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.


David W. Congdon said...

This is among the best posts I've ever read at F&T. Thanks for this, Ben.

By Jarrod Longbons said...

I agree with David. I appreciate your honesty and depth.

As a minister and theologian, I have always appreciated Hans Urs von Balthasar's statement about his theology, that it "begins from the knees up."

Bless you on your journey and stay at the monastery.

Pamela said...

Wonderful Ben.
Nos. 7, 8 & 10 I liked especially.

Retrospaghetti said...

"listening to listening" the old gal of calcutta said (so my wife told me last night)

it's not asking for junk, i think it doesn't really have words when you get down to it

besideourselves said...

10. Sublime.

dreaminginthedeepsouth said...

Thanks for this post. It helped me a lot today.

Alison Bleyerveen said...

This is the impetus for the conversation about prayer and daily attendances and ways of coming before God that I spoke (prosletysed??) about today after class. I hope you might be able to attend on the 2nd Ben...I think your voice/presence would really make a difference. Thanks for this...Alison

Anonymous said...

"Why do we close our eyes when praying?"

To avoid distraction from the things of the world.

Phillip Roushey said...

Fantastic post

Brian G. said...

Many thanks for this beautiful meditation, Ben. Along with some other matters today, it prompted this reflection on my blog:

Grace and peace to you!

Anonymous said...

Your post made me weep, partly, I suppose, because it is the hopeful spirituality of youth.

For the reality is that however they appear, monasteries no longer support the monks' prayer; the monks are functionaries of the institution. It's ten times worse for women; there is no where to go.

The God you pray to and prayer itself are no longer present in the banalities of parish worship; the laity are despised for asking the question—never answered by Holy Church—asked by Will in Piers Plowman: how can I come to 'kynde knowing'.

Few clergy and not a lot of theologians know anything about prayer. They laugh that people 'still bother with that stuff'.

Who prays is a theologian and who is a theologian prays—in part because knowing oneself is not so much a mental inventory as understanding how the mind works in prayer so that one can implement it; and that—originally—it was this understanding from which Christianity (if not most religions) grew.

The rest of us retreat to the dry salvages of nakid intent.

Keep writing Ben; we need you.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear ananoymous. Maybe it is the hopeful spirituality of youth, but maybe only in such hope is there hope. Sure, prayer is a thousand miles away not only from oru churches, but from our very world in the modern West. But knowing this as the heart of our problem is the way forward. Like you say, ben bringing this before us is a move of the Spirit to bring us hope not only in a time of abandonment, but in a time of serious spiritual drought.

Martyn J Smith said...

I always find the whole issue of prayer rather tricky - but then I guess I find ALL relationships rather tricky to one degree or another.
Given that I am not convinced that any person is truly qualified to advise or make comments on an 'effective' relationship I also tend to feel that all comments on prayer to be entirely subjective, unnecessarily verbose, unhelpfully prescriptive and, to be brutally frank, usually more useful in invoking guilt and a sense of failure than inspiring of deeper devotion and exploration.

PLEASE don't get me wrong - I absolutely don't want to be negative or cynical about either this thread or prayer.

I am just thinking aloud in an honest matter about a subject about which I feel that the more words spoken about it lead to a greater sense of confusion and discouragement...

I categorically wouldn't want to dare to advise someone, even a friend, on how best to engage and communicate with another person. Much less would I dare to piously pontificate on how a person ought to reach out to the transcendent, eternal, spiritual Other that is our God...

Oh dear, I realise that despite my protestations to the contrary that some will read this as negative. So be it.

I guess that my contention and belief is that prayer is just far too mysterious and far, far too important to quantify, analyse and write theses about...

Just some thoughts. No offence whatsoever is intended...

Martyn J Smith said...

Having said all of the above, I nonetheless LOVE no. 10...

Perhaps the light is breaking through for me as well? :)

Pamela said...

Thanks for your words Martyn.
I agree with you that reaching out to the transcendent, eternal, spiritual Other that is our God is highly personal. I attempt to follow Jesus' words "go into your room and pray". Emphasis on attempt.

Anonymous said...

Very nice!

I'm with you. Sometimes I can't make it 10 seconds into a prayer before I wander off to "more interesting" thoughts.

Fat said...

Three thoughts: (well - two thoughts and a story)

Prayer is more than just having friends in high places - it is discovering you have a friend in low places.

I have always liked the portrayal of prayer in "Fiddler on the Roof". Tevye chats with God about the mundane and weighty thoughts as they cross his mind and sometimes even stands apart to talk more seriously. I feel there isn't a time when he is not in touch with God. He knows how to get around his wife but God - He is a different matter.

Have you heard the 'Bullocky's Prayer'?
(Bullocky - a driver of a bullock team in earlier Australian times - similar to the modern lorry or semi-trailer driver and similarly famed for rough language)
This particular day our bullock waggon was bogged to the axles in a muddy patch of road and despite the combined efforts of some 20 bullocks, a long heavy whip and a cubic mile of atmosphere turned blue with profanity nothing could coax the waggon nor it's 20 ton load of wool from the quagmire.
Enter the Parson on horseback "Have you tried praying my son?"
"I've tried every *&($@&* thing else" was the reply.
With that, he doffed his hat - looked up and appealed "Lord - I ain't bothered ya for nigh on forty years and if you'll get me out of this lot I won't bother ya for another forty."


Mommy Emily said...

brilliant. absolutely, poetically, brilliant. thank you.

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