Wednesday, June 09, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friend

Today I'd like to pick up on a theme I began to explore in a post a few weeks ago -- the idea of prayer as a mutual relationship.  I'd been reading the work of a wonderful teacher of prayer, the Russian Orthodox priest Anthony Bloom, who stresses that prayer is all about building a real relationship with a true, living, active Other -- a mutual relationship, not a one-sidded affair where I call all the shots. 

Bloom implies, and I'd agree, that if you look at it with honest eyes this is exactly what most of us are actually doing when we pray -- acting like we're in charge of the encounter.  We expect God to show up because we've called and respond to our requests in the way we've imagined, generally fulfilling all of our expectations.  Not a very nice way to treat a friend . . . especially if that friend happens to be God!  And not what happens in any other relationship we have . . . not any that last for very long, at any rate.  In real relationships there is a mutuality and so, Bloom contends, we must expect a mutuality in our prayer lives as well.  If this God we are trying to be in relationship with is truly a living God and not simply some cardboard cutout or some idol -- at one point he uses the phrase, "an imaginary God, or a God you can imagine" -- then we need to expect real interaction, real give and take.  It'll be a two-way street.  And that's one thing most of us are probably specifically not ready for!

But I want to take this idea in another direction today.  I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor of "relationship."  I'm stressing that the use of this word is a metaphor because -- and this is important -- whatever this thing that Bloom and I are calling "the living God" is something that we can not imagine.  (Remember, Bloom says specifically that the living God is not "[the] imaginary God, or [the] God you can imagine."]  This is the God about who Thomas Aquinas said, si comprihendis non es deus -- "if you understand it, it's not God."  And if this God is so utterly unimaginably incomprehensible, then this "relationship" must be different than anything I've ever experienced, either.

And yet I can tell you from my own personal experience -- and here I'm backed up by contemplatives and mystics from a myriad of religious traditions -- there is an experience that feels like relationship with this "sacred something" that I'm calling God.  I know of no better word to describe it, even though I know that that word is not entirely accurate and leaves me open to easy misinterpretation.  Still, it's the best that I have to work with.

So I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor, of "relationship," but I want to take this idea in another direction today.

I was recently facilitating a discussion about prayer with a group of seminarians, nearly all of whom said that they were in this particular workshop because they wanted to deepen their prayer life or because they were struggling with it.  There were a few people there for other reasons, but essentially there were these two groups -- those for whom things were going well and who wanted to learn what they could do to go deeper, and those who were having trouble getting started who wanted to know what they could do to get over the hurdles they were tripping over.  What both groups had in common, though, was the assumption that they, themselves, had to do something; that it was up to them to take the next step.

We talked for a bit about this idea of prayer-as-relationship, and I asked them what they thought might happen if they just showed up and didn't do anything in particular to try to improve the relationship other than just showing up.  Well, that and having the expectation that their partner in the relationship has a role to play, too.  In fact, doesn't it make sense to show up and let the person who's better at something take the lead?  And who would be better at prayer -- you or God?

You see, once again, we act as though we're in charge, as though the whole encounter is up to us.  But what if it really is an encounter?  What if we really are engaging with the Sacred Something, the Ground of Being, the Spirit of Life, the Living God?  Well, then, God is engaging with us, as well, and God might be fully capable of helping us deepen our prayer lives or getting over the hurdles of a rough beginning, don't you think?

But don't take my word for it.  Try it.  Even if you don't know who or what you're hooking up with, go into the encounter expecting to be met.  Show up and see what greets you.  And if you want to know how to deepen your prayer life, bring that question to your next encounter and see what comes up.  (After all, wouldn't you ask your friend how to deepen your friendship rather than go and ask someone else about it?)  Sometimes all it takes is a little help from your friend.

In Gassho,

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David said...

Amen, bro. The "prayer" = "relationship" metaphor is so apt.

For instance, if I walk into the house and plop down on the sofa next to my spouse without saying a word, we're both apt to focus more on the TV than each other. A simple "hi hon, great to see you, what's up" can invite a conversation that's meaningful to both of us and deepens the relationship.

So I usually, even in my "passivest" prayer times, initiate some gesture--lighting a chalice, sitting in a special place--that reminds me (I'm pretty sure God was on board to begin with) that this is to be "our" time. Otherwise I just zone out and end up staring at the TV again.

David said...

I just used the word "apt" twice in two adjacent sentences. Time for caffeine.... :-p