Are you …. hurried, undisciplined and disorganized in life?
Also in your prayer life?
Written in 1993 by Laurence Wagley and published in The Christian Century these words about prayer — and life — are timeless and worth reading. Wagley writes:
“Much recent literature on prayer and spiritual formation has taken the “pumping iron” approach. The central theme is “try harder.” [This article was written in 1993.]
“But trying has a short shelf life, and I suspect recidivism is greatest not among dieters or smokers but among those who commit themselves to prayer.
“People in trouble, reaching out in prayer, are desperately aware of their own weakness, instability and sin.
” Initially prayer is often a frantic garble with little faith in any answering help. As faith grows, confidence in our ability in spiritual matters is likely to decrease even more because of the discovery that good things come from God and not from human enterprise.
” The saints who have long histories of prayer and faithful living are the ones most likely to give witness to their own weakness and to attribute all their faithfulness to God.
” I’m no longer surprised that generally students’ first response to the topic of prayer is to confess how little they pray.
They know they ought to. They say they have a guilty conscience from neglecting prayer. They should be more committed, more disciplined and better organized in their prayer life. They ought to try harder. It took me a while to pick up the “shoulds” and “oughts” in these confessions. I didn’t recognize these at first because they characterized my own confessions. In other connections I call such a concentration of compulsive prescription a form of moralism—maybe even an indication of works-righteousness.
“We have been taught to emphasize human endeavor in our prayer and spiritual formation. Discipline and rule are presented as the norm. We should select certain times and places for prayer.
In the literature of spiritual formation Prayer is not a rare thing to be searched for. It is the activity of life, the atmosphere that sustains life.
God meets us in the noise, the hurry and the crowds — while some are preoccupied with discipline, with steps and procedures.
The picture conveyed [in much of prayer literature] is of a disciplined super-hero who climbs an endless flight of stairs, scales high mountains, works hard.
Have you ever had acquaintances who insisted on forming a friendship with you? They pushed until you felt smothered by their attention, and you finally reached the conclusion that they wanted the relationship for the own reasons rather than for any real appreciation of you.
I have a similar problem with many of the prayer manuals. Confidence in human endeavor is joined with promises of success. Titles such as The Power of Holy Habits, Liberation of Life, Secret of a Happy Life and Power Through Prayer contain a subtle combination of these themes. Interview the football star about his sport or his prayer and he is likely to say, “I had a really good day, but I can do better. I’m going to really practice hard this week and I think you’ll see a really super performance next Sunday.” This approach sounds right. Capitalize on the enthusiasm of the new convert. Encourage the commitment of the person who has just had a religious experience.
Home from a prayer retreat, the novice in spiritual formation makes resolutions. The problem with resolutions is that they look in the wrong direction for what is resolute. Listen to the practitioner who has been praying an hour every day for two weeks. “It’s wonderful! It has brought new meaning to my life. There is nothing like it. You ought to try it!” It sounds like Amway or Mary Kay. There is a Laurence A. Wagley is professor of preaching and worship at Saint Paul School of Theology (United Methodist) in Kansas City, Missouri. 323 CHRISTIAN CENTURY March24-31,1993 passing enthusiasm, and a need to sell the product to others as a confirmation of one’s good judgment.
This is the dominant form of evangelism in our culture. No matter what the sin (dirt, ugliness, being fat), salvation is a human endeavor.
SEVERAL PRAYER manuals follow a model that places those who pray on a scale of maturity. Then the aim is to prove that I have more spiritual or psychological maturity than you do. Many authors in the fields of education, pastoral care and spiritual formation have drawn on the work of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg and Fowler and made major contributions to an understanding of how people learn, cope and mature.
But prayer tailored to developmental stages can become mechanistic. An excellent book on prayer by the faculty of Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary ends with a chapter on “Learning and Teaching Prayer.” The author of that chapter is concerned primarily with “the learners’ cognitive and affective developmental readiness,” so that the “appropriate methods” may be selected. I’m afraid he will divide the prayer meeting into classes with names on the doors like: “Undifferentiated Faith,” “Intuitive-Projective Faith,” “Mythic-Literal Faith” or “Synthetic-Conventional.”
Other manuals use psychological testing such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator so that prayer may be attuned to areas where you can make your own best effort.
Prayer is primarily the initiative of God coming to form a caring relationship with us. When prayer is thought of as a human accomplishment it turns toward concern for goals and values that are attainable by hard work and which have as their reward personal gratification.
God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ has changed the direction of prayer. An anxious striving for God has been changed to a thankful acceptance of God. Special days and holy places are to remind us that in Christ, God is present “at all times and in all places.”
This is a gift to celebrate in the midst of life rather than a discipline to be learned in a special academy. This theological approach to prayer emphasizes healing of eyes and ears so we may see and hear and know God’s presence in the world.
Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline begins his chapter on “The Discipline of Meditation” this way: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry and crowds.” Like many other writers on the topic, Foster tries to create an alternative world in which we may practice certain disciplines and so achieve a spiritual quality of life.
I believe that God meets us in this life—the life of noise, hurry and crowds—with a grace that is transforming both for us and our culture. The dichotomy of noise and spirituality is a false one.
Prayer is not a rare thing to be searched for. It is the activity of life, the moving atmosphere that sustains life even when we are unaware of it. An increasing awareness of God’s presence is to be sought, but not primarily in our effort. It will be found in the revelation of God—a glory present everywhere, a song that is a constant melody of life.
Augustine made this discovery. As a Neoplatonist he sought a ladder—a sequence of meritorious acts that would elevate the soul to God. He soon lost confidence in this approach, however, and came more and more to emphasize the frailty of humanity.
For Augustine, prayer came to be marked not by disciplined endeavor but by the grace of God—a grace one cannot earn but only beg.
The whole human response to God’s initiative, according to Augustine, is not ascetic exercises but humbly following Christ. Spiritual formation in an Augustinian mode is less the soul’s ascent to God than a holy longing, submitting to be remade by God.
He must have discovered it in Paul: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Why should prayer be such hard work? A loving relationship would seem to express itself joyously and spontaneously. A theology of prayer that puts the emphasis on work and discipline is bad theology.
We pray to a God who takes the initiative. Prayer is a form of grace. It is an expression of the ultimate gift—the gift of God’s self to us.
The problem is not just in making unrealisjtic demands on human beings. In Faith’s Freedom Luke Johnson critiques much of the literature on prayer as having “little grounding in . . . theology” and “rarely touching on the problems of real life.”
“Christian spirituality,” he says, “needs an intellectual recasting that takes seriously the life of ordinary people in a world shaped by modernity rather than the monastery.” I T IS POSSIBLE to take the monastery and early Christian monastic practice as a model, but there must be some care used in doing so. Roberta C. Bondi in To Pray and to Love places the emphasis on the motivation of love rather than on particular practice. Alan Jones in Soul Making enters a world of tears, hurt, pain and abandonment. From the desert he learned that awakening is followed by falling apart and learning to let go. He believes “it is fatal to interpret Christianity as a program for self-improvement or self-fulfillment.” On the other hand, Margaret R. Miles in Practicing Christianity looks to the early monastic tradition for “regimes involving diet, management of sex, physical exercise, and meditation or prayer [in order to] heighten a sense of agency and responsibility, a new ‘relation of oneself to oneself.'”
One of the extensive reviews of historic forms of spirituality is found in The Study of Spirituality. Near the end of this book is a short but seminal essay by Mark Gibbard in which he recommends “a discriminating use of the spiritual classics.” He warns against their tendency to be world-fleeing and against the Manichean escape from the Prayer in the midst of life— while waiting, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, driving—is a natural turning to God. Prayer does not necessarily require one’s undivided attention. CHRISTIAN CENTURY March24-31,1993 324 material and a slighting of the needs of the body.
As Johnson says, “We do not flee the world in order to practice prayer; rather we pray in order to engage the world.” What would the practice of this kind of prayer look like?
Listening as prayer: Listening to music, to the wind in the trees, to the noise of the city may be a form of prayer. Listening is itself a prayerful activity. Listening may lead to a sense of the presence of God. Listening may lead to insight. “Be still and know that I am God.” “I did not know that you were in this place.”
For Elijah, God s presence was not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.” Prayer as remembering: There is a close and dynamic relationship between prayer and remembering. The central act of the holiest prayer—the eucharistic prayer—is remembering.
The remembering of the Lord s Supper passes from recalling to reliving, so that all that was done in the past is available and effective in the present.
Remembering creates identity, and remembering helps us to know who we are and what our most important relationships are.
Prayer when you can’t think about anything else: This kind of prayer is at the opposite pole from disciplined and organized prayer. It is the prayer of crisis, of panic and trouble. When we face an emergency, it is difficult to think about anything else. Prayers during this time are often very subjective, even naive. “O God, get me out of this!” Children pray, “God, don’t let it happen,” or “Don’t let it have happened.”
We all pray such prayers, though we seldom admit doing so. If we prayed them aloud we would clean them up theologically and make them more presentable socially. But in their original form these prayers express our humanity. God shares our suffering and gradually a relationship matures. It doesn’t take erudition to pray.
Prayer to go to sleep by: This prayer would not be marked by altered posture or even by disciplined practice. It would be characterized by a quiet sense of well-being. The emphasis would be upon presence, not content. It is the kind of prayer that enables the person to deliver everything into the hands of God—to relinquish control, responsibility, the need to worry. This is prayer as trust. The person prays his or her way into peaceful sleep.
Prayer during wasted time or during underutilized time:
Prayer while driving, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, waiting—this is a natural turning to God in which we discover that God has been close all the time.
This prayer does not require isolation or undivided attention. It occurs in the midst of life as one is partially occupied with something else. People who commute to work report that this can be a meaningful time for prayer. Far from interfering with the other activity, prayer may actually enhance it.
Instead of the rule of an hour a day for prayer, this approach makes much of the day available for prayer.
Nondiscursive prayer: Protestants have trouble thinking of prayer as nonrational and nonoral. Early Christians went into the desert and found nondiscursive prayer, prayer more connected with being than with doing.
Practicing the presence of God without words can be a helpful way to pray for those who have an overload of words, concepts, speech. Instead of emphasizing discipline and rule, this form of prayer is an emptying, a being with, an integration.
There are ordered and disciplined forms of prayer that are very helpful. They are more helpful to some people than to others. Meaningful as they are, they must not be allowed to define prayer exclusively.
Prayer as a gift is grace to the hurried, the undisciplined and the disorganized as well as to the people who live by a rule. In fact, such graced prayer is the best reminder of what prayer is and of the nature of the God to whom it is addressed. •
“There was once a stone cutter who was very happy with his life and work. He had a wonderful family whom he loved; he made a good living cutting and preparing stone for beautiful buildings…..
“Then one day he delivered a piece of stone to a merchant. The merchant owned many lavish possessions. The stone cutter began to feel he was missing out on something in his life. “I wish I were a merchant with such fine things,” the stone cutter thought to himself.
“Amazingly, the stone cutter’s wish came to be.
“Suddenly he was a merchant who wore fancy clothes and lived in a beautiful home. His shop was filled with ornate trinkets and fine goods. The onetime stone cutter thought that life couldn’t get any better – until he saw the prince passing through town.
“Then he began thinking that to be of noble birth would be much better than being a simple merchant. And so it came to be: He found himself dressed in royal garb, sitting atop a fine stallion, parading through the village. But under the hot sun and heavy clothing, he grew weary and cranky.
“The stone cutter-merchant-prince thought that if he were the sun, he could have a profound effect on the entire universe. So he became the sun. And it was wonderful – until a cloud blocked his rays from getting to the land.
“So he wished he could be a cloud to bring rain to water the earth.
“And so he became a cloud. He found himself looming over a desolate mountain valley. He showered the area day and night, creating lakes and rivers. In time, springs of life began to sprout up on the landscape. But the mountain itself remained immovable and unchanged. It was solid and more powerful than his cloud.
“So the cloud wanted, instead to be the mountain. And so he became the mountain.
“For a while the mountain was happy to be such a powerful presence – until a young stonecutter came along and began to chisel away at him.
And the mountain wished to be a stone cutter again.
Some of us never know that moment of realization experienced by the grateful leper:
“We never realize how much we have received from God. Instead, we whine about what we do not have; we are mired in disappointment because they have more than me. We become cynical, distrustful, isolated and self-absorbed.
As the Samaritan leper discovers, as the stone cutter eventually comes to understand, each one of us has been given much by God, and realizing those gifts, that spirit of gratitude, is the beginning of faith.
Rabbi Herald S. Kushner writing in his latest book, The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, reminds us that gratitude is a conscious and intentional perspective of looking at our lives and our world.
“Each night as I prepare for bed, I put drops in my eyes to fend off the threat of glaucoma that would rob me of my sight and take from me the pleasure of reading. Each morning at breakfast, I take a pill to control by blood pressure, and each evening at dinner I take another to lower my cholesterol level. But instead of lamenting the ailments that come with growing older, instead of wishing that I were as young and fit as I once was, I take my medicine with a prayer of thanks that modern science has found ways to help me cope with these ailments. I think of all my ancestors who didn’t live long enough to develop the complications of old age, and did not have pills to take when they did.”
Gratitude is a conscious and intentional perspective of looking at our lives and our world. Gratitude is the beginning of faith. Let us be a grateful people.
Jesus cured 10 lepers. One turned back to thank Jesus and God. The one who turned back was healed. There is a difference between “cure” and “healing”. Gratitude is part of healing.
adapted from a sermon by Father Ron Shirley http://www.fatherron.org