When I am away from prayer I miss it and long to return to the quiet and serious happiness that is its salient quality. Yet it is the nature of resistance that when I willfully leave what heals, I forget that it heals, and so stumble a long time – hours, days, years even – before I remember to pray again.
I am using prayer in this instance in somewhat the same way that Thomas Merton talked about meditation in Spiritual Direction & Meditation.
Meditation is for those who are not satisfied with a merely conceptual and objective knowledge about life, about God – about ultimate realities. They want to enter into an intimate contact with truth itself, with God. They want to experience the deepest realities of life by living them ( 53).
And I am thinking too of Krishnamurti’s observations in This Light in Oneself.
Meditation is not for the immature . . . One has to work hard; one has to become aware of what one is doing, what one is thinking, without any distortion. And all that requires great maturity, not of age but maturity of of the mind to be capable of observation, seeing the false as the false, and truth as truth (86).
Prayer is always a form of giving attention – intensely, devotedly, gratefully – to what-is. As A Course in Miracles points out, prayer does not ask for anything (S-I.1:3) and has neither a beginning nor an end (S-II.1:1). It assumes the form to which we are best suited at a given time and place (S-in.2:1) and evolves accordingly until it reaches a state of “total communication with God” (S-II.1:3).
Perhaps most importantly, it is a way of remembering our holiness (S-I.5:2).
Prayer is dynamic, then. It is a way of engaging in one’s life by giving the whole of one’s attention, in a sustained and energetic way, to life. We “give” our attention to the Holy Spirit, where it is translated to awareness, and we are enlightened accordingly.
“Enlightened” in this context should be understood as being filled with intuition and insight reflecting the Love that is God. It should not be understood in the more Eastern sense of realizing the absolute. It is not about reaching a desired end so much as entering a dialogue with eternity that is forever in motion, folding and unfolding.
What does prayer look like, then? And what does leaving prayer look like?
And – once away from it – how do we return to prayer?
The personal nature of prayer – indeed, the intimate nature of prayer – cannot be emphasized enough. What works for me will almost certainly not work for you, and vice-versa. It is important to qualify our experience that way, lest we slip into one of two traps: a) believing that what we’re doing is “right” in an ultimate way and everybody needs to get on board, and/or b) believing that what someone else is doing is “right,” and that their rightness is testament to our wrongness.
Truly,who longs to give attention to God has already done all that they need to do – indeed, all that they can do – and their longing will not go long unrequited.
So for me, prayer is walking in the forest and fields of my native New England, in particular this western Massachusetts slip of it. And – as importantly – writing about those walks and that prayer. When I am attentive to those two mutually supportive practices, then the balance of my life tends to stay balanced, relatively speaking.
People sometimes ask why I wake up so early and the answer is simple. It is true that God is everywhere at all times but my identification with that truth is not yet perfect. Thus, I turn as often and willingly as possible in the direction of those times and places where my awareness of God is most alive. Perhaps someday this will happen at high noon on the streets of New York City – doubtless it does for some – but for me it does not.
Honesty requires that I see the terms of my relationship with God clearly. I can’t lie about them just because I wish they were more ideal or impressive. The discipline of prayer consists of being faithful to the relationship with God at the level at which I now experience it. That is the Psalmist’s meaning in writing “be still and know that I am God.”
And yet I do forget. I do turn away. I get busy, usually, or distracted by this or that relationship. There are papers to grade, there are plans about land and buildings to be made, there are meetings that require my attention, kids get sick, I get sick, foxes worry the hen house and time is given to reinforcing foundations and walls, somebody wants to talk about Emily Dickinson or A Course in Miracles . . .
And so and so forth. Adjusting for differences in form, you know precisely what I am talking about.
The world rushes in and we forget it’s not our job to solve or fix anything alone. When we try to be God, we get scared and angry and lonesome. This happens to all of us! There’s no use beating ourselves up over it. It’s not like God is going anywhere. It’s not like the Holy Spirit can decide to go hang out in somebody else’s split mind.
So it’s okay. One morning we wake up and say, “what is going on here? I feel crazy and I know this isn’t how life is meant to go.”
When we are willing to question what vexes us, we are sooner or later blessed to remember that we have chosen alienation from God, and can just as readily choose otherwise.
So I read those texts that are helpful, and I turn to those lessons that are most fruitful, and the dog and go out in the woods with pen and paper in hand (well, I’m the one with pen and paper in hand – she doesn’t have opposable thumbs) and we walk slowly, looking and smelling and feeling. I pray again, and I see almost instantly that God is still there, and that prayer still works.
There are no consequences. There are no penalties. There is simply this happiness rising and falling, deepening within us even as it contains us, contains all of us, this big mysterious and beautiful Love that begs to be known.