Sunday, May 04, 2008

II The Space of Prayer

In an age addicted to “signs and wonders” (John 4:48), it is important to know what prayer is and what prayer is not.[1] The substituting of idols for faith and magic for prayer is an old, old story in both Judaism and Christianity.[2] The persistence of idols is linked to the need for reassurance, and idols can be mental as well as physical, what Chögyam Trungpa has called “spiritual materialism.”[3]

Keith Thomas describes a sixteenth-century distinction between prayer and magic: “Words and prayers...had no power in themselves, unless God chose to heed them; whereas the working of charms followed automatically upon their pronunciation.”[4] According to this distinction, the twenty-first century is not as far from the sixteenth as we might hope. But the sixteenth-century description does not go far enough.

The difference between prayer and magic is an attitude toward the future. If theology has forgotten it, Einstein reminds us that there are many futures. Prayer, especially intercessory prayer, is opening to this possibility of many futures. Magic wishes to limit us to only one. Magic tries to exert total short-term control over a single, narrowly focused aspect of life, heedless of the long-term consequences or ripple effect on others’ lives.

In our desperation to pray for a loved one in crisis or for our own needs and desires, we often feel strongly about what the best outcome should be, and we frame our prayers (and sometimes fill them with bribes) toward this end. These prayers are useful if they help us examine what we think and feel, but our knowledge and understanding of the larger picture, much less the depth of the heart of the person we are praying for, is at best fragmentary and provisional. In reality it is impossible for us to know what will work for the highest good, and unless our prayer is underpinned and ringed about with “Thy will be done” it is no better than magic.

By contrast, true prayer tries to gather what needs attention and let go of it in the love of God. Or, to use a metaphor that arises from the story of the old man and the rainstorm, prayer creates a space in which things have a chance to work themselves out without being limited or distorted by human pressure or interference (Eph. 3:20).

One of the oldest meanings of the word “salvation” is to be brought into an open space where enemies cannot surprise or trap. “He brought me out into an open place; he rescued me because he delighted in me” (Ps. 18:20).[5] Most of the time we cry out to God because we perceive ourselves to be trapped in some way. We feel ourselves being drawn by circumstances out of our control into the vortex of a single inexorable future. The same obsessive thoughts and fears repeat over and over. If these obsessive thoughts become obsessive prayers, we are only sinking more deeply into what we fear. But if in the depths of our interior silence we simply name the problem, this naming can open our perspective and may even set in motion the process of resolution in the space where we wait on God, the space where there are many futures. If we are in such a state of torment that we think we have no silence (it’s there, underneath all the noise, which is composed merely of ephemeral thoughts), all we have to do is toss our cry for silence into the maelstrom, and follow it as it sinks beneath the surface.[6]

Intercession has often been spoken of as “the work of prayer,” but while we may have to work at praying, prayer itself is not work. The prayer we are conscious of praying is a clearing-out of our works and ways; we name them so that we can leave behind their limitations. Weeping is often a sign of this emptying-out, the relinquishing of our efforts to control the future. Weeping is a sign of our letting go of power so that God’s power can move through us. It is the sign of transfiguration, of new creation.

"In this density of holiness we are raised out of time to that...primordial silence [in which] all expansion, all possibility are held in potent stillness as our tears mingle and ignite with that single, certain drop from the abyss....Tears are our bodies’ participation in theosis [realizing the divinity within]; in these tears we see the beginning of the transfiguration of all creation which will be accomplished by Christ in and through us. Tears are the Refiner’s fire; tears are the sorrow caught in beauty and joy; tears are the mirroring of the Consuming Fire who weeps."[7]

Having named our needs and concerns, we are led to understand that we do not know how to pray but that the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27).



1 All Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version Bible unless otherwise indicated.
2 See especially Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), and Michael
Camille, The Gothic Idol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
3 Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1987).
4 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 61. He goes on to point out that attempts to reform idolatrous attitudes tend to
push people into ritualism on the one hand and ideology on the other.
5 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., 1977), 604.
6 Impasse is a different problem altogether. See Constance Fitzgerald’s “Impasse and Dark Night” at
7 Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire (Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1987), 230–31.

[To be continued.]


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