Monday, May 12, 2008

III The Space of Prayer

Intercession begins with recognizing in humble confidence that we are created in the imageless image of God, that we share God’s nature, that the very fact that we exist means that we share God’s life. We are “onyd” with God, as Julian of Norwich would say, or “in union” with God, to use the phrase of other writers. Prayer, especially intercessory prayer, is dependent on this shared nature.

The purpose of prayers and rites, which churches too often seem to have forgotten, is to clear away the noise and confusion of our problems and sickness by naming them and letting them go into silence, to bring us into the open place, the empty space, where there are many futures, where anything can happen, even resurrection. The key phrase here is “letting go,” for to intercede truly we must let go our possessive ideas not only of what the outcome ought to be, but what the problem is in the first place. Being silent together for an extended time is a particularly effective way for groups not only to pray for others but also to seek a way forward for themselves. [8]

Being silent together also helps those who may be apprehensive about silence to enter it in the context of a supportive community. But too often such gatherings deteriorate into competition, narcissism, and banality. Being silent together should be simply that: being silent together. There should be no spoken reflections before and certainly not after the silence, no declared intentions. At the appointed time people enter in silence, learn to sit in stillness for the allotted time while remaining perfectly relaxed, [9] and leave in silence. There should be no discussion before or afterwards, at any time, about participants’ “impressions” of what happened or didn’t happen, what it “felt” like, or any sort of evaluation or commentary about people or situations relating to the time of silence together. Difficulties with silence that may arise in an individual usually resolve themselves if that person simply sits with them. [10]

Another way to talk about intercession might be to say that because the life we have is a share in God’s life, when we pray on behalf of another, we are creating a space for God to use that life as is most appropriate, according to God’s light, not ours. Because of our shared nature with God, in this space our life becomes God’s life: God’s tears, God’s offering, God’s power. We set God free to work his mysterious love in ways that we should not care to seek to know, if we are rightly focused on God. Some people wake each night to devote a specific amount of time to this conscious offering of their lives on behalf of the world, to make a space, however humble, where some small fragment of human suffering can perhaps find a little respite and peace.

There are as many ways of intercession as there are moments of life. Intercession can become deep and habitual, hidden even from our selves. There is nothing exotic about such practice. What matters is the intention that creates the space and the stillness. Even something as simple as refusing to anesthetize the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to go to the heart of pain to find God’s new life, hope, possibility, and joy. This is the priestly task of our baptism. [11]


[8] Taken alone, learning to sit this way for half an hour, just being aware of the body (never mind "prayer"), can be the single most helpful spiritual exercise that anyone can learn.

[9] The best book on problems in prayer is by Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[10] This paragraph is modified from my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, chaps, 4 and 5, (New York: Seabury Books, 2007).

[11] Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace, 251, trans Sebastian Brock. The context may be found in The Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984).

[To be continued.]


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