Or a Cycle?
The February/March 2015 issue of AARP – The Magazine arrived in the mail this past week. I always wonder – “How did this happen?” – when it shows up. But there’s my name and address on the mailing label, and so I know it’s mine!
At first, when I was 50, I refused to read it. It was a principle thing. I’d tell myself, “This magazine isn’t for you.” “It’s not your demographic.” “This is something your ‘older’ sister might be interested in” (after all, she’s a full 16 months older than I am!). But now, in my early 60’s, it’s gotten so that I actually look forward to getting the AARP magazine in the mail every month or two. It turns out that it’s a pretty good magazine. There’s always an article or two in it that I find to be pretty interesting. This was especially the case with this particular issue.
“The Paradox of Prayer” (pp. 44-47, 78, 82) was written by Bill Newcott. Leading the essay were 12 photographs of real people at prayer – a Muslim woman, an African American Bishop, a Roman Catholic nun in full habit, a Buddhist monk, a native American shaman, a local Baptist preacher we all know, and a Jewish rabbi to name just seven of them. They are all quite striking images, good reminders that prayer is not the “property” of Christians alone. Prayer is an instinct of the human heart. As Newcott puts it in the article, “As long as humans have endured the cares of the world, they have been praying.”
The heart of this essay is on the “paradox” of praying – how we instinctively turn to God in prayer for help with our lives, and how, “sooner or later,” we are all disappointed by God when He doesn’t do what we’ve asked Him to do for us in our prayers. The “paradox,” according to Newcott, consists of the fact that such “disappointments” don’t dissuade most of us from continuing to pray. In fact, Newcott quotes a Stanford University Anthropology professor who researches prayer. Dr. Tanya Luhrmann explains: “Not getting what you need materially can lead you to understand that God wants you to depend on Him more deeply.” And I don’t disagree. I believe that prayer is an expression of our relationship of “absolute dependence” on God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and that not getting what we ask for in prayer is an important reminder that there is only one God, and that we aren’t Him. But what I find is that with this hard realization, out of this often painful experience, a shift in one’s praying often occurs.
Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century’s most important philosophical theologians, was once asked, “Do you pray?” And it is reported that he answered, “No… I meditate.” And that’s the shift that occurs. We stop talking to God and start thinking about God instead, and we call it prayer. As George Buttrick pointed out in his book Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66] – “We can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun. We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.” …It is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog…”
Urban Holmes in his book Spirituality for Ministry (Harper & Row – 1982) described this shift in praying as a necessary and beneficial consequence of spiritual maturation (21). As we “grow up” spiritually, he argued, our prayers “move from a more to a less focused intentionality.” In other words, we will stop asking God for things and we will start thinking about God more deeply, seeking to enter the silence of His presence more deliberately (Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God”). Urban Holmes called this the “movement toward contemplation and union with God,” and I am an eager pilgrim on this journey. I practice several forms of contemplative prayer and have taught sessions on the theology behind it on a number of occasions and in a variety of settings. I am an advocate and not a critic of this spiritual discipline. In fact, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., I would go so far as to name the contemplative practices as one of the “Pillars of the Spiritual Life” (See: Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life – Ignatius Press – 2008). But I strongly disagree with the idea that prayer as supplication – praying with a more “focused intentionality,” talking things over with God and asking things from God – is an expression of a less mature spirituality that we will gradually outgrow as we advance to prayer as contemplation – praying with a less “focused intentionality,” learning to rest in God’s presence. I don’t see these two ways of praying as the opposite poles of some kind of continuum of spiritual maturity.
I am much more inclined to see them as parts of a cycle of praying to which we must return over and over again. One of my favorite authors is Walter Wangerin, Jr., and one of my favorite Walter Wangerin, Jr., books is Whole Prayer (Zondervan – 1988). “Whole Prayer,” he argued, “is made up of four acts, four discrete parts, two of which are ours, two of which are God’s.”
The parts may seem separated one from another by time or by the different nature of the acts; yet often all four acts occur in such swift succession that the complete prayer is revealed as a single, unbroken event…
– First, we speak,
– while second, God listens.
– Third, God speaks,
– while, fourth, we listen.
If we initiate the first act, God will respond with the second. That is sure and certain. So, is the third act absolutely certain to follow the first two, because God’s love promises to speak to us by a Word. But if we have never learned the fourth (and this is where contemplative practice enters the picture), if we are too impatient to perform the fourth act, too demanding and unsubmissive to watch and wait upon the Lord, then we will never even know that the second and third acts have been accomplished. Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail. The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown (29).
Walter Wangerin wrote as he did because what he saw was the neglect of the fourth act in this cycle of praying – “we listen.” He was making the case for prayer as contemplation. But I see a different neglect, the neglect of the first act in this cycle of praying – “we speak.” When prayer as supplication is downplayed, or even denigrated as a lesser or lower expression of Christian spirituality, then the circle of “whole prayer” is no less broken, and the communication between humanity and God is no less incomplete.
When Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), He didn’t teach them a technique of sitting meditation, He instead gave them a set of supplications that were appropriate to and expressive of the kind of relationship between God and human beings that He came to restore. He urged His disciples to “ask” because God gives in response. He urged us to “seek” because God allows Himself to be found as a result. And He urged us to “knock” because God opens the door into His presence to those who do (Luke 11:9-10). And that sounds to me more like a cycle that repeats every time I pray than a continuum that I advance along as I spiritually mature. DBS+