“In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”Matthew 6: 7-8
This morning began for me with a brief text exchange with a friend who was at the airport awaiting his flight. It was but a few words, but those words created in me a space in which some of my most basic assumptions about my way of living were challenged. It was not because he was directly or intentionally challenging me. Rather it was his own self-reflection, his speaking of an aspect of his (and my) way of living, that opened a space in me of humility, doubt, questioning and so, I trust, challenge and opportunity.
I was left with significant “content” to think about, but in light of today’s gospel, I am also reflecting on the significance of the open (and somewhat empty) space in me that our exchange evoked. In speaking about his experience of being with his family, of being re-inserted in “the family drama,” he found himself reflecting on the difference between the way we live in community and the way of living in a family. He observed that our way of living was “emotionally safe and perhaps more intellectual/cognitive.” He then wrote that this was something he would have to think more about.
This immediately led me to “thinking more about” my own life path. I use quotation marks because I am not primarily present to this experience cognitively, but rather in a mode of sensing it, of sensing the vacancy in me, “the holes and cracks” in the core of my personality. My vows proclaim, as St. Thomas puts it, a “vacancy for God.” But I wonder how much is rather a vacancy which is the result of my flight into the emotionally safe place of the intellectual/cognitive.
The other day I listened to, via podcast, David Remnick of The New Yorker interviewing the biographer Robert Caro. In relating something of how he became the historian and writer that he is, he mentioned how a creative writing teacher of his at Princeton, having given him an “A” for the course, stopped him on the way out of class on the last day and said to him, “Caro, if you are ever going to do the work of which you are capable, you have to stop thinking with your fingers.” The teacher was very aware that as good as Caro’s work was, he would often dash it off at the last minute. He wanted to communicate to Caro that, although he gave him the grade that his work deserved, he was aware that he was not spending the time that the kind of work of which he was capable required.
I immediately thought of how much I “think with my fingers.” Now a part of this is that I find my own thoughts come to me much more readily in speaking to another or writing them than they do by mere introspection. Yet, it is also true that I do not spend the time my true “work” requires. Or, in Jesus’ terms, when do I cease babbling and begin to pray? My friend’s potent comment today can teach me something about the difference.
In an oft-quoted line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke tells the young person to “live the questions.” The question I am invited to live today is “Why do I live as I do?” Is the vacancy in my life a vacancy for God, or is it a distancing from others that is “emotionally safe”? Somehow, I sense that the answer to this question lies in my devotedness and commitment to prayer.
The night before last was characterized by a very active dream state for me. One of my dreams was about the delivery of the baby which my good friends are expecting within the next month. When I would awaken throughout this dream and in the course of the night, I was spontaneously moved to pray for them. That prayer grew out of the reality that I am not emotionally distant from them and from all they are going through as they anticipate the birth of their child and live the anxieties that such waiting and anticipating inevitably evoke. My dreams and my imagination brought me into a truth about the world that I, in my independence and autonomy, often avoid. The truth is the uncontrollable nature of our lives in the world. It is only with a depth of faith, hope, and love that is often remote in my experience that two people can dare to love each other and commit to each other in such a way as to desire and to dare to bring another person into the world. It means abandoning oneself to the forces of nature and the will of God in a way that puts all of one’s life on the line. It is to dare, for the sake of love and hope and desire, to bring a child into the world and to care for it with all their lives, and, at the same time, to risk the deepest of pains and disappointments. It is to enter the mystery not merely cognitively but with all their bodies, minds, and spirits. And so, albeit very vicariously, I was moved in the middle of the night to pray.
I am beginning to sense that I do not pray more because I am, too often, distant from life and so “playing it” emotionally safe. At such times my vacancy is not a vacancy for God but rather for my own fearful and narcissistic self. As it is put in Merton’s reading of The Way of Chuang Tzu, my holes and cracks are not yet sufficiently open to the wind of life and love that is the power of God. My very busy and agitated mind covers over the true emptiness and vacancy for God’s breath that are the real holes and cracks within me.
As a young person, one of my favorite novels was Richard Llewelyn’s How Green Was My Valley. As he is helping the young Huw Morgan recover from his illness, the minister Merdyn Gruffydd tells him he needs to pray and then defines prayer for him: “Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking.” I think that very often I see prayer in this way. And so it can be a step to prayer. Teresa of Avila reminds us, however, that prayer is far more than thinking. In The Way of Perfection, she says that “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” For, she says, “The important thing in mental prayer is not to think much but to love much.”
To pray requires of us that we not be emotionally distant or too highly cognitive but that we need “only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” It is precisely the opposite of a safe distance. It is the nature of thinking, or at least what Heidegger would call “calculative thinking,” to distance us from the world, ourselves, others, and God. Yet there is another kind of thinking, “meditative thinking.” This is a dwelling, a thanking, and a loving. We truly risk in life when we love, when we dare to bring life into the world, and when we seek to be with and for another. It is only love that can motivate us to have the courage to be and to come and be close. This love is prayer, and prayer is this love. When we dare to look upon Him who is spirit within us, and when we allow the love of the One within who is the love common to all to fill our bodies, minds, and spirits, then prayer comes to us unbidden. In such a moment where we know our own smallness and total dependence on the Mystery, it is then that we realize the greatest potential of the human spirit, which is to pray.
It is a fearful thing to ponder the possibility that I structure my life for the sake of emotional safety. From such a defensive place, all I can do is “babble.” To share in love, however, that “life together” that is not safe is to realize that in that place we are prayer. St. Teresa says that prayer is presence to the One “within us.” Perhaps my favorite “collect” is the alternate prayer for Trinity Sunday.
God, we praise you:
Christ Lord and Savior,
Spirit of Love.
You reveal yourself in the depths of our being,
drawing us to share in your life and your love.
One God, three Persons,
be near to the people formed in your image,
close to the world your love brings to life.
We ask you this, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, true and living, forever and ever.
This prayer, I suspect, is so meaningful to me because it pleads with God to be near to us and to be close to the world. I “feel” this prayer because I know the longing of overcoming the distance I so often create between myself and myself, between myself and others, and between myself and the world. In truth, God is always “nearer to us than we are to ourselves” and close to our world, because the world only exists in that love. To live in that closeness and love is to have the wind of God’s Spirit blowing through the cracks and holes of our poor humanity — that is, it is to live in prayer.
THE BREATH OF NATUREThomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu
When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds
Which, noiseless in themselves,
Awaken voices from other beings,
Blowing on them.
From every opening
Loud voices sound. Have you not heard
This rush of tones?
There stands the overhanging wood
On the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks
Like snouts, maws, and ears,
Like beam-sockets, like goblets,
Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water:
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,
Shouts of command, grumblings,
Deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly,
Strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings
Empty out their last sound.
Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?
Yu replied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.
What makes the music of heaven?
Master Ki said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die
What is this power?