Friday, May 07, 2010

Beginning to Pray, part 2

I'd fully intended to get right back to this post, but I was writing from vacation last week and those last few days were rather full.  And then there was the getting back from vacation.  And the getting back to work.  And . . . well . . . here we are.

But I do want to reflect for a bit on one of the real treasures in Anthony Bloom's wonderful book Beginning to Pray.  As I noted in the last post, this is a book I have returned to over and over again.  It has never let me down.

Anthony Bloom, a Metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church, has such a humble, down-to-earth style of writing.  He says early on in the book, "As I am a beginner myself, I will assume that you are also beginners, and we will try to begin together."  What a lovely, refreshing invitation.

Near the end of the book he sums up quite succintly his understanding of what prayer is all about.  For Bloom, "prayer is obviously a relationship, an encounter, a way in which we have a relationship with the living God."  This may not seem, at first glance, too radical of an understanding.  But listen to where it takes him.

He addresses the experience so many people have of trying to pray yet feeling that no one is listening.  He says of this, "We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply."  This has certainly put many people off prayer, convinced them they didn't know how to do it; it's even put lots of people off God, convincing them that there must be no God since there's no one there when they call.  Yet for Bloom prayer is all about relationship, and because he thinks this he responds to this experience of the perceived absence of God like in this way:
"First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.  The fact that God can make Himself (sic) present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship.  If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter.  We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.  A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom.  If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him.  We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer 'I am busy, I am sorry' or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life."
I know that the exclusively male language Bloom uses will be problematic for some folks -- I know that the theistic language of this will be problematic for some folks! -- but let's try to read through those particulars to hear what he's really saying.

Let's start with the idea that there's something -- I often call it the Sacred Something -- that's "bigger" than you and me.  Call it whatever you want, the name doesn't really matter:  Higher Power, Ground of Being, Spirit of Life, God, the Force, Life, Is-ness, Creative Principle, That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, Gaia, All That Is.  Call it what you will, but let's agree (for the moment at least) that you and I are not the be all and end all of it all.

That said, pretty nearly all of the mystics and contemplatives in all of the religions we humans have developed over time have in one way or another come to use the poetic language of relationship with regards this Sacred Something that is bigger, deeper, higher.  All agree that from within their own lived experience of probing this Mystery they have discovered that they can related to it and "it" can relate to them -- there is a relationship.

Bloom is telling us that it's a mutual relationship.  That we shouldn't imagine that we are somehow in charge of it, that we're calling all the shots.  That's what you can do with an idol or, as Bloom puts it, "an imaginary God, or a god you can imagine."  The living God -- Bloom's name for that which is worthy of the name, the real deal in other words -- would have to be an equal partner in a real relationship . . . and what kind of relationship is an "unreal" relationship?

This is one of the gifts of the theistic traditions -- this idea of relationship with the Sacred Something.  Especially when understood as Bloom invites us to, as a challenging mutual relationship.  The living God is not at my beck and call; the living God is not my puppet, any more than I would be a puppet in this God's hands.  And that means that this relationship, just like any relationship between two beings, will always be filled with mystery and invitations into the unknown.

In Gassho,

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1 comment:

RevNaomi said...

Thank you, Erik! I especially love the reminder that the living God is at no one's beck and call. Indeed, I keep praying for the opposite and to be able to be aware of that call when it shows up in guises I do not usually know.