Saturday, 19 March 2011

On prayer: fourteen theses

I’ve been staying all weekend at a Catholic monastery, which prompted some theses on prayer:

1. What is prayer? It is the eyes of the world looking back at God (Pavel Florensky).

2. Can theology penetrate into the mystery of prayer? Yes: theology burrows into prayer as the ant makes its tiny tunnels in the earth’s immense dark turning orb.

3. Once when I was sleeping, the sound of rain on the roof became, in my dream, the hammer of war drums beating in a jungle: a real sound, vibrating in my ears, echoed in the chamber of my dreams. In the same way, the vibration of eternity echoes in the chamber of our world when people pray.

4. Prayer is restlessness and silence and sadness. It is jubilation and a cup running over and the sound of all the gum trees clapping hands.

5. ‘We do not know how to pray’ (Rom 8:26). The whole uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth lies in this: that he knows how to pray, because he knows to whom he is speaking. His greatest miracle was not healing or walking on water or driving out devils, but teaching his followers to say, ‘Our Father’ (Luke 11).

6. Why do we close our eyes when praying? Prayer is not a turning inwards, not a withdrawal into the silent recesses of the self. Prayer is open-eyed attention. It is waiting all day on the shore for the glimpse of a rare bird. ‘You must wear your eyes out, as others their knees’ (R. S. Thomas).

7. Nothing could be further from the truth than the notion of prayer as a spontaneous inner glow or an uncontrollable gush of sentiment. Prayer is discipline, order, hardship, habit, obedience: whatever it is that makes up a life, that is what prayer requires.

8. Prayer and obedience are one. The monastery – that momentous institutionalisation of prayer – is founded on this truth. In order to pray, I bind myself to a rule, bend my will to another, submit to a grievous curtailment of the self. The vow of celibacy in many religious orders signifies this curtailment. There is some part of what it means to be human that is crushed in prayer. For the person bound to prayer, it would not be right to represent life as fruition, satisfaction, fulfilment.

9. At the same time, there is no greater freedom than the freedom to pray. Does God command us to pray? Yes – just as you might give water to a thirsty man, and command him to drink. God gives us permission to speak to God: that is the whole liberty of the gospel.

10. ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’ (Leonard Cohen). The life that prays is an ontological fissure, a crack in being. In prayer, shards of light break through, and the creatures that dwell in darkness rub their dazzled eyes.

11. What is it that really sustains the church’s life and witness? Our sacramental hierarchy? Our teachers and clerics? Our projects and resources? Our thick books of doctrine and law? Or is the whole church perhaps upheld by one old woman who shuts herself away all day to cry to God with sighs too deep for words?

12. God is colour-blind. All that is powerful and wise and impressive, all those things blur together as a single colour – God can hardly make out the difference between them. Only the small, secret things are clear and distinct to God’s poor eyesight. The secrecy of prayer makes us visible to God: ‘your Father sees what is done in secret’ (Matt 6:6).

13. We often complain about unanswered prayer. But if sometimes God doesn’t listen, or doesn’t hear, or doesn’t answer, we ought to be relieved. The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind – and Job was lucky to survive the ordeal. Nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of an answered prayer. ‘For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’ (Annie Dillard).

14. Sometimes I think prayer is all that matters. Sometimes I hardly dare to pray.


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