He was an intelligent young man. “I have come,” he said, “to get some answers. I’ve talked to a bunch of ministers and none of them was any help.”
I drew in my breath and exhaled, praying that God release me from any illusions that I could improve upon my colleagues’ work. “Make me humble, Lord. Make me true.” Glib answers, formulaic responses, any hint of arrogance would quickly be detected by his cynicism and broken heart.
“I am about ready to give up on church,” he told me with a hint of defiance, as though he were daring me to be helpful to him. His story was painful, and his anger, despair and hurt were palpable. As he wept, shoulders shaking, I sat Shiva. I kept the ancient Jewish vigil of simple presence to another’s suffering. As those who comforted the bereaved in Jesus’ tradition, I waited for my guest to initiate conversation.
“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself,” wrote the Spanish writer, Unamuno.
We live in a world with little patience for doubt or questioning. We do not value subtlety, complexity or mystery. We possess minimal tolerance for simply sitting with ambiguity and suffering. We do not trust there is any effectual power at work in our lives beyond what we can manipulate or contrive with our own wills and abilities.
The pragmatism, that is the religion many of us bow before, insists on quick, easy solutions. If something “works,” then it deserves our support. An end product that satisfies our needs justifies almost any means.
Our market place economy heavily determines how we think of ourselves and the world. The language of faith with its nuance, poetry, metaphor and reverence for mystery has been taken over by the market place, which measures worth by utility and productivity.
This is not a new sin. The people of Isaiah’s day were also co-opted by a culture of consumption and utilitarianism. The prophet reminds Israel that they and their carved idols and cast metal images do not know everything. “Now I am revealing new things to you, things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment, of these things you have heard nothing until now, so that you cannot say, “Oh yes, I knew all this.” (Isaiah 48: 6)
I do not know the end of the young man’s story, as is often the case with those who pass through my life. I gave him what I could, which was my love and respect for his losses. As I sat with him, I saw that God loved him very much and also saw how deeply this young man loved God and didn’t know it.
I found myself face to face with my poverty — my lack of any satisfying answer to tie up everything and take away his pain. I had no bright ideas, plans for recovery or quick fix resources to suggest. In the words of Isaiah, I could only stay open for the hidden thing, the unknown thing which was coming into being in that young man’s soul, just at that moment out of the infinite, divine unknowable Mind of God.
I had only love to give, which, in times like this, never seems to be enough, but always is.
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I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…
Mary Oliver (A Summer Day)
I have been at it for a lot of years now, and I still do not know exactly what a prayer is. It seems to have always been part of my life like the color of my eyes. As a preschooler I learned to fold my hands and bow my head. I prayed for my family, our dog, and my neighbor, Mrs.Wendel, who made good cookies. I had a set list I covered: Santa Claus, the Snowman, and Betty Crocker, whose picture was on the box which my mom’s iron came in.
We always prayed before meals, usually led by my father. Every night he kneeled beside his bed to pray. I came upon him at prayer like that many times. He died in 2000. When I go back to Iowa to visit my mother, I like to sit in a corner by a bookcase, where dad read the Bible every day. His magnifying glass, pens and letter opener are still there.
My father’s prayer was quiet and hidden, yet woven into the fabric of his life like his breath. I saw the fruit in his kindness and caring acts for others, in the vitality of his mind and interest in the world around him, and in his outrage at injustice. As he grew older, he would often say, “I am just so thankful.”
What exactly is a prayer? I fumble for the words. Traditional words about prayer feel like pebbles in my mouth, tasteless, hard and difficult to swallow. As much as I gnaw at them I find no nourishment.
“What language may we borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?” wrote the anonymous author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. Whatever language we use, it will always be “borrowed.” It will be loaned from some, other, lesser reality in an awkward, ill-fitting attempt to clothe The Reality beyond all language and human thought. Mere words fail to express the experience of our hearts in response to God’s love, gifts and challenges in our lives.
Now I will foolishly do something I have just told you is impossible. For me prayer is fundamentally an attempt to communicate. This desire to communicate is initiated in us by God and a way in which we participate in the likeness of God.
Take a look at that word, communicate. Its root carries the meaning of coming together, communing, communion. What is implied is that at least two separate parties are desirous of joining in some way, of reaching an understanding, of connecting with a commonly held perspective, need, desire, or purpose.
We could say prayer is the eternal conversation and exchange of love as experienced in the context of our lives in which all parties are affected and changed in some way. For me the life, what engages me, is not the abstract concepts of prayer, but in the lived experience of communication. By the way, this is why I believe God is on Facebook and is an old hand at Twitter.
Prayer rides on the wings of our hearts’ desires, anguish, hunger and joy — that bolt of white fire that connects heaven to earth and unites mortal with divine. I can’t say exactly what a prayer is. But I can sure tell when people have been doing it.
Who taught you to pray? Who are you teaching? What exactly is a prayer to you?
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Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get home. St. Francis
I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Thirteen years before I watched the eight grass carp slip out from the plastic bags from the fish farm and slide into the lake. Since than I had not seen them. I had heard their splashes growing louder over the years, and glimpsed an occasional fin. Some visitors spoke of the Lake Holy Ground Monster. A few saw one feeding close to shore.
Now I stood on the shore enthralled. With no rain for weeks the lake was as clear as glass. From the shore west of the hermitage I could see through greenish yellow water to the bottom. An old lawn chair sat half submerged in the shallows. A few mossy sticks lay in the soft mud.
Then a movement caught my eye, something slowly waving. First one, then another and another — six huge grass carp swam lazily into my view. Some were over four feet in length. Moving slowly in a wide circle, their bodies shimmered with iridescent diamond scales, silver dappled in the sun.
Lifting the curve of their open pink mouths like soup ladles, they gulped the willow seeds and cottonwood fluff floating on the surface. Skimming off the white fuzz, the giants wove in and out in a dance of mesmerizing beauty. A large open mouth would break the surface and scoop the fluff. Then the mouth, water running from its corners like an overflowing pitcher, would close and sink into the lake. The fish scooped and sank, swimming silently, smooth and easy like the hawks riding the wind currents above us.
Later when I got home I cherished the memory of those fish swimming so self contained, whole in themselves, flowing through the water like cream in coffee before it is stirred. For days after I would close my eyes and see them swimming, a secret vision of grace. Here was beauty free for the seeing. And somehow the best gift was their creatureliness — that they knew nothing of me, or a world beyond the lake, that what I did or did not do mattered not to them.
I practiced floating that summer. I learned how my breath increases my buoyancy in the water and to relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I learned that water will hold my weight when I resist the least.
Marshall McLuhan said, “We do not know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Could we overcome our ignorance of the very substance in which we live and move and find our being? Could we float in grace and swim in love, dipping our jaws and opening our throats to taste salvation? I hope so.
A priest observed a peasant man coming daily to the church where he knelt and remained in prayer for some time. One day the priest approached the man and asked, “What do you say to our Lord on your daily visits?”
“Oh, I don’t say anything,” the man replied. “I look at him and he looks at me.”
A lot about the spiritual life has to do with where you look, what it is you pay attention to and see. The prayer of the peasant man is sometimes called the prayer of the simple gaze or simple regard. In our time of incessant naming, describing, evaluating, where a daily deluge of words pours over us from radio, television, internet, mail and highway billboards, a prayer without words can be sweet refreshment to a word numbed soul. The wordless communion of the gaze is a potent and underrated form of prayer.
Go find something that fills you with wonder and look upon it with love for a while. Go swimming in beauty. It is your natural home, you know.
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The world is not a courtroom,
There is no judge, no jury, no plaintiff.
This is a caravan, filled with eccentric beings
telling wondrous stories about God.
Could it be that the cacophony of our communication pouring into the air space, cyperspace, and onto pages and pages of paper is nothing more, or less, than eccentric beings telling stories about God? One and all, we scrawl out as best we can our truth, our passion, our experience as creatures on this planet. We tell our stories through the choices we make, the friends we keep, and our mistakes and failures. We weave wondrous tales as we frame and express the meaning we give to our unique and precious lives.
We tweet and friend and facebook and link up and plaxo as we stake out our truth and territory like the birds in the woods calling back and forth.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, I am over here.”
“Well I am here. This is my territory. This is what I see. What do you see?”
“I don’t see what you see. I see this.”
And yes, we are indeed, eccentric — wildly, delightfully and horrifyingly so at times.
I listen a lot to people’s stories about God or the apparent absence of God in their lives. Together we lift their experiences to the light, turn them to and fro, and notice something spiritual directors like to call “movements of the Spirit” (a piece of spiritual formation jargon that makes me want to giggle). This spiritual practice involves learning to pay attention to and recognize God’s way with you and what God might be saying to you in the context of your being and daily life experience. Sometimes we work like a GSI (God Scene Investigation) team. We pick up bits of evidence. We look carefully and reverently at what we find. We piece together scraps of your life story in God. We hold it all up to the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit. We weigh it against the texts of scripture, the tradition of faith communities, and your own common sense, reason, and intuition. Then we wait for confirmation and/or redirection from the Spirit, as it speaks through your community, relationships, scriptures, and own heart.
Of course, it is rarely this tidy. Like babies babbling and toddlers scribbling, our stories are stumbling incomplete attempts to capture the unnamable ineffable Reality in which we live and move and find our being. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge," sings the psalmist uttering his own story. (Psalm 19) In ways both, crude and blasphemous, sublime and exalted, we join our voices with all the people on earth and all the company of heaven in every time and place who forever to sing to the glory of God.
One of the eccentrics on this caravan is poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins. With a grace and beauty that stun me, he captures the notion of all the creatures in creation telling at once their stories of holiness.
As kingfishers catch fire,
Dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Gerald Manley Hopkins
So I say Tweet your hearts out: Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea, stories of Jesus, tell them to me!
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Prayer of Thomas Merton
I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it
the word of your peace
and the word of your mercy
and the word of your gentleness to the world:
and that through me perhaps your word of peace
may make itself heard
where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, is Hermit Day, Sabbath — a day of solitude and silence. No phone, email, social networking, television, radio, or gadding about doing and consuming.
A day of fasting and withdrawal from the addictive worship of the gods of productivity and commerce, the altars of words, the energy of anxiety, and the illusions of personal power.
Somebody has to do it.
You come too.
Perhaps you and the rest of us will hear something we have not been able to hear for a long time.
Captain Midnight ate a giraffe and an owl. I ate a camel and a lion. Crunch, crunch, crunch went Captain’s teeth on the owl. His dark nose worked back and forth and his whiskers twitched. We were eating animal crackers, a particularly satisfying meal for a rabbit. When you live your life running from fox and eagle, there is nothing quite so satisfying as sinking your teeth into a sweet crispy coyote.
There are turkeys in the trees.
There are turkeys in the trees.
Tell me if you please
why are there turkeys in the trees?
Captain was writing a poem, but he got stuck after this line. His problem was not rhyme. He had a whole list of possibilities: sneeze, sleeves, sweet peas. It was an ontological problem he was working on, as he chewed a rhinoceros. He was considering the nature of being. Why are there turkeys in the trees or fields or woods? Why are there turkeys anywhere? Why, for that matter, are there trees?
Captain finished off the rhino and sank into reverie. Turkeys, trees, he thought. Then something shifted. He, who was absorbed with his poem, began to be the subject of something else’s absorption. He felt lifted and held. He was no longer thinking, but was being thought by something larger than he.
Captain Midnight was a rabbit with a contemplative nature. A lot of rabbits are like this. Maybe you have noticed. At dusk when rabbits feel safe and happy, you will see them on lawns and meadows at the edge of the woods, sitting in the grass still as stones. I like to think they are watching God rise from the cooling earth in a fine mist. Then while crickets throb and night descends, I think rabbits leave their bodies like empty locust husks on the lawns and become rapt by the God-mist gathering in soft folds in the valleys. The earth is blanketed with glad and tender rabbit spirit. And in kitchens, boardrooms, and on freeways, here and there, people lift their eyes, sigh. The hard bitterness of their hearts, the fear and worry ease a bit. Their shoulders soften. For a moment they are a little kinder and gentler. I believe rabbits do this to people.
The word contemplation comes from the Latin: com (with) plus templum (temple, an open or consecrated space). It means to gaze attentively or think about intently. As a form of prayer, contemplation generally refers to an attitude of quiet open receptivity to God, a resting of mental activity and surrender into God’s gracious presence.
Originally contemplation meant to mark out an augural space, a place for divination. In ancient Rome the priest auger would mark off holy space by his staff and foretell events and interpret omens by considering the flights of birds, the location of lightening in the sky, and the arrangement of the entrails of animals. The priest’s interpretations guided affairs of state, including when the senate should meet or a battle begin.
Contemplation is the leisurely process of making sense of what is — the world as we know it — by circling around issues or ideas and considering them from varied vantage points. Contemplation implies spaciousness — a willingness not to succumb to anxious grasping after understanding. Contemplation requires some detachment, a divestment of the ownership of truth and letting go of one’s personal agendas and desires. A contemplative attitude suggests a poverty of spirit which is willing to say, “I do not know. Let us look at this together and see what we see.”
When Captain Midnight is at his contemplative best, he spreads out with his stomach pressed into the earth, hind legs stretched out behind. And he vibrates. His body pulses in tiny rapid oscillations. He seems to tune into an extra high frequency energy source, receiving power and converting it to rabbit voltage.
Feathers blowing in the breeze
Turkeys roosting in the trees.
A rabbit’s heart is free to seize
its Maker’s joy on the wing
and behold the truth of any thing.
They began coming that summer. First one large turkey tentatively made its way out of the woods and across the clearing. It pecked at the corn under the bird feeder then lifted its head, swiveling on its long neck like a periscope. Every few days he would be back. Then one day I lifted my head to count twenty turkeys ranging about the yard — four adults and sixteen chicks pecking, heads bobbing, clucking to each other softly. The cats, Captain Midnight, and I stared in astonishment.
So Captain knew why there were turkeys in the trees. He saw them fly when Chance, the golden retriever, happened to come around the side of the house and began barking at the critters who had taken over his territory. Amid flapping wings and a giddy barking dog, the gobbling ganders rose to balance precariously on the branches, as the chicks scrambled into the woods. Chance had never seen anything quite so wonderful, and neither had Captain.
May something as marvelous set you to contemplating and writing poems. Tell me what astonishes and delights you and inspires your creativity.
I didn't start out planning to give my life to prayer. The notion sort of snuck up on me. A series of collisions, near misses, and faltering steps toward love drew me into the lap of holiness. In the confusion there were some moments of clarity. Once driving with my friend, Wanda, through Kentucky countryside lush with the aching beauty of spring, I blurted out my passion. "I think I could just live in a hut somewhere and pray all the time, but I am married and want to have children, and besides I am a Presbyterian." I was soon to graduate from three years of seminary preparation to be a minister. We were talking about what we planned to do with our lives. Wanda turned to me, mouth open and said, "Well my goodness, Loretta, if someone wanted to do something like that that bad, I think God would want them to too."
It took me a while to figure out the logistics, but for the past twenty six years I have focused my life in prayer. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that prayer has focused my life. Prayer has clarified, refined, and made more visible for me my own being and the being of all things.
I spend a lot of my time chasing after the elusive Lover of our souls, scrambling after crumbs and leavings on the path. Occasionally I kick up heart stopping showers of diamonds in the dust. Like most things we deeply desire and set out to do, it hasn't been easy.
For example, there aren't many models. It is not that people do not pray. Research shows that most of us do in one way or another.
Research also shows that many of us do not care to talk to each other about it. The person who deliberately sets out to make a life project of prayer finds few persons outside a monastery who understand this calling. A life of prayer is such an antiquated notion for most Americans that if you have heard of someone who has done this, it is quite likely they are dead. I am not.
In fact there are more people than you may think, who have been stricken as I and are willing to live like beggars for love of God. I know quite a few who knock themselves out for the compelling beauty of the Holy One. They pine away for this Lover and feel lonely and afraid sometimes. They wonder if anything good can come from being hidden away in prayer. They also have a marvelously good time walking on this earth. I believe they do an incredible amount of good for us all. There could be one living next door to you right now.
At this point you may be wondering - So what is prayer anyway? Good question. We will get to that. No rush though. We have eternity.
Let’s get acquainted. Tell me about you and your prayer or your desire to pray.