Sunday, July 27, 2008

Watch and Pray

In the com-box yesterday Laura left the following message:

When I started reading this post, I started saying to myself, "That's me! Hooray! Now I'm going to get some help with my lack lustre prayer. While I think that your recommendation is beautiful and practical for a certain set, I would be interested to know how to achieve the same kind of prayer experience- without imagery. For some reason, I can't even imagine myself brushing my teeth, let alone in the amazing interior of myself. I'm one of those people who thinks in words, not pictures. I can talk, and experience silence, but in my private prayer, I find it hard to experience communion, if you know what I mean.

Suggestions?

Laura, let me begin by thanking you for your comment. I don't know that I'll be able to offer much by way of suggestion, but please allow me to try.

Let me begin, again, with a Taize chant.

"Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray"

Let us not draw too heavily on image but, rather, on silence in unpacking their relevance for prayer.

With these words, Jesus asks his disciples to be present to him in prayer just prior to his execution. We know only too well that in the Garden of Gethsemane, his disciples weren't quite able to stay awake during their prayer (let us all find some comfort in this!). As Jesus sweat blood, they nodded off...as he cried out to the Father to take this cup from his lips, they slumbered.

"Remain here with me." Like so many of us, Jesus did not want to be alone. He turned to his friends for their love and support, he counted on their prayers and their presence to be a strength in this chaos.

Do you remember ever having a night-light as a child? That light pierced the darkness, assuring you that the world had only been shrouded in darkness temporarily; it had not, as your senses might have had you believe, been transformed. That light was a presence to you in dark times, perhaps helping you on your way to realizing that usually there is nothing to fear in the darkness. But for a child, for one so vulnerable, the light recalls that we are not alone.

The invitation to "Watch and Pray" is something of this dynamic: to be a night-light for another in dark times. The invitation Jesus issued asks for love and support and quiet presence, it expresses the desire of the human heart not to be alone. Now I know Laura is pulling at her hair, saying, "Ryan, you idiot!! More images!" So let me depart from the image to something a bit less concrete.

Laura, the intimacy of prayer that you seek may already be before you. When I pray with images, it is but a means to an end. The end is silent, abiding presence with God. The images I begin my prayer with slowly dissolve as I fall ever more deeply in love with the God who loves me and creates me. I am slow to pray so often, so it takes me a long time to fall into this abyss of silent presence, where I am fully open to the silent and incomprehensible mystery of the Holy One.

From the way you describe it, perhaps yours is a dark grace. It is to penetrate far beyond images and enter into silent nearness to the One who seems to be so far away. The communion you seek isn't experienced in immediate sensation but in the insatiable longing to know and to love. Your prayer may well be the grace to be called to be present to Jesus in the Garden, to "watch and pray" to "remain with me" while Jesus prays. It is a silent prayer, one that seems to go nowhere, but one that joins your heart with the agonized heart of Christ. Your heart, in this prayer, beats in concord with the heart that, in a few short hours, will be penetrated by the tip of a spear.

I do not mean to offer advice, but perhaps your own prayer could be, "Lord, watch and pray with me." Make Jesus's own prayer your prayer...we do this quite easily with the Our Father, so I see no reason why you can't do it with this prayer of presence. As you pray, commend yourself to the divine silence that seems to crush in around you. Do not fear that you are alone, because you are called to pray and it is God's Spirit that is praying within you.

And as you pray, you will feel that your words are falling dead to the earth, that they reach nowhere, let alone the ear of God. You will open up the depths of your heart, you will speak your heart's longing, and it will seem as though no one is listening, it will seem that you are alone. It will be as though the darkness will greedily snatch up everything you say and consume it, leaving no trace of you or your prayer to remain. This darkness, it will seem, threatens to suffocate you, to extinguish that little flame that continues to burn in hopes of being heard by the Almighty-yet-apparently-distant One. The silence will taunt you to doubt: "You don't really believe that HE hears you, do you? It's all a waste. You're wasting your time." (Oh, in today's culture, is there any worse thing to accuse someone of?) Your spirit will feel as though it is failing and that you're ready to give up.

If this is to be your experience - one I do not wish for anyone, although all of us must go through it - know that you are not alone. Know, indeed, that you are in communion with one whose prayer was exactly this: Jesus. The dark grace is that you are being called into communion, but it is the communion found by a disciple called and willing to pray in the Garden. Both of you are silently present to each other. Truly, it seems as though you are miles apart, as though you are separated by an unbridgeable gulf. But your hearts are one, for you have stayed with one another. If you stay with your prayer, if you stay in the darkness, if you realize the folly and the faith of authentically praying "Thy will be done" then, I promise you, you have found communion.

Folly and faith. That is the prayer of Gethsemane, that is the prayer of the Cross. It will seem to much of the world - and even to ourselves - that our prayer is foolish. As everything crashes in upon us, as our lives are choked from us by oppressive forces and doubt, to continue praying "They will be done" is a fool's prayer. It is, however, the prayer of faith. It is the prayer inspired by the cross. The prayer offered by two hands affixed to a beam of wood. The prayer of a man abandoned by his friends, betrayed by his people, executed for being fully human, for being the loving presence of God in a sinful, rejecting world.

But in a twist of irony, it is the prayer of faith.

"Thy will be done" is the prayer of faith. It is a prayer born of the assurance of the resurrection, that the maniacal and satanic forces of this world do not have the last word in God's creation. It is the prayer born of realizing that love does conquer all, that death is not the final answer to the question of our human nature.

Laura, I'm afraid that I've gone very far afield of my original goal, which was to offer some words to help you in your prayer. So let me conclude by saying that I encourage you to continue entering into the empty silence that you are experiencing. God is there in the silence, because it is God who is calling you to pray. In each act of prayer, it is not as though you are calling upon God's attention; rather, prayer is your making yourself present to God's call to you, present to God's call within you. Be present, "Watch and Pray." Stay there in the silence and know that the Holy One is there with you. The intimacy you seek is, perhaps, not the intimacy being offered. Perhaps your grace, your dark grace, is to be present to Jesus in the Garden. Be present, "remain here with me." Let your heart be filled with love and silence, doubt and faith.

Perhaps all of us can be so folly and to have such faith as to listen to Jesus' invitation to:

"Stay with me"

"Remain here with me"

"Watch and pray"
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