Away from Prayer

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. It 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.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Rhett April 24, 2014, 3:58 pm

    I grew up in a very conventional, conservative, religious family, and my world of prayer therefore was rich yet rigid. I know how God preferred to be addressed, what things he wanted me to say (and not say!), and what he wanted me to do to please him. As it goes with many young people, I went to college, became disillusioned, and God and I went our separate ways. God was a childhood name for what took away my fear and made me feel safe, but as an adult heavily influenced by all that is modern, I figured that in life you either choose happiness or truth, and I favored the truth. Coming back into a spiritual sensibility as an adult, I am hyper-alert to anything that smells of hypocrisy or self-deception. I can’t pray anymore like I used to, and I am looking for models for prayer I can stomach. I like that you walk your dog in the early mornings, but I like just as much that I don’t. I like to sit and write and meditate and draw. But I have a hard time recognizing it as enough. Part of me wants, somehow, to kneel and address God like I did as a kid, and ask him to help me find the missing keys or to bring rain to our desert land. I’m still getting used to a God that does say much, nor desires that I say much to him.

    • Sean Reagan April 24, 2014, 4:33 pm

      Hi Rhett,

      Thanks for sharing. I think we may hail from different streams of Christianity, but I identify very much with your experience of prayer as a child as well as with the sense that that prayer does not really “fit” anymore, though something is needed in a profound way.

      My sense of what doesn’t work in the prayers of my childhood (Roman Catholic) is really in the rigidity of form – the insistence that prayer take this shape, day after day. Any relationship would suffer if we set a condition that we only say these words this way day after day! Chrisoula would kick me out!

      I still pray from time to time on my knees. I still pray from time to time – especially when I am very scared – in the first person to Jesus. Right now, for example, I am in the midst of a very public role that I play once a year in my town (town moderator – a New England institution) and it is hard. I have to attend a lot of meetings, and answer questions, and be clear and firm about some things. I know it’s not hard for everyone, but it is incredibly challenging to me.

      And I say alot – in my mind, under my breath, before I speak, before I enter a room, whatever – “help me, Jesus.”

      And I firmly expect in those moments – because I cannot do more – that Jesus will be there, and I will be helped in a very real and practical way.

      So it is a question of what is called for – and what we need. I was a year or so into ACIM before I began to realize that the morning walks were taking on the quality of lived prayer. And that prayerfulness does infuse my day-to-day life. But other times, the nature of prayer changes – telling stories to my kids, cooking dinner, working with students at the college . . . I can’t always go so deep. Sometimes it’s a nod in the direction of Love, sometimes it’s a quick “help me, Jesus.”

      You wrote about a God that does not desire you speak to him. But your desire for that union, Rhett, is God’s desire for you – it is no less real just because the form is morphing from what you remember growing up. Feeling that need inside you is nothing less than God calling. There is no space between our desire to know God and God’s desire to be known. That is how it works!

      So we just stumble in the direction that feels most right – or least scary – and our willingness to accept that God loves and wants us becomes itself the prayer.

  • Cheryl April 25, 2014, 10:13 am

    If I may…

    For me, prayer has evolved into a very simple awareness of God’s presence. It is an acknowledgement — somewhere within — of an ever-present Divinity, almost like a background hum, that I can access more deeply at any time through willingness and by choice. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments — days even — when I get all stirred up by something in my ego world, and forget that God is there, because I do. My biggest hurdle is that I tend to over think things, and this can and does build barriers to this awareness.

    When I was a young girl, I used to go to bed God blessing everyone I knew. When that got way too long-winded, I shortened it to “God bless every person, place and thing in the whole wide world. Amen.” and felt I had my bases pretty well covered. It’s different now, more silent like you mention, Rhett. But to keep the channel “open,” I set aside an hour or more of “white space” every morning (not as early as Sean 🙂 ), where I speak internally, listen, read, contemplate, journal, occasionally meditate … but it is very clearly, God time.

    It’s like prayer is both our invitation to God and the space in which we allow His entry. I really think it is that simple.

  • Claudia April 27, 2014, 12:25 pm

    This made me think about how I pray ~ I’ve not thought about that recently. Like you, Cheryl, I set aside “white space” (perfect description of my early morning ritual) to spend time with God. I don’t say much (I try not to think or direct where I end up, and I avoid the typical ‘prayers’ that otherwise escape from me all day through – those “help me Jesus” whispers) but I spend the dawn hours trying to “commune” – trying not to think, but just to “be” – in the presence, in the Now (as some would say), basking in the glow of the light from God’s throne. It could be described in countless ways, but when I think of “prayer” or “praying,” to me it just means going inward, spending time trying to rest in the divine peace and space where I believe we all came from and are all seeking to return to. Words no longer serve in that space – they just limit my access.

    • Sean Reagan April 28, 2014, 3:56 pm

      Hi Claudia,

      Yes – Cheryl’s “white space” is a cool concept. I like it, too. She writes here if you are interested.

      It’s interesting how the morning can be so spiritually resonant. Tara Singh used to write about it all the time – dawn and twilight. He really experienced a sort of perfect balance of energies or something like that. For me there is an intensity and a quiet in the wee hours. But by twilight I’m usually pretty tired and wiped out. Outdoors helps me no matter what time of day.

      Hope you’re well!

      Sean

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