Friday, January 27, 2006

The Prayer of Life

Sermon for Sanford-on-Thames 24.10.04

As today's readings show, the life of prayer can get pretty interesting. Yet an awful lot of us think of it as something we do, the kind of activity that can be turned on or off. We think of it as something that is 'out there' that we can choose to participate in or not. If we do choose to pray we tend to think that we are engaging in it only when we are following certain prescribed forms of behaviour.

There is a whole industry built around these assumptions. Walk into any religious bookstore and you will see the proof: there are shelves and shelves of how-to books on every imaginable practice, from rosaries to labyrinths, from enneagrams to zen meditation. There is nothing wrong with these practices except their tendency to become the end instead of the means, the spiritual fashion statement of the day, instead of a way into the radiant depths of the love of God.

But what if prayer is not so much practice as our whole life? What if the very energy of our lives is prayer, either positive prayer or negative prayer? What if opening our hearts to let the love of God pour through us really does make a difference in the world? What if the negative prayer of spite and small-mindedness enables and magnifies the darkness in the human soul? What if our indifference allows the energy of our lives to be manipulated and used by social tendencies that would horrify us if we could see them from a larger perspective?

Today's readings have a lot to tell us about prayer. Let's start with the Gospel. When we listen to parables such as the one we have heard today, it's almost a reflex to think of ourselves in one or other of the roles. The pharisee makes us cringe because he reminds us of our pettiness, our vanity, our desire to be admired, and, most of all, our hypocrisy.

The abasement of the publican also makes us cringe, though for different reasons: it's embarrassing to hear someone's private confession, and we, as members of this post-freudian world, may feel that there is something unhealthy about thinking of oneself as a sinner. Let me say, however, that I think the publican is humbling himself before God not because he is wallowing in self-reproach before an angry judge, but because in his intimate relationship with the divine he is overwhelmed by the vastness of God. He is wrapped/rapt in God's generous love and compassion, the beauty and abundance that is the knowledge of God, and his language of repentence echoes the awe-struck words of Job after God has spread out before him the breadth, the depth, the height and the wonder of creation: '...but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.'

In this light the parable of the pharisee and the publican is not about two people but is rather a parable of the human soul. Each of us has elements of the pharisee. How much we care what others think of us! How much we want to be seen as good people, and to do the correct thing, whether or not it may not be the right thing! And sometimes I even wonder if there aren't people who think that it is un-English to bare one's heart to God!

Yet somewhere in the secret place of the soul, where perhaps we are afraid even to glance, each of us is also the publican, knowing our need of God, afraid to raise our eyes to the vision of unbearable compassion that is trying to break through our awareness. While in our lives we may have times of catastrophe such as Joel describes, which we interpret metaphorically as the locust, the hopper, the destroyer and the cutter, it is almost certain that at some point we will also know the threshing floor full of grain and the vats overflowing with wine and oil. So it is in the life of prayer, or rather, the prayer of life.

How different this is from the shelves of books, the arcane practices, all the complication we create to protect ourselves from something that is as simple as prayer.

For all of this foolishness, Julian of Norwich reminds us that God, assigns no blame to us. 'And so shal shame be turnyd to worship and more ioye,' she says, 'for our curtes lord wil not that his servants dispeir....Peas and love art ever in us, beand and werkand, but [though] we be not alway in pese and in love; he will that we taken hede thus: that he is the ground of al our hole life in love.'

All that is required is desire: to desire God in the silence and stillness of our hearts, to know and to trust, as Julian tells us, that 'it is full great plesance to God that a sily soule come to him nakidly and pleynly and homely.' We are not merely to love God but to enjoy in God, as God enjoys in us, and to know that in Christ he would merrily have suffered more if it were necessary for our salvation, not because it was necessary to pay our blood-price, but simply to show us the radical extent of his love.

The young shall see visions: they have their whole life before them. The old shall dream dreams: they have nothing to lose! And the middle-aged—well, what are you waiting for???!!! Then will we know with Julian, that God's 'goodness comprehendith all his creatures and all his blissid works...' that 'he hath made us only to himselfe and restorid us be his blissid passion and keepith us in his blissid love.' And when we come to the end our lives will have been poured out on the altar, an offering, an oblation, a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice acceptable to God.


Anonymous Susan Law said...

This is rather late for a comment on this post, but I've just started to read your blog; wanted to begin at the beginning - and what a beginning it is. Julian and Job. So few people seem to see this amazing section of Job - in the translation I had, it begins with God saying, "Who is this man who obscures my designs with his empty-headed words..." and comes to Job's response, "I am the man who obscured your designs...I spoke of what I knew not... Now having seen you face to face, I retract everything I said, and in dust and ashes I repent." I had read the whole book, looking for God's answer to Job - and the answer is simply His presence.

6:16 pm, October 30, 2010  

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