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This is the third in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

THURSDAY, MARCH 12, 2009

Going Deep with Prayer


I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Luke 15:18, 19
You've caught onto the pattern by now; yes, that's another of the passages assigned to use during Lent as possible calls-to-worship with the Daily Office by the Book of Common Prayer.

Last week, I talked a little about how crucial prayer was to my engagement with Scripture in my Lenten devotion:
Our task is to, guided by the Holy Spirit and the evolving teaching of Mother Church, choose those interpretations which are most ethical, loving, and empowering to all human beings, drawing on in our discernment all the resources God has given us. This is why in my Lenten devotion my turn to Scripture is always done alongside prayer, many of them in the forms given to us by the Church: the Confession of Sin, the Apostles' Creed, etc.
This week, as promised, I'm going to talk a little (or, if this week's post is anything like last week's, possibly a lot) about prayer.

I don't have a definition for prayer, or at least I didn't before I began to think about what I would say in this post. In large part this is myWittgensteinianism showing through; I tend not to believe in definitions as a matter of principle. If forced, I would describe it as something along the lines of "a willful encounter with God."

Wikipedia has a narrower definition, focusing on "communication" ("with a deity or spirit in worship"). Now, deliminating the difference between an encounter and "communicating" may be just semantics, but I think that while prayer may sometimes feel like a two-way exchange of information, sometimes we are just listening, or just speaking to God, or just hanging out in God's presence and "chilling" and not exchanging any discrete information at all. To me, all of these types of encounters count as prayer.

Prayer keeps us open to God and centered on God. Those of you who know me fairly well know I'm something of a mystic (again, it's the Wittgensteinianism), and the high value I place on experience. (A good philosophically-minded essay on critical of the turn to experience is Robert Sharf's "Experience" in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor.) The exact specifics of how we stay open to God are, I think, less important than that we do. Sometimes we need to engage God in coversation, to tell God our problems and ask God for advice. And sometimes we need to just rest and be in God's presence.

Anything, when done "correctly" can be a prayer.(Scare quotes because I'm not really trying to be universally normative.) Many of the Saints approached the work or service they did in their lives as a form of prayer--in essence their whole life was a prayer, oriented as it was toward God. Ada María Isasi-Díaz (who was the Baccalaureate speaker at my graduation) writes in her book Mujerista Theologyabout how the separation she percieved between prayer and work in her life as a Catholic novice ultimately proved unsatisfying:
The more I heard about the spiritual life, saving one's soul, the life of prayer, holiness, spirituality, the more I thought that the convent was not the place I was supposed to be. [. . .]
In those novitiate years, the more I failed to become "spiritual" the more I became convinced that Gods was calling me to minister among the poor. [. . .]
Were the poor and oppressed not holy because they did not pray formally every day? Were those who prayed long hours, did penance, and meditated more pleasing to God than the majority of people who did not even go to Mass every Sunday?
Though I was not to articulate it until years later, it was then that I began to realize that the lived experience of the poor and oppressed was to be the source of my theoogy, the grounding for what I believe about God, and the basis for understanding what God asks of me. [. . .] Their daily undertaking to find boily sustenance parallels the original "give us this day our daily bread," which is not a spiritual petition.
Isasi-Díaz's ultimate conclusion is reflected in the heading she gives the following section: "I Pray Best by Working for Justice."

But sometimes, I think, for too many of us the "everything is a prayer" approach becomes just too wishy-washy, and in the end nothing ends up being a prayer. It's for those times that we have rituals and routines, techniques for carving out specific time for God, when the task of keeping all 24 hours in the day holy sees must too big or overwhelming a task. Obviously, weekly communal worship on Sunday is an important part of this for the Christian. My Lenend devotion is an attempt to apply this logic on a daily level.

The prayers and rituals provided to us by the Church (or, in the case of the Lord's Prayer, by Jesus himself, at least according to St. Matthew and St. Luke) represent a way to structure those times. Sometimes we don't need that structure--we know what we ant to say to God--and that's great. But in my experience, much more often I do.

I'm not particularly fond of the traditional, intercessory form of prayer, the kind demonstrated in Joss Whedon's film Serenity when Malcolm Reynolds kneels in front of a statue of the Buddha and mockingly says, "Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket." I engage in this type of prayer occasionally when I'm praying freeform--usually when I'm waiting for mass to start or after I've received communion (if I'm not ushering). If I do, I usually pray for personal virtues, for strength, or courage, or diligence. I don't usually pray for things outside myself, even selfless things like world peace, but rather help in working for the things I need and want myself.

Most of the prayers given to us by the Church have intercessory elements, given to us by the Church have intercessory elements, but most of them have non-intercessory elements as well. The creeds, the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, and so on have almost no intercessory elements, other than "Amen" and "Receive our prayer." The Our Father, which is fairly heavily intercessional, is also fairly heavy on the praises, and the Confession of Sin mixes a plea for forgiveness with, well, what it says on the tin. All of these elements are, I think, important.

Here's a story I know some of you have heard. As part of the "silent" retreats the Newman Community at my undergrad institution made to Abbey of the Genesee, we met as a group with Father Jerome, who discussed many things with us, including the spiritual discipline ofLectio Divina. But I remember one question-and-answer exchange that still stands out for me years later.

As part of their Benedectine code, the Trappist monks at the abbey would sing all of the psalms in the course of a week. (Those who were at cell last week know thisis not a spiritual discipline I find particularly attractive! Although singing them would be better than just reading.) Our Catholic chaplain, Mark, asked Fr. Jerome how he managed to keep all the psalms fresh, so to speak. I I think Fr. Jerome's answer surprised Mark. He responded that sometimes he didn't, and that was okay.
Sometimes the words (and, since they were sung, notes) of the psalms--so familiar to him, though they were strange to us--were something he did by rote, his mouth and vocal cords able to do what they needed to almost without conscious thought. But this freed his mind to respond to God's call in other ways.

I'm fairly sure my practice of using the first stanza of Jabberwocky as a prayer predated this experience--I believe I actually started in high school--but it speaks to the sort of logic behind the practice. For those who don't remember, the stanza goes thusly:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.
All non-pronoun nouns are nonsense nouns; all non-linking, non-auxillary verbs are nonsense verns; all non-article adjectives are nonsense adjectives. Yet the syntax is so obviously English as to create the impression that the stanza should mean something(Carroll gives some suggested meanings for thos words, some in later writings and some through the character Humpty Dumpty, but I've never considered any of those to be binding.)

As I've noted before, by giving us a passage which is syntactically rich but semantically empty, Carroll provided a prayer I could use to open up a space for God without predetermining exactly what it was God should fill it with. As such, I was able to use it to pray even in those years I found myself unable to pray using explicitly Christian prayers.

Other prayers I struggled with and slowly adopted as I came to terms with the Christian religious symbology. The stories behind my struggle with even just one of the many prayers I embrace today as part of my tradition would be far too long and too afield of the subject of my Lenten devotion to discuss here today, but I'll say that the last of my struggles centered on the Agnus Dei fraction anthem.

Like last week, I've wandered far in examining my conception of prayer and probably taken far too long to get to the point. But all of this is what I bring to the prayers I say at the beginning and end of my Lenten devotion, bookending my turn to Scripture. As I said last week, these prayers help me to remember that Scripture is merely an important tool in becoming closer to God, but not God, and to be centered on God's actual Presence.

2 comments:

Andy Markelz said...

I like the thought of living a life in constant prayer. But I agree that it can easily turn into a false sense of spirituality. Reading scripture, prayer, meditation, fellowship, communion, worship, etc. are all tools designed to bring us closer to God and they all need to be utilized. In addition, I feel there is importance in mixing up the way we utilize these tools; to keep a freshness, or a sense of on the edge of your seat, as you connect with God.

Bryce said...

You really spoke to me, Cole.

"As I've noted before, by giving us a passage which is syntactically rich but semantically empty, Carroll provided a prayer I could use to open up a space for God without predetermining exactly what it was God should fill it with. As such, I was able to use it to pray even in those years I found myself unable to pray using explicitly Christian prayers."

As I read your post my mind started grasping for analogies for prayer. Prayer is like the wind, the raging river, and an old man.
Prayer often comes and goes as it wills.
Prayer sometimes rushes over you.
Prayer is often silent and still and helps us observe and take note of what’s happening around us.

Thanks for teaching us.

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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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