Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Prayer is a gift of the Spirit: "Speak to your heart upon your bed."

The readings from yesterday's Daily Office spoke to me, and so I'd like to share some of my meditation from yesterday.

First, there was Paul Letter to the Romans 8:26-30:
"The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."
There are many times I do not know how to pray, when the words don't come, when my mind wanders to my To-Do list and my church tasks for the day.

It helps me to know that prayer is a gift, and the words -- the insights -- of prayer are truly from God's grace. It helps me to know all that so that I don't worry that my prayer is somehow not good enough.

There are people who seem so great at prayer, and I can feel inadequate by comparison. Thomas Merton and Julian of Norwich I am not. But if prayer is a gift of the Spirit, then prayer is not a competition. I don't have to be Thomas or Julian. I can fret about many things, but prayer should not be one them.

Yet, that brings me to a related question: How honest am I allowed to be in my prayer? Yes, I pray for others, but may I pray for myself? How do I pray for myself? Do I put my selfish desires and my deepest anxieties on the table with God? Do I say what I really want? Should I be bothering God at all with any of this?

I am helped by Psalm 4 from Evening Prayer last night: "Speak to your heart in silence upon your bed."
"Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer..."
One other thought came to me in yesterday's meditations, and it is more implicit than explicit within the readings of the day. Many passages of the Bible seem to suggest God is the cause of both good and evil, like when God "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" so that plagues would be unleashed and so proving God's might. That is not an image that sets well with me about God; this image of God is not anyone I would want to trust.

There is another way to see this:

If prayer itself is a gift of the Spirit, as Saint Paul teaches, that suggests to me that God is present everywhere and in everything; in every word and action, in every person, in every molecule of the universe, in every moment both good and evil. God is present in every prayer no matter how flawed I am in my prayer.

That also suggests to me that God is dwelling with me in both the good times and the bad; is with me when I am noble and when I am selfish, when I am strong and when I am weak. God is with me in the joyful and the bleakest moments, at the dawn and at the dusk; and God reaches each one of us even into the depths of hell itself.

God is especially with me in my prayers; God brings me the words I cannot quite find for myself. The question for me is whether I can sit still long enough to hear the prayers that come from my heart upon my bed.

That also suggests that God is capable of hearing every prayer, in every language, from every heart, from every religion. Prayer can come with words, or in art and music, in every sense of our being -- or in pure silence.

Humans have limits and religions have limits. But God has no limits; there can be no limits to the prayer God can hear. God can perfectly well read Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and hear the chants of a Muslim imam or a Jewish cantor, or see the illuminations of a Bible transcribed by a Cistercian monk, or hear the inspiration of "inner light" by a Quaker, or listen to the "Prayers of the People" from an Episcopalian. God can sort it out.

I always seem to arrive back at my favorite psalm. Even though it is not assigned for the day,
I leave you with this:
Psalm 139
Domine, probasti

1 LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.

3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.

5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?

7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

8 If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

9 Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

10 If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,"

11 Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
Top, Islamic calligraphy, "Meditations on the Veil," by Nazar Yahya (1963-); middle, Tibetan prayer flags; bottom, Psalm 79, from illuminated Jewish Haggadah, German, 14th century.

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