Friday, February 11, 2011

Prayer - Reynolds

He was over ninety years old, at one time a famous Canadian athlete, now living in a nursing home. Once, visiting him, I asked him if he prayed. “I talk to God a lot,” he said, “but God never talks back.”

I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit lately.

Words are important to faith, to understanding our own faith, or explaining our faith to someone else. We talk a lot about “the Word of God.” We need to remember that when we speak of the Bible as “the Word of God,” it is “Word” (I use a capital “W”), not words. The Bible is not “the words of God.” There is a significant difference.

But what words does God use when talking to us? Paradoxically, I am not sure that God uses words.

I can’t claim that God talks to me with words. It seems to me that our conversation is subtle. Sometimes I am left wondering what God is saying to me. Often it is only later that I understand. For instance, my “call to the ministry”. I expected chimes in the night, or a voice speaking to me as to Samuel, “Samuel! Samuel!” (1 Samuel 3). It never happened. Finally I said, in effect, “Lord, I don’t know what you want me to do, but I am going to give it a try and see what happens.” Looking back, I feel confident that God was in fact “speaking to me.” In any case, I’ve never regretted that decision – at least not for more than a day or two at a time.

Of course, we will still speak to God with words, ask God for our needs and wants. Most human religion, it seems to me, consists of trying to get what we want from God or the gods, whether through prayer or sacrifice, even human sacrifice. To seek help from God is natural and inevitable, tugging at God’s coattails or apron strings, crying “Please!” But it seems to me that the best of prayer is just the sense of God’s presence. I picked up, years ago, the following illustration:

A woman was visiting a friend. As they sat and talked, one of the friend’s children came in, a dark-haired little boy about eleven years old. He wanted some candy. His mother said, “No, you’ve already had enough candy for today.”
Then came a rather studious girl about twelve years old. She had a problem with her homework. The mother didn’t give her the answer but showed her where she was going wrong.
Next came a little male tornado of nine years, crying with a scraped knee. The mother washed it and kissed it, and miraculously it was made well.
Finally came a quiet little girl about five years old, tugging at her mother’s skirt. By this time, the mother was getting a little impatient, so she turned to her and said, “Well, dear, what do you want?” The child replied, “I don’t want anything, Mummy, I just want to sit on your knee.”
That’s prayer at its best, just the sense of being in God’s presence. You don’t have to ask for anything. You don’t have to talk at all.
(Reynolds, Reading the Bible for the Love of God, pp. 93-94).

An old friend, a psychologist and counselor and an ex-member of the Franciscan order, gave me a book shortly before he died. It was by his good friend, Christopher Coelho, a Franciscan. And Now I Can See. I read, yesterday morning, the following:

We think of prayer as an exchange of ideas with God, where our ideas and our thinking are all-important. It never occurs to us that God doesn’t need our bright ideas. Jesus said he knows them all before we even start praying. Prayer is much simpler.

Basically it’s being with God, relaxing in him, growing in him, accepting God in all simplicity and giving ourselves to him. Words and ideas are only means toward this….

Three pews ahead of me there is a child sleeping in his mother’s arms. What exactly is happening here between mother and child? There are no ideas exchanged, no concepts analyzed, but his being there is the important thing. With every breath there is rapport growing between them, enriching both. (p. 78)

Mother Teresa was asked by an interviewer what she said to God when she prayed. She answered: “I don’t say anything. I just listen.” When the interviewer asked what she heard God say, Mother Teresa replied: “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens. And if you can’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

And if you can’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.


Peter Black said...

Thank you for sharing these insights on prayer.
They help broaden understanding of what prayer is, and inspire aspiration and hope of experiencing more of what it could and should be in one's communion and relationship with God.

Neil Bramble said...

Today I was reading in the back half of Bruce Wilkinson's little book, Secrets of the Vine. In it he quotes Brother Lawrence: "I do nothing else but abide in His holy presence, and I do this by simple attentiveness and an habitual, loving turning of my eyes on Him. This I call...a wordless and secret conversation between the soul and God which no longer ends."

Of course, Wilkinson quotes this in his discussion of abiding in the Vine (Jesus), based on John 15. And the purpose of abiding is to produce fruit, not by what we do but by what God does in us. Hence abiding in God's presence includes a continual attitude of prayer and a real sense of the presence of God.

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