3

Have I had an experience of awe and wonder? Describe that experience in detail. What was my reaction? What questions arose in me as a result of that experience? What was my response?

 

 

 


It was Sunday morning and I didn’t go to church. The reasons are legion, but that will have to wait for another day. After my wife and son left to go I took a long slow walk around our neighborhood. As I walked I practiced attention.

I paid attention to what was going on in my body. I became aware of my feet falling on the pavement, and of my breathing. I began to count my breathing and to think of the sacred phrase I use in my time apart. Breathe in — “Lord”. Breathe out — “God”. My breathing became synchronized with the steps I was taking. I began to walk up an incline, and became aware of the subtle difference in the effort it took to take each step. I felt peaceful, much like I do when sitting in meditation in my time apart. When my mind would wander I would come back to my breathing and my sacred phrase.

Then I noticed the trees. I noticed that some of them towered over the houses in a way that was truly majestic. There were all kinds of different species, both evergreens and other leafed trees. Some looked healthy and some not so much. Some were dead or dying. I noticed the branches all interwoven with each other, and leaves that were all different shades of green. There was a slight breeze, and the tree limbs were swaying back and forth, especially in the upper branches. Sometimes my attention would return to my steps and my breath and my sacred phrase.

Richard Walking

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Then my attention spontaneously switched to the sounds. I could hear the slight breeze passing by my ears. My attention moved quietly between the sounds of locusts, crickets, and birds. Then I became aware of the sounds of sirens in the distance, and I wondered what the emergency was. Was it a fire, an accident, and illness, some kind of crime? For just a moment I wondered about the people involved. That concern became a kind of silent prayer without words.

Sometimes my attention switched to the houses and to the cars that came by occasionally. I wondered about the people in those houses and cars. I saw a young woman check her mailbox and walk toward the house. What were these people thinking? What were they feeling? What was their life like? And again that silent interest became a kind of prayer without words. Again sometimes my attention would return to my steps and my breath and my sacred phrase.

But then sometimes all of the images and all of the sounds would fade into the background and I became aware of just the silence behind the sounds and images. (See my previous post) Even the awareness of my steps and my breathing and my sacred phrase faded away. There was no need for even that practice. There were no thoughts, no emotions, and no impulses. There was no need for any kind of prayer. There was just the quiet and a deep sense awe. There was just the sacred presence of that Mysterious Other I call God, in the quiet, and in the images, and in the sounds. All that can be said here, all that needs to be said here is amen!


Other Posts in this Reflection:

(Part 1) Introduction View…

(Part 2) Why Do We Pray View…
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

(Part 3) History   View…
Responding To A Call 

(Part 4) Awe And Wonder View…
The Call To Mystery

(Part 5) Suffering And Loss View…
Another Call To Mystery

(Part 6) Self-Awareness View…
Accepting Responsibility

(Part 7) Life Out Of Balance  View…
A Vision Of A New Life

(Part 8) An Experience Of Prayer View…
A Call To Depth

(Part 9) Richard’s Answer To Question # 3 (This Post)

Jun 012016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the fourth section titled Reflection II:  Because We Must: The Call To Prayer.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection II
Because We Must
The Call To Prayer
(Part 4)

Awe And Wonder
A Call to Mystery

This calling manifests itself in our lives in different ways.  Maybe the most obvious way is through experiences of awe and wonder.  We look up at the night sky on a clear night and we see thousands upon thousands of stars.  We realize the vast amazing wonder and mystery of the universe.  We sense with amazement our tiny but wondrous place in it.  We look into the face of an infant and realize with awe and wonder that it is a part of us and yet it is somehow unique from every other being in this vast universe.  We are awestruck wondering what this tiny writhing potential might become.  In the face of these and a thousand other wonders, questions rise up in us, sometimes just perceptibly and sometimes powerfully,  and they call to us.  Where does it all come from?  What does it all mean?  Where do I fit into the vastness of this great universe?  What does my life really mean?  Who am I called to be?  How am I called to live my unique life?  How do I know?  How is it even possible to know?  Even if I knew, how is it possible to actually become that in a world that is so full of its own demands, its own agenda for our lives?  How do I connect with that “something” that is behind it all—how do I connect with that Mysterious Other we call God?  For some these questions rise up in a specifically Christian context.  For others they rise up in more secular terms, or in the language and symbols of other religious traditions.  However they are phrased, these questions call to us profoundly, and the only satisfactory response is prayer in some form.  Ultimately the only satisfactory answer is to sit quietly in the face of the awesomeness of it all and listen.  In that moment prayer is born in us.

Rachel As A Baby

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Yet in our culture experiences of awe are not all that frequent.  The dictionary defines awe this way:

An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.

How often do we even use terms like reverence, grand, sublime, extremely powerful?  These words point to something beyond our routine experience.  They point to something beyond our knowledge and understanding. They point to something that spiritual writers across religions have referred to as mystery.  Again the dictionary defines mystery this way:

Anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown.

It is that sense of something that is unexplained or unknown that lies behind the feelings like reverence,  grand, etc.  It is that sense of mystery that makes those feelings? overwhelming.  To experience awe and wonder we must be open to a sense of mystery, and for many of us that sense of mystery has been lost.  If we are outside at night at all we are usually on a mission.  When we look up into the night sky we see the many stars and the moon, if we are paying attention, and if those heavenly bodies are not hidden by too much light pollution.  Yet science has given us just enough of an explanation for all of that to satisfy us.  We may see the beauty, but not necessarily mystery and awe.

With all of our busyness our minds are too full for us to even look beyond that.  With all of our technology we can find answers, such as they are, to most all of our questions.  But even beyond that it seems that we no longer think really deeply about much of anything.  We accept the easy answers provided by the culture, the church, and Google, and thus seldom even recognize the unanswered questions and the mystery that comes with those questions.  That sense of awe and wonder escapes us.  In the process we miss the opportunity for that call from the Mysterious Other we call God.  We miss the call to prayer.

  1. Have I had an experience of awe and wonder?  Describe that experience in detail.  What was my reaction?  What questions arose in me as a result of that experience?  What was my response?

Other Posts in this Reflection:

(Part 1) Introduction View…

(Part 2) Why Do We Pray View…
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

(Part 3) History   View…
Responding To A Call 

(Part 4) Awe And Wonder (This Post)
The Call To Mystery

(Part 5) Suffering And Loss View…
Another Call To Mystery

(Part 6) Self-Awareness View…
Accepting Responsibility

(Part 7) Life Out Of Balance  View…
A Vision Of A New Life

(Part 8) An Experience Of Prayer View…
A Call To Depth

(Part 9) Richard’s Answer To Question # 3 View…

 

May 182016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the first section titled Reflection II:  Because We Must: The Call To Prayer.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection II
Because We Must
The Call To Prayer
(Part 2)

Why Do We Pray?
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

Beyond that basic answer—“because we must”—why do we pray—really?  For many of us it almost seems like a non-question.  And yet, can any of us answer that question in any depth?  The quick answers are simply not enough.  Because we learned to pray as a child. Because the bible tells us to pray, Because Jesus told us to pray.  Because we have been exhorted to pray in countless sermons and Sunday school lessons.  Because it is just part of what we do as Christians.  These reasons, and many others like them, are all valid on some level, but on a deeper level they are not enough, or what may be worse, for many of us they are just enough that we do not look beyond them. In the end we often do not really even ask the deeper questions that lie behind those more obvious answers, if in fact we even suspect there are deeper questions.

If we really do ponder the question of why we pray at any real depth all kinds of related questions arise, and some of those questions make us uncomfortable.  Who is this Mysterious Other we call God that we pray to?  What does God expect from us when we pray? What do we expect from God when we pray?  Will our prayers be answered?  How will they be answered? Do we even take time to listen for a response? Do we even expect an answer?  Do we realize that listening in prayer is at least as important as speaking? Could we ourselves be responsible for some of the things we ask of God? Does prayer really work? What does “work” even mean when we speak of prayer? What does prayer actually mean in the reality of our day-to-day lives?  Then there is the question that troubles us the most: will prayer change us? Are we willing to open ourselves to that possibility?

Praying In Church

Photo by Winnie Southworth

These and many other similar questions have festered in me for many years, long before I even began any kind of conscious search for answers, and long before I had any prayer practice at all.

For some of us the questions are reversed—why don’t we pray? In many cases the underlying questions are essentially the same. On some, often preconscious level, the answers we received to those questions were not enough, or even seemed non-sensical to us, and we wrote prayer off. In my own life, even though I have felt a serious call to the spiritual life most of my adult life, prayer did not seem to offer any satisfying option for just these kinds of reasons. I have continued my own search and ultimately found answers that work for me, at least for now, but I am still searching for deeper answers. I suspect I will always be searching for those deeper answers. Some of us though, avoid the whole religious/spiritual endeavor because the answers we got to just these and other similar questions were unsatisfying. Unfortunately many do not ever find that prayer of their own at all.

If we are serious about prayer—if we are ever to develop “a prayer of our own” we must take these questions seriously. We must never settle for the pat answers. We must make these questions into our meditation and our prayer. Seeking satisfactory answers to these questions must be an ongoing part of our spiritual practice—of our prayer practice—of the way we live our lives.

  1. Do I currently pray? Why? Why not? Describe my current prayer practice. Does that practice change the way I experience and live my life? In what ways?

 


Other Posts in this Reflection:

(Part 1) Introduction View…

(Part 2) Why Do We Pray (This Post)
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

(Part 3) History   View…
Responding To A Call 

(Part 4) Awe And Wonder View…
The Call To Mystery

(Part 5) Suffering And Loss View…
Another Call To Mystery

(Part 6) Self-Awareness View…
Accepting Responsibility

(Part 7) Life Out Of Balance  View…
A Vision Of A New Life

(Part 8) An Experience Of Prayer View…
A Call To Depth

(Part 9) Richard’s Answer To Question # 3 View…

 

May 112016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the first section titled Reflection II:  Because We Must: The Call To Prayer


Daniel In The Sun

Photo by Sandra Marrs

 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection II
Because We Must
The Call To Prayer
(Part 1)

Introduction

There is an inner spirit to human life.
It lives at a very deep level of our lives and functions quietly.
So much so that it may not even make itself known unless deliberately allowed and encouraged.   Nevertheless—
It is the fundamental guide to an individual life and provides the basis on which we make our way
The spirit looks very deeply for value
That matters,
That motivates,
That creates positives,
That frees authenticity,
That gives life power.
This spirit transcends religion
And seeks beyond the confinements of a belief system.
The spiritual needs and deserves enhancement through
Nourishment, time, care and stimulation.
The life and journey of the inner spirit is the true journey of life.

William Roberson

It seems to me that the simplest answer to the question “Why do we pray?” is the most profound.  We pray simply because that “inner spirit” Roberson speaks of so powerfully calls to us—and “we must”.  That still small voice—that inner spirit inside of us, calls to us, and prayer is the only meaningful response.  We must listen, and we must respond.  We pray because we are responding to that sacred inner voice deep inside of us.  We can run from that voice.  We can deny its sacredness.  We can even deny it’s very existence entirely, or we can settle for some psychological explanation.  The call is still there, waiting for us, pressing us, calling to us, whether we are paying attention or not, demanding a response from us, often when we least expect it and even when we least desire it.  Left unattended to, this inner calling sometimes imposes itself on us in myriad ways, some positive and some negative, some inward and some outward.  In one way or another we all respond.  Spiritual masters throughout history and across traditions have taught this, and I have learned the truth of it from personal experience.  It is ultimately our choice whether our response or lack thereof leads to growth and service, to apathy, to deformation, or sometimes, to violence.  Listening to this sacred inner voice and living our lives in response to that voice is the very essence of what spirituality and prayer are all about.  It is what all true religion is all about, or at least should be.  It is what being fully human and fully alive is all about.  Consciously choosing our response to this inner call and being obedient to that call will determine the very direction and the quality of our life.  Choosing to follow that voice intentionally is ultimately what true “conversion” is all about.


Other Posts in this Reflection:

 

(Part 1) Introduction (This Post)

(Part 2) Why Do We Pray View…
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

(Part 3) History   View…
Responding To A Call 

(Part 4) Awe And Wonder View…
The Call To Mystery

(Part 5) Suffering And Loss View…
Another Call To Mystery

(Part 6) Self-Awareness View…
Accepting Responsibility

(Part 7) Life Out Of Balance  View…
A Vision Of A New Life

(Part 8) An Experience Of Prayer View…
A Call To Depth

(Part 9) Richard’s Answer To Question # 3 View…

Apr 132016
 

This post is the fourth in a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the fourth section titled Reflection I:  Opening to the Divine Mystery: Discerning Our Attitude Toward God. 


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection I
Opening to the Divine Mystery
Discerning Our Attitude Toward God
(Part 5)

Traditional Models
What Do They Really Mean?

The Trinity

The basic explanation for what God is for Christians is in the concept of “The Trinity”. The dictionary defines the Trinity this way:

Also called Blessed Trinity, Holy Trinity, the union of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, or the threefold personality of the one Divine Being.*

Maybe if I were a Christian theologian, this would be helpful, but I am not a theologian and this is not all that helpful to me personally. It raises more questions for me than it answers. As a friend of mine put it, “trinity is even a conundrum to many theologians and lots of preachers”. It is beyond the scope of this reflection to try and unpack this complex theological explanation, and yet its very complexity points to something extremely important to our discussion here. Just maybe it points in the general direction of an answer. Clearly it attempts to move us away from God made in the image of man.

Mighty God

Photo by Winnie Southworth

At the same time we all too often seem to be able to talk about the Trinity while still giving God the attributes of humans. Maybe the real message for our discussion is simply that we do not know and we cannot know the answer to this profound question—What is God, or even Who is God? Maybe the best we can hope for is the realization of the awesome mystery behind this great universe. Maybe that realization provides a much more palatable foundation for prayer than any of our traditional explanations, including the more technical theological explanation of the Trinity.

God The Father

That said, picking up on the so called first person of the Trinity image one of our most common images for God is God the father. We often refer to God as a loving, caring, and forgiving “Father”, or even as Abba or “daddy”. Initially that sounds good, but sub-consciously that image inevitably, even if pre-consciously, gets caught up in our relationship with our own earthly father. What if our father was absent? What if our father abused us? What if he was cold and distant? Even if he was an otherwise a “good father” he is still often seen by his children as a disciplinarian who was always telling us what to do and what not to do, preventing us from doing many of the things we wanted to do, punishing us when we were “bad”, and rewarding us when we were “good”. All of this becomes a part of our attitude toward God as father whether we are aware of it or not and it all seems very natural. It is part of what father is for us. Beyond the father image we get from our childhood, God the father is often presented in much the same way in what passes for church teaching today. The truth is the term has become almost cliche today. For this image of God the Father to work it needs to be brought into the “divine therapy” of our prayer and unpacked. We need to be clear what it means for us personally.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does “the Trinity” mean to me personally? What does “God the Father” really mean for me personally? How does that square with my other attitudes and beliefs about God?

____________
Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.


Other Posts in this Reflection:

Introduction  View…

Is There A God  View…
Discerning Our Attitude Toward God

Models of Christian Spirituality View…
Seeking Divine Union 

God In The Image of Man View…
Avoiding the Challenge

Negative Images View…
Policeman, Judge, and Tyrant

Exclusivity View…
Our Way Or The Highway

God As Mystery View…
What or Who Is God

Richard’s Answer To Question #1 View…
What or Who Is God

 

Jul 232014
 

Reflection IV:  Building A Relationship With God

Petition, Praise, Adoration, Communion, Conversation
Part 2

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You are encouraged to read Part One before proceeding.

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Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways are these classical types of prayer a part of the way you live your life?  In what ways are they perfunctory or “performed merely as a routine duty; hasty and superficial”?
  2. Is going to church and sunday school, reading your bible, and saying your prayers enough?  How do these activities affect the way you actually experience and live your life?
  3. In what ways do you sometimes approach prayer as magic?  Do you sometimes ask God for a specific outcome?  Do you leave the space for God to “say no”, ask you to respond, and/or offer you guidance, strength and courage to face the situation?
  4. Is your prayer sometimes a monologue?  In what ways do you “keep on babbling like pagans” when you practice these classical types of prayer?  Do you regularly “just sit there” and be silent and listen?  Do you need to spend more time in silence?  What would it take for you to do that?
  5. How is “giving it up to God” a part of your practice of these classical types of prayer?  Is that balanced with an openness to the possibility that God might offer you the guidance, strength, and courage to respond yourself to some of the things you pray about?
  6. When you pray do you listen to that still small voice within for places where you need to grow and change?  It what way are you being called to grow and change now?
  7. Are these classical types of prayer a part of a broader prayer life that includes such practices as centering, reading, meditation, and contemplation?  How do you feel called to grow in your prayer life?

Richard’s Answer to Question 1:

  1. In what ways are these classical types of prayer a part of the way you live your life?  In what ways are they perfunctory or “performed merely as a routine duty; hasty and superficial”?

As far back as I can remember I have had a toxic reaction to these classical types of prayer.  Even as I have been teaching and writing about prayer I have, until this book, mostly avoided even the use of the word prayer.  I typically have used terms like “my practice” or “my time apart” to refer to what was essentially my prayer time.  I have also avoided saying these types of prayer in public.  Not all that long ago my minister asked me if I would say a prayer to start a meeting, and I said something extremely awkward like “No, I don’t do that”.  Even the embarrassment of openly refusing to pray in a church meeting was less traumatic for me than actually saying a short prayer to start the meeting.

So how does a person with a master’s degree in spiritual formation who writes and teaches about the spiritual life find praying in public to be so traumatic?  What is it about these “classical things that have been said about prayer” that bothers me so much that I do not even want to use the word?  It is one of those types of gut level reactions that makes me want to find some major traumatic event in my past that I have suppressed.  If that is true, in spite of a lot of personal reflection and some therapy, it is still suppressed.  I cannot even point to a series of specific minor negative experiences with prayer that bother me.  It is more of a general thing.  I think it is tied to the fact that contemporary religion in general and contemporary Christianity in particular has never worked for me.  These “classical things that have been said about prayer” are so identified with that contemporary Christianity that they bring up all of the rejection and the emptiness I have experienced over the years in church.  When asked if I would say a prayer to start a meeting it was as if I was somehow being asked to join the opposition—to become a part of the very thing I have always railed about.

I also think that the way these classical types of prayers were presented to me in my church experience over the years is also part of that toxic reaction.  I would not have had the language or the understanding to express it then, but on a deep preconscious level I was reacting to the very things that I have talked about in this reflection.  On some level I was aware that all too often prayer was presented as a kind of magic and as essentially a monologue, as something we were required to do to avoid the fires of hell.  On that preconscious but powerful level, I rejected those ideas.  Maybe my strongest reaction came from my observation that these kinds of prayers did not seem to make much difference in the way many people lived their lives.  It has always seemed to me that all too many of us go to church and say our prayers, and continue to live the way they always have.  All of that was confirmed powerfully by the fact that I tried those classical prayers in my own life and they essentially did not work—they did not change the way I experienced and lived my own life.  They were not enough.  I went into this spiritual journey a very angry person, and this classical approach to prayer simply did not make a difference.  Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “preforming the same behavior and expecting different results”1.  I ceased the behavior and rejected it.  As best I can understand it this is the root of my toxicity toward “these classical things that have been said about prayer”.

It is said that nothing quite helps you understand a subject more than writing and teaching about it, and that is absolutely true here.  As I have studied and written and taught about the spiritual life it has forced me to take an ever deepening look at many things, and prayer is no exception.  In fact prayer may very well be the most difficult subject for me.  When I first started talking about this book the title was going to be “The Practice”, again avoiding the word prayer, but on reflection I realized that if I really wanted more traditional people to read the book, and I do, I needed to connect it with something with which they were familiar.  Clearly prayer was that connection.  Making that connection has resulted in some of the most difficult thinking and writing I have done.  I still have something of a toxic reaction to these “classical things that have been said about prayer”, but I have a much deeper understanding of their importance their deep meaning, and how they fit into “The Practice”.  In their own way they are now an important part of my “prayer life”.

I remember some twenty years ago at one church I attended the minister would always start his public prayers by saying “Come holy spirit of God, rise up in us”.  After that all kinds of other prayer would follow.  I remember this line as the first public prayer I ever really identified with, and it became the first line of an opening prayer I wrote to start “my time apart”:

Come Holy Spirit of God.
Rise up in me.
Fill me with your presence.
Open me to your wisdom and guidance,
And your strength and your courage.
Grant me the Grace of your love,
And your peace, and your joy.
Come with me into this special time,
And go with me as I take on this day.2

After twenty years this is still “Richard’s Prayer”.

____________
1 Although alternately attributed to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, can Confucius, the first known appearance of the statement in print is in the 1981 version of Narcotics Anonymous.
Southworth, Richard N., Unpublished Document, circa 2004

Jul 192014
 

Reflection IV:  Building A Relationship With God

Petition, Praise, Adoration, Communion, Conversation
Part 1

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Image to be added when available.

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All the classical things that have been said about prayer are true—petition, praise, adoration, communion, conversation.  But one’s notion of God and divinity has to be sufficiently empty, and its mystery sufficiently accounted for, or else prayer becomes exploitation of the divine.  Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other.1
Thomas Moore

Petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation.  These are the “classical things that have been said about prayer”.  To these I would add confession, penance, and forgiveness.   These are the things that most of us have been taught about prayer in sunday school and church.  For most of us these are the things that come to mind when we are asked the question, “What is prayer?”  They are the things that we think about when we are called to build a relationship with this Mysterious Other we call God.  They are the very essence of the traditional answers to the question, “Why do we pray?”  As Moore points out they are all true.  They are all a central part of what prayer is all about.  It is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore each of these types of prayer individually.  The question for us here is how we approach these essential aspects of prayer.
In the end prayer is not just something we do.  Prayer is a way of life.  These “classical things that have been said about prayer” are an integral part of that way of life.  Outside of that way of life they become perfunctory, “preformed merely as a routine duty; hasty and superficial”2.  It loses its depth.  It becomes a dead ritual.  We find ourselves just going through the motions.  We run the risk that our prayers will become “exploitation of the divine” as Moore put it.  Maybe most dangerously we run the risk of these classical types of prayers becoming a substitute for prayer as a way of life.  We come to believe that we have met our obligations to God and nothing more is required of us.  As I talk about the spiritual life with some church people I often get some version of the question “I go to sunday school and church, I read my bible, and I pray.  I don’t need this?”  These rituals have become so ingrained in many of us that we do not see the need to go further.  Taken seriously prayer calls us to go deeper, much deeper.  Henri Nouwen has put it this way:

Therefore a life in prayer is a life with open hands where you are not ashamed of your weaknesses but realize that it is more perfect for a man to be led by the other than to seek to hold everything in his own hands.

Only within this kind of life does a spoken prayer make sense.  A prayer in church, at table, or in school is only a witness to what we want to make of our entire lives.  Such a prayer only recalls to mind that praying is living and it invites you to make this an ever-greater reality.  Thus there are as many ways to pray as there are moments in life.  Sometimes you seek out a quiet spot and you want to be alone, sometimes you look for a friend and you want to be together.  Sometimes you’d like a book or some music.  Sometimes you want to sing out with hundreds, sometimes only to whisper with a few.  Sometimes you want to say it with words, sometimes with a deep silence.

And sometimes you want to utter prayers of petition, praise, adoration, communion, conversation, confession, penance, or forgiveness.

Nouwen continues:

In all these moments, you gradually make your life more a prayer and you open your hands to be led by God even to where you would rather not go.3

Approached in a certain way “all of these moments” lead us into an ever deepening relationship with that Mysterious Other we call God.  If we are willing, these moments, over time, will allow us “to be led by God even to where [we] would rather not go”.  But again, how we approach “all of these moments” makes all of the difference.

I want to say something about what prayer is not.  True prayer is not magic.  I know this statement sounds redundant.  Of course prayer is not magic.  We all know that, right?  I took a class in religious studies in college called “Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft”.  All through the semester, as we talked about different religions and different religious and magical practices, one underlying question permeated the discussion:  What is the difference between true religion and true prayer and the practices we call magic and witchcraft?  We wanted to know how to distinguish between the two.  The clear answer that emerged was that with magic and witchcraft, when the practitioner preforms the ritual correctly—when they “prayed right”, god or the gods had to respond positively.  They had to comply with the request.  They had to do what was asked.  If the gods did not “answer the prayer” it was because the practitioner did not preform the ritual correctly.  With true religion—with true prayer—God could say no, as we put it.  But in true religion and prayer God could also call us to grow and change and see the subject of our prayer differently.  As a quote I saw recently said, “I am tempted to ask God why he allows so much pain and suffering in the world, but then I am afraid God will ask me the same question”.  In true prayer, God may very well call us to respond ourselves to the things we bring to prayer.

How much of what we have been taught about prayer, how much of our understanding of prayer, amounts to magic?  How often have we prayed for some specific outcome and then been disappointed when that prayer was not “answered”.  How many times have we felt guilty when the outcome we requested did not happen the way we asked? How many times have we complained that our prayer did not “work”?  All too many of us have been taught that when our prayers are not answered it is because we did not have enough faith or it was a result of some sin we committed, or there were not enough people praying.  Whenever we approach prayer in this way we are in effect thinking of it as magic.  Whatever else true prayer is or is not, it is not magic.

But this tendency to approach prayer as a kind of magic leads to an even deeper problem.  It prevents us from hearing God’s actual response to us.  If the only acceptable response to our prayer is that God will fulfill our request we will not listen for any other response, and we will not hear what that Mysterious Other wants from us in the situation.  We will not be able to develop any real relationship with God, and our lives will not be changed and transformed the way that Mysterious Other calls us to change and grow.  We will not discover who we are called to be, and we will not be able to incarnate that calling into our active lives.  Said another way, our lives will not become an authentic expression of that deep calling.

Sometimes when our prayers are not answered we simply conclude that God just said “no”, or “I guess it just was not part of God’s plan”.   This may very well be true, but it misses the point.  We are still essentially treating prayer as magic.  All too often there is still that unspoken sense that it is somehow our fault—that our faith was not strong enough, etc.  All too often we have said our prayers and not really been silent and listened for God’s response.  Our underlying expectation when we prayed was that if we had enough faith, if we “prayed right” God would grant our request.

Prayer is also not a monologue.  It is not just us talking to God.  It is not just us taking our pain, and our needs, and our desires to God.  It is not just us praising and worshiping God either.  It is all of those things, but it is infinitely more than any or all of them.  As Moore put it, “Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other”.  When we approach prayer as a monologue we fail to honor that “divine infinitude”.  We limit our ability to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God.  We limit God’s options.  All too often we in effect “say our prayers” and go on with our life, leaving the rest up to God.  We absolve ourselves of any responsibility.  We ignore even the possibility that God might speak to us—that God might call us to respond ourselves to the situations we pray about, or that God might call us to see the situation differently, and/or to grow and change ourselves.  There is almost a cult around the idea that we should “give it up to God”, and in all too many instances that becomes a copout.  As someone said, “hold it up, don’t give it up.  Yes, it is a good thing for us to take our problems, concerns, and needs to God, and in certain cases, to let them go and “trust in God” to deal with them, but there is more to it than that.

We will talk in detail in other reflections about openness and listening, but if our prayer is to be more that a monologue we must approach it with openness.  We must stop talking and take time to listen.  Jesus put it this way:

6But 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.

7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.4

These are pretty harsh words.  A pastor friend of mine told me that when he prepared a manuscript for a sermon the last line was always a note to himself that said “Now. Sit down and shut up!”  This is good advice when we pray.  Yes, it is good to “say our prayers”, but then we need to “sit down and shut up!” and listen.  Sometimes it is good to do that right from the start.  As one writer put it, “Don’t just do something, sit there”5,  or in this case, don’t just say your prayers, sit there.  Be silent and listen for that still small voice within that guides us and gives us strength and courage.

I was at a hospital some time ago with two sisters.  Their father was dying.  They had been praying for him to live.  When it became clear that this was not the likely outcome, one of them acknowledged that he was very likely dying, and said, “I don’t know how to pray now!”  She looked at me, as if for some kind of guidance.  I responded, “Maybe it is time to pray that his passing is easy.”  In a sense that advice was good.  It was in fact time to accept that he was dying, but what I wish I had said, was a more gracious version of “Maybe it is time to just ‘sit down and shut up’ and listen for God’s guidance, connect with God’s strength, and God’s courage to face the reality of the situation.

In all of these classical approaches to prayer—petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation, confession, penance, and forgiveness—we need to be absolutely certain that our expectations are not magical.  We also need to be sure that we are open and listening carefully for a response from that Mysterious Other we—listening for the murmurings from that still small voice within where that Mysterious other, if we are paying attention, speaks to us and gives us guidance and strength, and courage.

It is precisely here that we are called to spiritual growth, transformation, and conversion of heart.  We cannot just will ourselves to be silent, and open, and to listen and to hear that still small voice within.  We have to develop the ability to be silent both externally and internally.  We have to learn how to discern that Still Small Voice within.  In the end these classical approaches to prayer must be an integral part of an overall life of prayer that includes  a discipline of spiritual practice and spiritual living that permeates all aspects of our lives.  As Nouwen put it, “Only within this kind of life does a spoken prayer make sense”.  Only within this kind of life can we avoid these “classical things that have been said about prayer” from becoming magic or perfunctory monologues.

Jesus offers us a very short and simple example of how we should pray.  There is no temptation to magic here, and there is no babbling:

9 This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”6

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Questions for reflection and a response to one of the questions by Richard will be posted in another post.

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1 Moore, Thomas, Meditations:  On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life, (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994), p. 69.
2 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/perfunctory?s=t
3 Nouwen, Henri, J. M., With Open Hands, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1972), p. 158.
4 Matthew 6:6-7 (NIV)
5 Boorstein, Sylvia, Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There: A Mindfullness Retreat, (New York: HarperCollins), Title.
6Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

Jun 032014
 

Reflection III:  Opening To The Divine Mystery

Discerning Our Attitude Toward God

Part 1

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Image to be added when available.

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The right attitude toward God is essential to one’s progress on the Spiritual Journey.1

Father Thomas Keating

 

One of the most foundational questions that we bring to serious spiritual practice—to serious prayer—is the God question itself.  That question needs to be a part of our  prayer.  We need to cultivate an openness and even a deep desire to discern and deepen and transform our attitude toward God.  That attitude determines, at the most basic level, how we approach our life in general, and how we approach our spiritual life and our prayer life in particular.

The dictionary defines prayer as:

a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.2

Clearly if our goal in prayer is communion with God our attitude toward God matters.  That said, it seems that this foundational question is often ignored or avoided.  All too often we accept the canned answers from our childhood and the answers given to us by the culture, the church, the theologians, and the philosophers.  We often say our attitude toward God is based on scripture, but our interpretation of scripture is informed by those same sources.  We accept these canned answers and fail to even bring these deep critical questions about God into our consciousness much less into our prayer.  We avoid what may be the most important questions of all.  On the surface we avoid or ignore these questions because we think we know the answers, but it often goes much deeper than that.  We do not bring these questions into our consciousness or our prayer because we are afraid of what we might discover there.  Is there a God, really?  Dare we even ask that question?  If we are a “believer” might serious questioning about our attitude toward God call that belief itself into question?  Even if we accept that God exists, might not serious questioning of our attitudes toward God call us to change all kinds of other things in our approach to God?  Are we really willing to open ourselves to that possibility–that challenge?  On the other hand if we are a “non-believer” might serious reflection call that decision into question as well?

When I first heard that one of my favorite authors, Jacob Needleman, was writing a book about God the working title was reported as Who Is God?  I looked forward to reading this book.  Some months later, when the book actually came out, the title had changed to What Is God?3 At first I thought that was strange and even a bit shocking.  As I delved into this excellent book, I began to realize why the title had changed and just how important that change was.  Before we can even begin to reflect on our attitude toward God we have to honestly look at the even deeper question of what God is for us.  Is God a “person”?  Is God a “spirit”, and if so what does that really mean?  Is God somehow to be found in consciousness itself?  Is God in some way we cannot fully understand, the very substance of this awesome universe—the “stuff” that gives it its being and its energy, that gives us our being?  Is God somehow to be found in love itself?  On the other hand is God a Devine Mystery that simply cannot fit into any of our categories?  How we answer this question—What is God?—is foundational to the whole spiritual journey and to the attitudes we have toward that Divine Mystery, the universe, other people and ourselves.

Each religion has some explanation for that ultimate reality some of us call God.  Even an atheist in their very denial of the reality of God makes assumptions about the ultimate reality that is behind this awesome universe.  I have my own understanding which I will share later in this reflection, but the important point here is that each of us reflect seriously on this question and take it into our prayer.

All of that said, regardless of how we answer the question, What is God?, in the end we are still left with the original question: Who Is God for us?  What attitudes are we to have toward this God?  Whether we come to the conclusion that God is a “person” or we come to realize that God is not a “person” in the normal sense of that word, we still need to discover our attitude toward that mystery.  I want to make an important distinction here.  I realize that, when asked if God is a person, many of us would reply instantly, “Of course not!”, but there are deeper questions here.  Are we acting as if God were a person?  Are we talking about God as if God were a person?  Are our attitudes toward God based on preconscious assumptions that God is a person?  Is our approach to prayer based on those preconscious assumptions?  How might our approach to prayer be different if those assumptions were to change?

The basic explanation for what God is for Christians is in the concept of “The Trinity”.  The dictionary defines Trinity this way:

Also called Blessed Trinity, Holy Trinity, the union of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, or the threefold personality of the one Divine Being.4

I am sure that, were I a Christian theologian, this would be helpful, but I am not a theologian and this is not all that helpful to me personally.  It raises more questions for me than it answers. It is beyond the scope of this reflection to try and unpack this complex theological explanation, and yet its very complexity points to something extremely important to our discussion here.  Just maybe it points in the general direction of an answer.  Maybe the message for our discussion is simply that we do not know and we cannot know the answer to this profound question—What is God?  Maybe the best we can hope for is the realization of the awesome mystery behind this great universe.  Maybe that realization provides a much more palatable foundation for prayer than any of our traditional explanations, including the more technical theological explanation of the Trinity.

Thomas Keating makes a distinction between what he calls the “Western Model” and the “Scriptural Model” of Christian spirituality.5  I am sure that some would question the distinction between western and Christian, but his descriptions of the two models, whatever we choose to call them, is instructive for our purpose.

For Keaton, in the western model we as humans are outside of God and God is outside of us.  Said another way we are out here in the world and God is up there “in heaven”.  With this model all of our efforts are self-initiated and directed at pleasing God.  External actions are more important than internal intensions.   Our efforts are directed toward completion of the various rituals and responsibilities.  We initiate these actions.  God then has an obligation to reward us when we are good and punish us when we fail.  The emphasis is on reward and punishment both in this world and in heaven or hell as the case may be.  We do external works to obtain merit—to “be saved”—in order to require God to respond positively.  In its most narrow sense, we seek to avoid going to hell and assure our place in “heaven” in the afterlife.  The extreme view of this is expressed in a church sign I saw once that said, “Use SonScreen to avoid eternal burning”.  Sheesh!

to Keaton, in the scriptural model we are in God and God is in us.  Interior motivation is more important that external actions.   Our job in this model is to listen to God, and to respond to God rather than focusing on our own self-initiated actions and projects.  The emphasis is on our journey to unite ourselves with God and to love God, love ourselves and love others right here right now.  Jesus put it this way:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, [and to] love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”6  Obviously if we are to love our neighbor as ourself we must also love ourselves.

Christian scripture tells us:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”7

Those of us who call ourselves Christians are familiar with this passage.  Most of us can quote it almost verbatim.  That said, our basic attitudes toward God often seem to assume it is the other way around: God made in the image of man.  We act as if God were a person like us up in heaven, wherever that is.  I have often joked that I grew up with this image of God up in some grand control room pushing buttons and leavers controlling the entire universe including each of us.  As I became something of a “techno junkie” I jokingly wondered what kind of computer system God used.  On one level I was joking, but the truth is it is not far from the image of God that I grew up with.  Sadly, that “joke” still works.  People still understand where it comes from.  Jokes like this are only funny when there is some truth behind them.  When we think of God as a person it raises all kinds of deeper questions which need to be brought into our reflections and prayer as well, but again, we avoid those questions like the plague.

Picking up on the so called first person of the Trinity image we often refer to God as a loving and caring “Father”.  On first blush that sounds good, but sub-consciously that image inevitably, if pre consciously, gets caught up in our relationship with our own earthly father.  What if our father was absent?  What if our father abused us?  What if he was cold and distant?  Even if he was an otherwise good father he can still be seen by his children as a disciplinarian who was always telling us what to do, preventing us from doing many of the things we wanted to do, punishing us when we were “bad”, and rewarding us when we were “good”.  All of this becomes a part of our attitude toward God as father whether we are aware of it or not.  Beyond the father image we get from our childhood, God the father is often presented in much the same way in what passes for church teaching today.  For this image of God the Father to work it needs to be brought into the “divine therapy”8 of our prayer and unpacked.  What does “God the Father” really mean for us personally.

Then there is God the policeman and judge.  I spent sixteen years as a police officer.9  Yes, part of my job involved helping people—reaching out to them when they were hurt, in trouble, or suffering in one way or another.  That said, in the end my primary job was what a friend of mine likes to call “chasing the bad guys” to investigate crime and arrest people who violated the law. Those crimes ran the gamut from relatively minor traffic violations to murder, rape, and robbery.  When I arrested these “violators” I would ultimately take them before a judge whose job was to determine their quilt or innocence and mete out the appropriate punishment.

Much of the way Christians talk about sin makes God out to be both policeman and judge.  The attitude toward God from this perspective is that God sits up in his control room, watches us, and keeps track of our sins, judges us, and mets out rewards and punishments.  All too often it seems that when bad things happen in our life we then blame it on our sin, and believe God is punishing us for that sin.

The dictionary defines a tyrant as:

a cruel and oppressive ruler:  a person exercising power or control in a cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary way.10

With that definition none of us would overtly refer to God as a tyrant, and yet it seems that we often attribute attitudes and actions to God that, if done by us humans would be seen as tyrannical.  We do this while at the same time contending that God is all loving and all caring.

When my granddaughter was about three years old she stopped calling me “Daddy Dick,” a family tradition, and just started just calling me “Dick”.  Had I disowned her and punished her because she did not call me by the “right” name I would have been considered to be acting like a tyrant:  “exercising power or control in a cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary way”.  My family and friends would have been all over me for being so mean.  I love her, and frankly I do not care what she calls me as long as she calls me.  Beyond that it is absolutely clear to me that the change actually indicated that our relationship and her love for me was growing more mature.  Would not this “all loving and all caring” God be at least that loving and caring?  And yet some of us have no problem taking the position that God will send people strait to hell to burn for eternity for calling God Allah for example, never mind that many of these people live essentially loving and caring lives.  Might not such a loving God be more interested in our inner attitudes and outer actions than in the name we use.

The problem here of course is not really the name we use for God.  It is the claim of exclusivity for our particular beliefs about God and our particular understanding of God.  It is the belief that our own particular religion, our own particular denomination, and even our own personal “belief system” has all of the right answers.

The problem here is the belief that God will reject and punish us if we do not ascribe to a certain set of beliefs—that God will send us to to burn in hell if we do not profess those specific beliefs before we die, never mind whether or not we can understand those beliefs or not.  Some take this to the extreme of claiming that God will send us to hell even if we have never been exposed to those beliefs.  Is not that the very definition of being a tyrant—a prime example of “exercising power or control in a cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary way”?

Some years ago I had a discussion with a very traditional Christian friend of mine about what it means to be a Christian.  I finally asked her, “What is the bottom line for you?”  She replied, “You have to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he died for your sins!”  I then asked her what she meant when she said that Jesus was the Son of God.  I half jokingly told her that when I said Mark was my son it meant that my wife and I had sex, she got pregnant, and at the appropriate time Mark was born.  I said that I was pretty sure that was not what she meant when she called Jesus the Son of God.  She replied in an incredulous tone, “No, of course not!” When I pushed her on what she did mean she actually stuttered trying to find an answer, which she never did.  This requirement to believe that Jesus was the Son of God was a central point for her, and she had absolutely no idea what it meant.

We did not even get to the questions about the meaning of the statement that we must believe that Jesus died for our sins.  Is it not tyrannical to require a blood sacrifice by one’s own son in order for me to forgive other people for their sins, not to mention downright cruel?

My point in sharing this story is not really to challenge the belief that Jesus was the Son of God or that he died for our sins.  That is a whole other question.   My intent in sharing this story is to encourage us to consider seriously the implications of our beliefs.  In this case does it make God a tyrant to require us to give assent to a certain doctrine, whether or not we understand it, or whether or not we have been exposed to it, in order to prevent eternal damnation?  It seems so to me.

All of this begs the question we talked about earlier, ”What is God?”  Does it even make sense to attribute these types of attitudes, these types of requirements, and these kinds of actions to God at all?

Confucius is reported to have said “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know”11.  The truth is that we cannot know fully what or who God is.  We can have ideas and opinions, but we cannot know.  Thinkers from every era, culture, and religion have taken their shot at describing what or who God is.  Atheists have tried to deny that God exists at all.  Some have argued for a single God, and some have argued for multiple gods.  All of the theology about the Trinity is only the Christian version of that effort.  In the end the atheists cannot prove definitively that God does not exist anymore than the theists can prove definitively that God does exist.  The possibilities between those two extremes are legion. If we can let go of our own assumptions and opinions those many possibilities themselves are awe inspiring as well.  And maybe, just maybe, we could begin to put an end to all of the violence and wars that comes from the many controversies that grow out of that debate.

For us to truly recognize the powerful awesomeness of God we must first examine the often narrow, unreflected, and conflicting images  and attitudes we have toward God.  We must take those images and attitudes into a prayerful discernment process that includes what we have learned from science and reason, and from the culture, and from religion.  We cannot blindly accept the answers provided through any of those sources.  But in the end we must take all of that into our prayers and reflections and seek our own answers.  We must have the courage to listen carefully and repeatedly to our own sacred inner voice that, if we are open, speaks in the deepest part of ourselves.  We must find our own answers there to these foundational questions of the Spiritual Life.  Is there a God? What is God?  Who is God?  What is our image of God?  What are our attitudes toward God?  Our answers to these foundational questions will guide the way we pray and the way we live our lives.  The crucial thing here is that ultimately our answers are our own answers and that those answers are open to revision and an ever deepening understanding as we continue on our journey.

In the end finding and deepening our answers to these questions must become one of the reasons why we pray.

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Questions for reflection and a response to one of the questions by Richard are in another post.  Go there…

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1 Keaton, Thomas, Video The Spiritual Journey: Introduction: Attitudes Toward God, (Contemplative Outreach, St. Benedict’s Monastary, Snowmass, Co., 2006) http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org

2 Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.

3 Needleman, Jacob: What Is God?, (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009).

4 Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.

5 Keaton, Thomas, Video The Spiritual Journey: Introduction: Attitudes Toward God, (Contemplative Outreach, St. Benedict’s Monastary, Snowmass, Co., 2006) http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org

6 Mark 12:30-31 (NIV)

7 Genesis 1:27 (NIV)

8 Keaton, Thomas, Video The Spiritual Journey: Prologue: The Psychological Experience of Centering Prayer, (Contemplative Outreach, St. Benedict’s Monastary, Snowmass, Co., 2006) http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org

9 For more information see Southworth, Richard N., Choosing Authenticity: Religion Is Not Enough

10 Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.

11 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/497572-true-wisdom-is-knowing-what-you-don-t-know

May 232014
 

Reflection II:  Because We Must

The Call To Prayer
Part 2

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You are encouraged to read Part One before proceeding.

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Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways do I sense that my life is or is not authentic?  In what ways do I sense that I am “denied the right of legitimate self-expression”?  In what ways do I feel called to grow and change?  
  2. Do I currently pray?  Why?  Why not?  Describe my current prayer practice.
  3. Am I aware of an inner voice that calls me to pray or to deepen my prayer life?  When I pray do I listen for or expect a response?  What would that response be like?
  4. Have I had an experience of awe and wonder?  Describe that experience in detail.  What was my reaction?  What questions arose in me as a result of that experience?  What was my response?
  5. Have I had an experience of suffering or loss?  Describe that experience in detail.  What was my reaction.  What questions arose in me as a result of that experience?  What was my response?
  6. Have I had deep questions about the Mysterious Other I call God, about the universe, about life, and/or about my own life and calling rise up in me?  Describe the experience.  Describe the Questions.  Describe my response.  
  7. What negative compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses tend to drive my day-to-day life?  What destructive habits prevent me from living my life fully and authentically?  Consider such things as anger, addictions, and violent behavior.  Describe these issues in detail.  What are the roots of that behavior?

Richard’s Answer to Question IV:

4. Have I had an experience of awe and wonder?  Describe that experience in detail.  What was my reaction?  What questions arose in me as a result of that experience?  What was my response?

My first experience of real prayer clearly began with experiences of awe and wonder on evening walks on a golf course near our home.  As I have written elsewhere:

… we lived in a subdivision bordering on a golf course.  Several times a week I would take long walks on the golf course at night.  I would often stand on a knoll looking over the golf course and the many lights and buildings beyond.  I would see the lights from houses and wonder what the people were like and what they were doing.  I would also listen to the sounds of the traffic in the distance and wonder where people were going in such a frenzy.  Periodically I would hear sirens and air horns from emergency vehicles and wonder what the emergency might be, who was in trouble, sick, or hurt.  More than any of that though, I would look up into the night sky at the moon and the stars and the clouds and contemplate the awesomeness of this vast universe and my small place in it.  It was here that I was absolutely certain of the presence of a Mysterious Other I called God in this universe.  It was also here that I was just as certain of my own relationship, however tenuous it seemed at times, with this Mysterious Other.  It was here that I knew without a doubt that I must continue on this quest.

Clearly true prayer was born for me on these walks.  It would not be a stretch to say that my conscious spiritual journey really began there, standing quietly on a knoll looking out at the world and the universe.  At the time I could not have recognized that fact, but it was in those quiet walks that I really began to seek answers to the profound questions that call us to prayer.  It has taken years of reading, study, and practice to develop, but it clearly began on that knoll in the quiet of the evening as I stared out at the wonder and awesomeness of this life, this world, this universe—and yes, of this Mysterious Other I call God.

May 212014
 

Reflection II:  Because We Must

The Call To Prayer
Part 1

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Praying is no easy matter.    It demands a relationship in which you allow the other to enter into the very center of your person, allow  him to speak there, allow him to touch the sensitive core of your being, and allow him to see so much that you would rather leave in darkness.    And when do you really want to do that?   Perhaps you would let the other come across the threshold to say something, to touch something, but to let him into that place where your life gets its form, that is dangerous and calls for defense.1
Henri J.  M.  Nouwen
It seems that the simplest answer to the question “Why do we pray?” is the most profound.  We pray simply  “because we must”.  A still small voice inside of us calls to us, and prayer is the only meaningful response.  We must listen, and we must respond.  We pray because we are responding to that sacred inner voice deep inside of us.  We can run from that voice.  We can deny its sacredness.  We can even deny it’s existence entirely, or we can settle for some psychological explanation.  The call is still there, waiting for us, pressing us, calling us, demanding a response from us, often when we least expect it and when we least desire it.  Left unattended to, this inner calling sometimes imposes itself on us in myriad ways, some positive and some negative, some inward and some outward.  In one way or another we all respond.  It is ultimately our choice whether our response or lack thereof leads to growth and service or to deformation and violence.  Listening to this sacred inner voice and living our lives in response to that voice is the very essence of what spirituality and prayer are all about.  It is what all true religion is all about.  It is what being fully human and fully alive is all about.  Choosing our response to this inner call and being obedient to it will determine the very direction and the quality of our life.  Choosing to follow that voice intentionally is ultimately what true “conversion” is all about.

This calling manifests itself in our lives in different ways.  Maybe the most obvious way is through an experience of awe and wonder.  We look up at the night sky on a clear night and we see thousands upon thousands of stars.  We realize the vast amazing wonder and mystery of the universe.  We sense with amazement our tiny but wondrous place in it.  We look into the face of an infant and realize with awe and wonder that it is a part of us and yet it is somehow unique from every other being in this vast universe.  We are awestruck wondering what this tiny writhing potential might become.  In the face of these and a thousand other wonders, questions rise up in us, sometimes just perceptibly and sometimes powerfully,  and they call to us.  Where does it all come from?  What does it all mean?  Where do I fit into the vastness of this great universe?  What does my life really mean?  Who am I called to be?  How am I called to live my unique life?  How do I know?  How is it even possible to know?  Even if I knew, how is it possible to actually become that in a world that has its own demands, its own agenda for our lives?  How do I connect with that “something” that is behind it all—how do I connect with that Mysterious Other we call God?  For some these questions rise up in a specifically Christian context.  For others they rise up in more secular terms, or in the language and symbols of other religious traditions.  However they are phrased, these questions call to us profoundly, and the only satisfactory answer is prayer.  Ultimately the only satisfactory answer is to sit quietly in the face of the awesomeness of it all and listen.  In that moment prayer is born in us.

This calling can also manifest itself through an experience of suffering or loss.  We face the death of a loved one, or we face serious illness, or we face our own impending death.  We lose our job, our home, or a family member or close friend commits suicide or becomes involved in drugs or alcohol.  Our spouse tells us they want a divorce.  We experience some kind of physical or emotional abuse.  The specific examples are legion, but whatever the event is, it leaves us torn apart inside.  We begin to question the very foundations of our lives.  We no longer see the world as a safe place for us.   Sometimes we just sense that our lives are being wasted, that time is just passing us by, and that time can never be recovered.  Just as an experience of awe can lead us to ask those seemingly unanswerable questions, an experience of suffering or loss or aimlessness can raise those same questions, albeit in a different form.  Where does this suffering come from?  Why is this happening to me now?  What did I do wrong?  How am I called to live my unique life in the face of these painful events?  Even if I knew, how is it possible to live that in the face of these realities?  How can that reality, if in fact there is a Mysterious Other, allow all of the pain and suffering that I see all around me to happen?  Again, ultimately the only satisfactory answer is to sit quietly in the face of this pain and suffering and listen— just be present—and in that moment, when we finally sit quietly and listen, prayer is born.

Yet, if we are perceptive, if we are paying attention, if at some point we wake up from the sleep of our ordinary life, this calling can simply rise up in us for no apparent reason at all.  There may be no particular experience of awe or wonder.  No unusual experience of suffering or loss.  Nothing dramatic at all.  This calling can just rise up inside of us uninvited, and even unwanted.  The questions themselves call to us in the very depths of our soul and demand answers, or at least they demand that we struggle with them.  Again, prayer is born in all of its own awesomeness, wonder, and yes, suffering.

Yet this calling, left unacknowledged and unattended, can also manifest itself in all kinds of destructive ways.  Left unattended to, this calling often leads us to restlessness and boredom,  anger and aggressiveness and to violence, addiction and all manner of other anti-social and destructive behavior.  Adrian van Kaam rightly pointed out that:

When a person is denied the right of legitimate self-expression a deep inner rage develops in them which can permeate their life.2

It is that sacred inner voice that reveals to us who we are and who we are called to be.  To the extent that we fail to listen and respond to that inner voice we deny ourselves even the possibility of that “legitimate self-expression” van Kaam speaks of so profoundly and opens us to that resulting incessant rage in all of its various expressions.  That rage may rise up in different ways in each of us, but rise up it will.  In one way or another that inner voice will be “heard”.  In its mildest forms it can show itself as restlessness, dissatisfaction and boredom.  In its extreme it can result in suicide and violence, including such things as mass killings and war.    If we “wake up” at some point and listen to that rage in all of its various forms, prayer can be born here as well.

Just as the questions can rise up in us in different terms and symbols, prayer, wherever and however it is born in us, will express itself in different forms, in different traditions, in different symbols, and in different languages.  It may find its expression in specifically Christian terms, but it also may find its expression in terms and symbols from other religious traditions such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or even in secular terms that we do not normally think of as prayer at all.  That said there are foundational principles that cut across these different traditions that, if followed, will lead us to live more authentic and consonant lives.  We will speak of several of these foundational principles in this series.  If those foundational principles are not followed, “prayer” itself can lead us to dissonance and all kinds of destructive and violent behavior as well.  We have to look no further than the seemingly endless violent acts performed by people who believed that they were led by God.

We can trace this call to prayer all the way back to the earliest days of human existence.  Archeologists have found paintings on cave walls and the remains of all kinds of ritualistic  activities going back thousands of years indicating early human responses to this inner call to prayer—this call to relate to something deeper than ourselves and yet a part of ourselves long before there were organized religions per se.  In more recent times all of the varied cultures of the world have developed innumerable responses to this call.  In states that have tried to suppress it, it has continued to survive, sometimes in the underground, and sometimes in open defiance and rebellion.  The holocaust is only one blatant example.  Admittedly some of these developments have been questionable—even destructive and violent, but many of them have also been passionate and life giving.

Whatever else that can be said about the vast array of religious practice we humans have developed over the centuries, it seems clear that there is a deep inner call in us to connect with something deep inside of us and all around us—a call, the only response to which is prayer in all of its challenges, in all of its complexity, in all of its different forms, and ultimately in all of its beauty and sacredness  as well.  In the end we pray because we must, but that sacred inner voice calls us not just to pray but to go further.  It calls us to  go where we sometimes are hesitant to go.  Prayer, if we take it really seriously, calls us to change, to growth, to transformation, and to conversion of heart.  It calls us to live truly authentic lives.  Prayer calls us to live our lives differently, and to be present in the events of our lives in a whole new way.  This change and growth—this movement toward authenticity, is the thing we long for in the deepest part of ourselves, but it is also the thing we often fear the most.   We long for it because it calls us to become the very essence of who we were created to be—of who we really are.  We fear it because, intuitively we know it will change us in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Make no mistake, true prayer taken seriously is hard work.  It is The Work of the Spiritual Journey.   As we shall see, it is more than having a relationship with that Mysterious Other we call God.  It is more than the traditional approaches of praise, adoration, communion, conversation, petition, penance, and forgiveness.  It involves all of those things and much more.  Prayer, in its deepest sense, also involves solitude, listening, discovery, and incarnation.  In the end it involves something the monastics call Divine Union.  In the next several reflections we will take a look at each of those topics.

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Questions for reflection and a response to one of the questions by Richard are in another post.  Go there…

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1 Nouwen, Henri J. M., With Open Hands (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ava Maria Press, 1972), p. 12.
2 Comment made in a class by Father Adrian van Kaam, CSP, the founder of the Institute Of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University, circa. 1986.

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