Every day we live we take in countless volumes of air, and we exhale the same proportion, with nothing but a chemical reaction deep within our lungs to show for the effort. It’s a mindless task; it’s something our bodies do of their own accord. It’s a simple action as simple as walking, and yet life is sustained only in its repetition. We know it happens, we would certainly notice if it stopped, but we give the act breathing itself no thought until something goes wrong somewhere, and our breathing becomes labored.
For example, if we choose to run, we notice our breathing rate picks up. We notice the rhythm of it, the feeling associated with it. Or if we develope a disease, we might notice it…the pain of it, the harsh scrape of it, a rattle in our chest. These are the times we cannot help but notice our breath, for fear of its stopping.
It is likewise with the act of prayer, is it not?
I could argue (but I’m not sure I want to) that all of us pray, just like all of us breathe.
Prayer is a function of the soul as vital to its health and well-being as breathing is to the body. We notice our prayers more in times of stress, duress, and brokenness…not because these are the times we pray, and the rest of life consists in no prayer…but rather precisely because the pain and the discomfort is making us aware of what’s really going on underneath the surface.
Prayer is more than a simple action that we perform in a time of need. God is bigger than a cosmic vending machine, on call at our convenience to help us handle life’s woes. Rather, it’s more like our lives are our prayers. So the question becomes, in a moment of self-reflection, “Who are you praying to?”
We live in a pantheon not unlike that of the ancient Greeks. Some pray to commerce, some to finance, some to higher education. Some pray to the gods of war to keep “our” kids safe at the expense of “others”. Some are gods unto themselves, and pray accordingly. Others profess a religion, or even a Christ whom we know only dimly.
We pray because our lives are not complete. We pray for things like forgiveness, or healing (for ourselves or a loved one). We pray for resolution to a situation we’re involved in…or sometimes we pray just to say “Thank you” to the one we profess as the source of all good things. These are all good reasons to offer up prayers.
But I’m interested in asking the question; what happens when we understand prayer more as a way of being and becoming? It’s an important question, because I’ve had too many conversations with well-meaning, Christian people who seem unable to cede the concept that sometimes, prayers are not answered.
They always need to find the hand of God at work in the details of the unfolding tragedy, repeating variations on the theme that God is absolutely in control of every detail of life. Therefore, anything that’s scary (like cancer) or wrong (like violence or other crime), God is somehow behind it, pulling strings from heaven to bring about some purpose that eludes us primitive earthlings…but we can rest assured that it’s all “for good” in the end.
Can we understand prayer more broadly? Can we see it as a way of relating; a way of holding irreconcilable tensions within ourselves…tensions that when combined, do show the face and the heart of God just a bit more clearly?
Holding such tensions, as Richard Rohr helpfully points out in an article in the March 2013 issue of Sojourners, is not work that is aided by the use of language, or words.
The point of words is to distinguish one concept from another. Words are necessarily, and by definition, isolated units of meaning that serve extremes. We need to know that an apple is not a car, so we have different words.
But somehow, the reality of God is that He could be mysteriously apple and car at one and the same time. Words do not facilitate the holding of such meaning. Poetry gets close, music even closer…but silence is truly the golden standard for such work.
This is what I mean when I ask if we can see prayer as a practice of being, and becoming, and even understanding. How often do we fill the void in our lives with words, when what might be most needed is the serenity of silence…and how much better equipped would we be to deal with tragedy if we were well-versed in the quiet ways?
Tread lightly when speaking of God. Walk even lighter when daring to enter the sacred, silent space where one hears the very heartbeat of God mingled with your own.