I have been challenged in a lot of ways that I didn’t expect during my time here at seminary. Most recently I have been feeling a strong conviction that my prayer life needs to change – to mature maybe.
I spend a lot of time throughout the average day in prayer. Many times they are just a whispered “thank you” or a cry for mercy. Sometimes (usually at night and occasionally int he morning) they are more lengthy prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and petition. I pray over meals – partly because its what we were taught to do by Mom and Dad, partly because I want to give thanks for the many blessings that we have, and partly because it is the example of Jesus.
I’ve always been a somewhat emotional person in that I feel a great deal of empathy and can be sensitive to criticisms at times. Even though this is true, I have also always been highly rational. I have a hard time laying things to rest until I understand them fully. I find it easy to become completely obsessed with discovering the why’s and how’s of things. For example, just this week I glimpsed an article headline on Yahoo! about naked mole rats and their immunity to the pain caused by acids and hot peppers. I was in the middle of something important, but couldn’t continue on until I had read the entire article and sat thinking for a bit about the ramifications.
My rational nature comes out in my love of philosophy and theology. But it unfortunately has some side effects. I have a hard time understanding practices that don’t seem completely rational on the surface. I mean, clearly I also have faith, or I could not be a Christian. But it is almost easier at times to find the rationality in the Incarnation or the Eucharist than it is for me to find it in practices such as contemplative prayer.
I’m not sure this makes sense to my five readers, and I’m not sure it even makes sense to me. Some of the more ascetic and liturgical practices just puzzle me. I don’t get them. Yet at the same time I have been feeling almost uncontrollably drawn to reading and thinking about them.
I come from an extremely “low church” tradition. That means that liturgy was simply not part of my vocabulary prior to seminary – other than the Eucharist, which was called communion and only happened once a year in some of my churches. Oddly, though my pastor confesses frequently how “low church” he is, I have somehow become more liturgical since I have been here. I see beauty – not in the practices themselves, but in what they represent. I sense God’s presence and feel his grace when I approach his table, when I recite the creeds.
Getting back to prayer, I have been consumed by thinking about the practices of the monastics and the early church. I am particularly intrigued by the use of contemplative prayer to bring peace, openness to the voice of God, and focus to their lives. I’ve read enough about different religions to understand the importance that meditation plays throughout the world. But contemplative prayer is more than that.
Its not just an emptying of the mind – it is a filling of one’s whole self with God.
I understand this on some level. Yet my rational mind has trouble with the idea of reciting a prayer over and over. I become a little embarrassed by the vulnerability it brings. I worry about the threat of practice become more than a means to an end. I worry about being thought a fool for the Gospel. Yet isn’t this exactly what we are commanded to be?
Despite my worries and the seeming irrationality of the idea, I find myself distracted by reading about contemplative prayer practices. I am especially intrigued by the Eastern and Western monastics and their use of prayer chords or rosaries. I have significant theological reasons for disagreeing with Mary veneration in the Western church, so I have no interest in the “hail Mary” prayers that go with it. But I am very intrigued by the use of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed in the West and the Jesus Prayer and Nicene Creed in the East as a means to practice contemplative prayer.
Even though I am intrigued by these things, I would likely not be as drawn to them as I am if I had not seen their effects in the lives of real people. I was venting a bit to a friend of mine a few short weeks ago about the difficulties of working with certain folks on our campus. I was frustrated by the apparent lack of Christian love they exhibit towards myself and my coworkers. I’ll never forget what he said to me in response.
He said, “You know how I get through my days, how I deal with the problems of working in a Christian organization?”
“How?”, I asked.
And then he replied, “Every day, as I walk up and down the stairs in our building, with each foot that I place I pray — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'”
That witness of humility has broken my hardened heart over the last few weeks. I can;t get it out of my mind. The prayer that my friend whispers is the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Monastics. That prayer has become real in my life.
This week I spent an afternoon at a retreat organized by the Office of Community Life here are the seminary. We trekked out to the Cliffview (a catholic retreat center near here), as we have each January to center ourselves for the work of the coming year. I arrived a bit early, so that I could enjoy a few minutes of solitude to calm my mind and release some stress. Almost immediately, I found myself in the lobby, grabbing a green plastic rosary from a basket there. My feet led me straight out back to the stations of the cross. With no small amount of fear in my heart, I slowly walked the stations and prayed.
At first, the prayers came slowly, almost hesitantly within my mind. Before long I was saying the Jesus Prayer, with intermittent Our Father’s as I paced slowly. By station seven, I was whispering the prayer out loud. By the last station – the empty one – I stopped and laughed at the wonderful reality that Christ is risen and has ascended to the throne of grace. By the end of the walk, I was through the rosary, and I was at peace.
I can’t explain what happened. Though I am still a little embarrassed to share this with my family, to keep it in would be worse. I don’t know where God is leading me, though I am certainly not headed toward the Catholic or Orthodox churches (bet you were worried). All I know is that God is leading me into a new season of life. My wonderful family is journeying with me, and Sarah is supporting me. She understands. I am blessed by this. Who knows where I will be in six months or a year, but for now I feel as though Jesus is teaching me how to pray.