Entering seminary I naively assumed that my education would go beyond merely learning about God. I expected help to know God. But the curriculum was squarely aimed at my mind—systematic theology, liturgy, history, Bible, etc.
Courses on prayer and contemplation were on offer down the road at the Roman Catholic colleges. Protestants are focused more on the Word made flesh, revealed in the New Testament, and made known in the gathered body on Sunday morning, through spoken prayers and the sermon. There was an expressed concern at seminary that these other forms of prayer led to “quietism”, a withdrawal from engagement with the real world. But the folks in the congregations I’ve served do want to know how to pray and to know God.
Over the years I’ve found that it’s easier for Protestants to adopt forms of prayer that use scripture as a springboard to the divine. Lectio divina, for example, is growing in popularity. It’s a gift of the Benedictines. This method assumes that scripture is a living word of God, which can speak in unique and fresh ways to the individual. A scripture passage is read (lectio); the practitioner focuses on a word or phrase that jumps out at her (meditatio), feeling within how this word/phrase touches the heart (oratio), followed by a simple resting in the presence of God (contemplatio).
In the liberal Protestant church there is, I suspect, general agreement that the “lowest” form of prayer is petitionary—asking God for stuff. Most congregations still do it, but I get the impression that it’s out of habit more than anything else. It raises questions that drive the rational mind batty. For one thing, does it have any meaning in the 21st century, post-scientific world, to pretend that God is out there somewhere, like a satellite dish to whom we beam our prayers hoping that they are somehow received? Do we imagine that without our prayers, God either doesn’t know our needs, or is somehow moved to act in a way that he wouldn’t otherwise without our verbal signals? It doesn’t matter whether the prayer is for world peace, a new car, or for Aunt Sallie’s healing. For the postmodernist churchgoer, the cringe factor is high with this kind of prayer.
We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss petitionary prayer. Prayer is all about transcending the rational mind with its this or that logic. At best prayer is transrational, not irrational, but rather beyond rational in a way that transcends, but includes reason. Prayer is about tapping into higher forms of mind such as intuition, and ultimately into the divine mind. Any form of prayer that emerges from a will that is truly abandoned to divine will can rightly be called mystic, because it flows from a felt union with God.
I recently accompanied the love of my life through a surgery. The first couple of days of recovery were excruciating because the opiate-based painkillers only served to heighten her anxiety. At one point, in her desperation she asked me to pray with her. I prayed unhesitatingly that Jesus be present and use me as channel of healing. The room filled an energy that I experienced as a sweet stillness. For the duration of her recovery, Jesus was a more effective painkiller than all the opiate-derivatives that were on offer. Don’t ask me to explain it.
Jesus encouraged us to ask for what we need. The Lord’s Prayer itself is pretty much an extended petition—for daily bread, forgiveness, to be saved from temptation, and delivered from evil. He tells his disciples that just any father wants to give his children good things, so we can ask God for whatever we want and expect to receive it. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).
But if it’s your ego making the ask don’t hold your breath. The trick seems to be a will in submission to the divine will. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). Before any petition is mentioned in The Lord’s Prayer, God is 1) confirmed as actual (who art in heaven), 2) hallowed, and 3) submitted to (thy will be done on earth…). When this pattern of prayer is sincere, it’s safe to say that we’ve exited the realm of ego. Submission to the will of God establishes some kind of coherence with divine heart and mind. To use the author’s of John’s gospel metaphor, the branch needs to be connected to the Christ vine. If it is we will bear fruit in the world, and the Father will give us “whatever we ask” (John 15:5-15).
Prayer then is a response to an already existing condition of being intimately entangled with the highest, deepest, and most encompassing reality that religions call God. It is initiated by soul’s love of the most true, the most beautiful, and the most good. Prayer is the response of the soul to the Love that is God. The soul is that part of us which has never felt or believed in the separation and isolation that ego and its cultural constructions (the world) takes to be real.
And the tradition teaches us that this recovery of reality and the life of prayer that results is best found through silence. The working definition of prayer that I learned from the RC’s in seminary was that of 8th century theologian John of Damascene: “ Prayer is raising of the mind and heart to God”. But in silent contemplation, the great mystics of every religion have intuited that it’s not us, but God who does the raising. We are raised to the mind and heart of God when we can silence the mind long enough to discover the ever-present One desires to be united with us.
The Jesus lineage has generated many different forms of prayer throughout history all focused on silencing the rational mind. The Jesus Prayer originated with the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers who understood that silence required more than finding a secluded cave in the desert. The real raucous takes place between our ears, with the incessant chatter of our thoughts and a mind that refuses to take a Sabbath.
To quiet the mind, they recommend repeating the phrase “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” with head bowed toward the heart, was most effective at shutting down the mind. The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century spiritual classic, is also focused on silencing thoughts, through the use of a single word, like “love”, repeated over and over again. The intent is to offer oneself completely to God, through love. “By love God may be grasped and held. By thought never.” The Way of the Pilgrim, a 19th century anonymously published Russian book tells the story of a pilgrim seeking to live by St.Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing”, using the Jesus Prayer.
Centering prayer is another form of prayer popularized by Fr. Thomas Keating building upon the use of a sacred phrase or word, a mantra, such as “God is love” to quiet the mind. First one sets the intention to consent to the presence of God, then introduce the sacred word, and whenever a thought or an image arises, it is a signal to return to the sacred word. Every thought or image, then, is not a failure, but rather an opportunity to surrender again to the presence of God. With practice, one discovers that there are times when neither thoughts nor the sacred word is sounding. Here we simply rest in the presence of God, a deeply nourishing, fulfilling, and joyful state.
On the other hand, the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, is a bit grumpy, to say the least, about any techniques or paths to God. There is no path to God, because God is the path. Those who seek by way of a technique end up mastering the technique, but missing God. What is required above all, according to Eckhart, is detachment. From what?
Start with yourself therefore and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find obstacle and unrest, wherever it may be”.
Realize, says Eckhart, that God is the “I” of one’s own I, not a being, but the Ground of Being who surrenders Himself to us. Drop into the gift of the Ground of Being that is your most intimate self, relinquish all other notions of self as false constructions, and experience union with God. Otherwise, he exhorts, “stop flapping your gums about God”.
Twentieth century expert in mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, defines mysticism as the “art of union with Reality”. For the religious person, Reality is God and therefore union with God is the goal of mystical prayer. Jesuit priest, Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade (1665-1751),was regarded by Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, as a spiritual genius. Like Eckhart he was suspicious of techniques and concerned that the common man or woman could find union with God. His book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, teaches that as we abandon our will to the divine will in our ordinary routine of our lives, we discover that our very lives, in all the ordinary details and duties, are being lived by God. Our lives become sacraments of the sacred, as we attend mindfully to all that arises in the course of a day. And perhaps this is the proper orientation and attitude of a prayerful life, that which makes us potentially all mystics. Assume that we are always and everywhere being lived by a divine heart and mind, and as we surrender in humility to this grace, we come to know God and to God’s ways.
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