Ora et Labora

Prayer has never been easy for me. My first recollection of how to pray comes from the print images of apple-cheeked cherubs in very crisp pajamas kneeling beside their beds, saying their bedtime prayers. Okay, so that’s what you do. Even as a small person, it never seemed natural or authentic. A rote recitation of someone else’s words to an authoritarian somebody with whom I would never shake hands. Despite many, many starts, it never lasted.
I don’t recall discussing prayer during confirmation classes. Time was spent on learning the Lutheran ‘codex’: the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, the two sacraments and the office of the keys…all through the lens of Martin Luther. Prayer was what Pastor Gastmeier said and we answered, “amen”. And, after confirmation classes ended and adolescence beckoned, prayer was what was done at mealtimes and in church on Sunday. Amen.
Fast forward four decades. Prayer has become a question that is being wrestled with, willingly and happily. So, for now, whenever and wherever I pray, I choose to think about prayer, in that place and time, as it relates to my evolving understanding of prayer.
For example, intercessory prayer has become a vehicle for me to meditate on the needs of those on whose behalf intercessions are being made. I cannot reconcile my understanding of the Trinity with making specific requests on the behalf of others and expecting favourable outcomes from God . What I can understand is holding the needs of those for whom we pray in my head and heart, questioning what my role in the request could be and then giving the request over to the mystery of faith.
Centering prayer has become a twice-daily (in the best of times) pause that stills my mind (in the best of times) as I sit in the silent mystery of faith. It is yet another example of paradox: it is so simple in concept but extremely difficult to master; it is so beneficial but so easy to miss a session; it is as old as time but new to the modern church.
St Augustine said that when we sing, we are praying twice. (Well, I had always thought that Luther had said that first. I was told that by another Lutheran, a long time ago, as an explanation why Lutherans consider themselves “The Singing Church”. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the phrase had been coined at least a thousand years earlier than Luther!) Thus, when I am singing hymns, I try to concentrate on the words carefully and on the way that I am singing, that I sing with ardour (sorry, pew neighbours!). Surprisingly, Sunday’s hymns will echo at the oddest moments, later in the week.
And today; it was my turn to prepare a meal for Carol. Since receiving the call from Marie Jones, I have anticipated what I would prepare while reflecting on Carol and her sister Jane during this important time in both of their lives. My food preparation was a prayer for both of them; labora et ora intertwined.
The thoughts about prayer surfaced as I made my way through the familiar recipe. Blog material, I said knowing that a blog deadline was staring me in the face. When the stew had finally reached its simmer, I took a break and checked our mailbox. In with the bills and admail was my first edition of “The Monastic Way”, a monthly publication with daily reflections by Joan Chittester, a bestselling author, an international lecturer, a leading voice in contemporary spirituality and a Benedictine nun. The cover page had a beautiful photograph of a cathedral window; below it was the following saying: “Never pray in a room without windows”, The Talmud. Hmmm. I open the edition and read the month’s essay: “Pray into the Fullness of Life”. It was one of those moments of synchronicity that catches you and holds you for awhile.
I share her essay with you.
Pray into the Fullness of Life by Joan Chittester, OSB

When I was a young nun, I spent a lot of time watching the older sisters in chapel. When community prayer was over, and the chapel lights went dim, some of them simply settled back in their pew in a kind of comfortable presence. No prayer book in hand, no spiritual reading book in front of them.
Others of them began the round of the Stations of the Cross, their faces barely lit but clearly intense as they moved from one to another of the wall hangings depicting the journey of Jesus to the cross.
A few stayed kneeling, rosaries in hand, the beads flying.
A few of the very eldest climbed the stairs to the gallery, sat in the dark and simply whispered their prayers out loud.
At one period in my life, I thought those prayers were the elementary ones, that the community’s praying of the Divine Office was the “real prayer’. As the years went by and I got more seasoned spiritually, I began to realize that the intensity of those “simple” prayers could only come out of a life lived in God. These were the prayers that led each of them, day after day, however differently, both into the Mind of God and the soul of life. I learned, too, that there is no one right way to pray.
The fact is that prayer is one of the most elusive concepts in the Christian lexicon.
Prayer has styles and stages, formats and prayer forms, both official and unofficial. It has been a problem-and a solution for eons. Prayer is both natural- “Oh, dear God, please help me!” and formal –“First joyful mystery: The Annunciation.” People who pray all the time often say they don’t know how to pray. And people who never pray formally, often say that they feel like they are praying all the time. So what do we make of all of this?
Formal prayers-Church prayers-carry the theology of the church about who God is. They teach us what the sacraments are about and what we seek to be in life as a community in search of the Living God.
Personal prayer, on the other hand, is about our own struggles and questions and doubts and spiritual maturation as we go through life.
But underneath it all is the real concern and purpose of prayer: The question is not whether or not God is with us; the concern is whether or not we are really with God. Aware of God. Open to God’s action in our life. Alert to the presence of God in this moment, whatever its nature, however it feels.
A personal prayer life has many styles. Some people say one rosary after another. Others join prayer groups. Some go to monasteries and pray the hours with the monastics there. For some, daily Mass is the core of their spiritual life. Many others spend hours a day and years of their life sitting in deep, Centering Prayer, emptied of all forms whatsoever, simply alive to the voice of God within.
After years of studying prayer and prayer forms, official and unofficial, what I saw in the lives of elderly sisters, I began to see as the great secret of prayer: and at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which of these styles we practice. None of them are “better” in the qualitative sense than any other. It all depends on which prayer style best fits our own personal style of life and thought and personality and sense of union with God on earth.
The only thing that really counts is a regular, unending, intense, centred relation with God, here and now, which shapes our lives and converts our hearts to good, to the world, to being the hands and hearts of the God who made us so that we would continue what creation began.
The Web Scribe

The Geology of Relationship

This past Sunday’s homily took me back to second year at Western – and my ensuing love affair with (to understate it) that most esoteric of topics, plate tectonics. Then, as now, students were in need of ancillary classes (aka ‘bird courses’) to flesh out their schedule and to complete requirements for graduation. The task, of course, was to find a class or two that required little (read, ‘no’) work, little (read, ‘as little as possible’) attendance, and certainly no additional reading – essentially padding one’s transcript and leaving room for ‘applying’ oneself to the more important issues (whatever they might be!). Little did I know that Geophysics 21 would provide me with perhaps the most interesting eight months of academics I would encounter in my rather protracted career in same – and the most enduring metaphor for relationship I have yet to unearth (as it were).

To expand slightly on Lorne’s imagery, the globe’s surface is not the static, predictable shell that we would hope. It’s a dynamic, shifting, decidedly mobile, and unpredictable collection of ‘plates’ rather more like a suit of armour than an immobile crust encasing our planet. These float over (and under) each other – and occasionally getting ‘stuck’ on each other, to the extent that they grind and grate, one against the other (starting to sound like relationship), eventually freeing themselves – often with catastrophic results – to carry on their journey. In the geophysical world, it’s called an earthquake; in the realm of relationship, it’s called a fight or a riot or . . . a war.

Nicola and I were fortunate enough to take in a performance of Palmer Park last weekend at the Studio Theatre. Our fourth play in eight nights, it had to be good to keep our attention. (Fortunately we’d seen Cabaret when we were better rested because, well . . . it didn’t!) As some of you may know, Park explores the failed efforts of four, racially mixed couples to cultivate ‘sustainable integration’ in a well-to-do, inner city neighbourhood in late 1960’s Detroit, immediately following the race riots in that city. As compelling as the acting and writing of this piece may have been, its lens was a little too close to the action, singling out race as the ‘active ingredient’. Rather like blaming San Franciscans for being the cause of their earthquakes.

The production frames itself as a ‘requiem’, lamenting the short-term failure of such attempts – and making its shop-worn pleas to deal with prejudice. In fact, what the play illustrates most clearly (evidently without intending it) is the result of juxtaposing two very powerful forces, in extremely close proximity, and moving in opposite directions: be these forces of race, or class (as was more centrally the case in this production), or religion. Again what is most eloquently (and I fear, accidentally) portrayed is the precariousness of living on a ‘fault line’; and the arrogance that we may, by force of will or good intention, ‘overcome’ these natural elements.

Back to those pesky plates! As with our global geology, an essential problem in a relationship that has begun to feel adversarial and/or oppositional is not that we are standing toe to toe, locked in an impasse – although it certainly feels that way when we are in strong disagreement with someone or -ones. But rather that our natural movement, our right to ‘flow’ in the direction we have chosen has been not so much blocked but ‘lodged’, stuck on someone else’s bias or belief system or need set. To the principles it all feels the same: stuck or nose to nose, what’s the difference?

As it turns out, a lot. As long as the confrontation is framed as a standoff or gridlock, nothing changes. The only ‘solution’ is what is commonly referred to as a win-lose – one having to give way, to capitulate so the other can have his, her, or their way. Lovely prescription for resentment. And that old saw, compromise, doesn’t really leave a much better taste. Turns out people are, in every sense of the words, creatures of habit; the only thing that feels OK is to be allowed to continue with their personal flow and anything short of same is, well, a compromise. The tendency in these situations then is to foster ‘black and white’, ‘all or none’, ‘my way or the highway’ solutions. In the case of one’s affiliation with a church that translates too often into an ‘in or out’ decision.

A central theme of Lorne’s homily was that of cultivating our relationship with God – and the impediments (‘mountains’) that may subvert or block this connection from growing or perhaps even forming at all. Framed slightly differently, I expect many of us (if I may presume) are ‘stuck’ on some aspects of formal expressions of faith, commitment; even relevance and credibility. Flipping through the BCP in a ‘reflective’ (read, distracted) moment, I stumbled on the XXXIX Articles of Religion nestled quietly between the Original Prefaces and the Creed of St. Athanasius (not a household name as far as I know); page 698, if interested. I began to scan these frankly rigid, arcane, and polarized ‘declarations of belief’ and realized, with something of a start, that I don’t really believe (nor can I even remotely come close to accepting) many, if any of these ‘position statements’.

So what’s a body to do? Increasingly, I fear, the answer, simplistic, maybe impulsive, always without nuance or consideration, is to leave the building. Sounds a lot like moving out of the neighbourhood when that first black (or white or yellow) family moves in. Perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from something a wee bit older than organized religion: again, those persistent plates – here since the dawn of time (literally) and somehow continuing to coexist, reshaping the topography of our earth, relentless, patient, enduring. Reframing the concern – accept and recite, or be gone – as one of restoring ‘freedom of movement’ within a congregation then becomes a task of addressing the particular belief structures of (despite the fact that we’re all Anglicans) a quite heterogeneous population of parishioners; accommodating the diversity that spans the gamut from conservative literalist to metaphoric liberal. A tall order to be sure. But one that invites the restoration of ‘flow’ – in whatever direction that may take the individual, within the greater context of a church, a world.

David Howard