Monday, June 16, 2008

Precarious Prayer

"I think most people have trouble with prayer because prayer is really an act of love, and therefore demands vulnerability. As with love, the more we try to control prayer, the less prayer can happen. Yet the desire to defend and protect oneself is understandable. Prayer is where we most directly face the truth of ourselves and of the world: it is risky business indeed. When I feel the fear associated with this vulnerability, I find it reassuring to remember that the word prayer comes from the Latin root precarius, meaning to depend upon grace. From this root also comes our English word precarious."


May goes on to speak about the various ways we try to control prayer. "It seems we will do almost anything to domesticate prayer, to restrict its inherently radical nature. We try to confine it within private habits and institutional structures, going through its motions without facing its disturbing, endless freshness...It is difficult for most of us to even think about prayer without being concerned about 'doing it right' or comparing our prayer with someone else's."

Interestingly, May is not against either private or public prayer, made-up-on-the-spot or ritualized prayers--any or all of these can be true prayer, just as we can use any or all of these as subtle defenses against God and our true hearts.

So what are the alternatives? One alternative that he speaks of is the practice of becoming aware of the prayer that we find spontaneously arising from within our hearts, without censoring, manipulating, interfering or "meddling" with it, no matter how mundane or trivial or raw and frightening it might seem upon various occasions.

The theologian Walter Wink also discusses this, in the context of the "travail," the labor and birth pangs of the created order as it suffers and is renewed.

He quotes St. Paul: "The Spirit also helps us in our present limitations. For example, we do not know how to pray worthily, but God's Spirit within us is actually praying for us in those agonizing longings and groans which cannot find words," and goes on to say,

"We learn to pray by stopping the attempt and simply listening to the prayer already being prayed in us. And what we hear is a strange kind of help. The Spirit groans in us inarticulately, wordlessly. It teaches us to pray by inducing us to give words to these groanings. Our task is simply to bring the Spirit's utterances to language, to consciousness, to awareness. Before we even make ready to pray, then, before we realize that the universe is in travail in us, before we even allow the groaning to rise to consciousness, God has already initiated our prayer...We do not turn to God and try to make contact through prayer. The Holy Spirit is already groaning in us. We would not even think of praying had not the Holy Spirit's groaning in us prompted us to do so. We are able to pray only because God is always, incessantly, praying in us...When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged rather in an act of cocreation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe...The God of the Bible invents history in interaction with those 'who hunger and thirst to see right prevail.' How different this is from the static God of Greek ontology..." (Walter Wink, UNMASKING THE POWERS)

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