10 May 2011


Since my last blog posting, I have had a few questions about praying for situations and people...especially for people who have lived "notoriously evil lives" (to quote one questioner). These are excellent questions, because we throw that word "pray" around a lot -- so much in fact that it may have lost its real meaning and impact.

My guess is that, when an image of prayer is conjured, any number of folks will visualize Albrecht Drurer's "Praying Hands" as a universal symbol. Others might produce the image of a person kneeling with hands clasped before them. Still others might see the image of Jesus kneeling at a rock in Gethsemane with hands clasped and resting on the rock in front of him. There is nothing wrong with any of these images. They are part of our western cultural history...but all of them are post-Reformation works of art conceived with a certain cultural and theological perspective.

My liturgics and sacramental theology professor and graduate studies mentor, Fr. Louis Weil, strongly suggested that our disposition and conditioning often limit the capacity to engage in the full power of what it means to pray. The result of that is that, in turn, we fail to be fully empowered for both enlightenment and action. Enlightenment, here, means the encounter with the Holy in such ways that show us more of our true nature and capacities. All prayer leads to some kind of action. We are moved/motivated to engage the environment around us or, many times, within us in ways that create positive shift and change.

This last week was difficult for many people. The death of a terrorist and criminal released all kinds of emotions around the globe. After the initial impact, people began asking questions about whether bin Laden was even dead; the efficacy of the decision to send the SEAL team in; political fallout with Pakistan; new reactions from al-Qaeda; factional rhetoric in our own Congress. And this is just that event. We are still dealing with financial recovery issues; soaring fuel prices; unemployment; and a host of domestic concerns that can create stress and deep concern.

Then, we begin to get close to home. For me -- with only 51 days until retirement -- I face the uncertainty of what that will mean to me vocationally and within the context of having been 33 years in a particular aspect of ordained life. The financial shift in our household and the preparations in completing the pre-retirement process. Yesterday (Monday), I began "collapsing" my office. I did so by throwing away materials in my desk, filing cabinets and closet that no longer serve a purpose and/or won't be useful at home. I sat and looked at several things that have journeyed with me since seminary. I then began the daunting task of thinning out my professional library -- reducing the nearly 800 volumes of books that have defined my vocation for more than three decades. Books are dear friends to me, and saying goodbye is a rough experience.

Yet, in all this shift and change, I kept hearing my own voice advising me as I advise others: Pray! In the foxholes of life, prayer can take on the images I cited early on in this posting. Those images indicate supplication: me beseeching God to make something better; change a situation; or provide something I believe I need (strength, guidance, etc.). So, if that isn't it, what do I do, when I hear the counsel to pray?

First, I closed my office door -- a sign for those around my office that I "need a minute." I am not disturbed when the door gets shut all the way. Next, I sat upright in a chair...straight but comfortable and placed my hands out on my lap and turned my palms up. This is called the modified "orans" position. It is the most ancient form of prayer. It is also the kind that Jesus would have used in his culture. It is the classic pre-medieval/reform style in Christianity. It signifies a conversation and an openness to receive as well as to offer. I'm here for a conversation....which is the definition of prayer....conversation with the Holy One.

Since I was up to my nose in concerns of my own and in response to events that shape our world (and, subsequently, my life as a priest and citizen), I simply sat in silence for quite some time. Silence is also an essential characteristic of prayer. What?! Say nothing?!! One might think that a waste.

NO, to pray well is to empty one's head of all the noise, bright ideas, critiques and busy-ness that occupy it. Shut down the machinery and find placidness. Once that has been achieved as much as possible (and it takes a lot of practice), simply lay out what the problems seem to be. I took whatever time it was to simply say, "this is where I find myself right now...scared, worried, overwhelmed, unsure...(name what those things are that go with those feelings)." I then simply stated, "I need order and direction." Then, I SHUT UP.

In the ensuing quiet, I let myself drift using a mantra to distract the thinking elements of mind. A mantra is simply a word or phrase that keeps me focused on why I am here in this time. I use several, depending upon what is going on. Yesterday, it was simply, "Jeshua" (the Hebrew name for Jesus). This I said quietly and rhythmically with my breathing...slowing things down as much as possible. I didn't focus on the mantra, and it gradually became a background repitition. Images, and moments of insight began flashing. I simply let that happen. Take no notes. Just be still and stay with the silence. At some point, your heart knows when it is time to be done. I utter a prayer of thanks for whatever gift of God's Love I have received and the ability to do what has been purposed in this time.

THERE, I have actually had a conversation. The truth is, I felt compelled to shut my office down for the afternoon, go home, take a short nap and make dinner for my wife...who was arriving home late from her work. As this day (Tuesday) unfolded, I began having some insights into what I need to do with my books. My hands seem more purposeful in choosing what stays and what goes. I have been rather creative in working with the staff and doing some long-range planningn with them for the time after I retire. I feel calm, happy and peaceful within. Stuff around me hasn't changed much, but I seem to have changed in relationship to them.

Prayer is conversation. When I suggest that we pray for something or someone, I am not suggesting that we squeeze out some kind of dissertation to God about what to do or what we need. After all God already knows what is needed. Take Osama bin Laden. None of us know what torment and torture he was dealing with in his psyche that produced what we witnessed over the years. Yet, in simply giving him over to God for what God knows needs to happen to bring balance to the world and to deal with a broken human being, we have shown compassion -- solidarity with God. I note that, as soon as I did that last week, I suddenly realized that bin Laden isn't our problem any longer. Let go of him -- the anger -- the fear -- all of it. God has all that and knows exactly what comes next in the context of creator-creature relationship. That's not my paygrade. Move on to what lies ahead.

Blessings in the Risen Christ,

Fr. Fred+

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing such a vivid description of prayer. I am struggling with many of the same emotions as I consider whether its time to bring my 30-year career to a close. So reading through your approach to prayer is very inspiring. And I am reveling in several of the books you have shed - both for their content and for the personal touch of your notes in the margin. So thank you for sharing those gifts as well.