Sunday, September 20, 2009

Like You Can

St Teresa of Avila had a lot of memorable sayings. One that was quoted to me very early in my spiritual journey was "Pray like you can, not like you can't". That must have been at least 50 years ago. It caught me then and it still does.

I suppose one of the chief reasons that it still is in my mind is that I have not yet gotten over my stubborn tendencies to try to pray like I can't. Like so many people with an intentional spiritual life, I have an interior vision of what my prayer could be - "should" be. I'm embarrassed at how much of it is composed of things I can't do. That is, I'm embarrassed part of the time. The rest of the time I'm trying to do it.

That's why last week I mentioned the whole business of spiritual practice when you're sick. The issue with illness is that you're removed from your usual world and deprived of your usual energy. Now who on earth would expect that you could pray in the same way as you do ordinarily? Well, among others, there's me. I really do believe, in my heart of hearts, that if I was being faithful I would do exactly the same things in exactly the same way that I do if I was well. I can't, of course, and this leads to all kinds of incrimination and dissatisfaction.

My short-hand description of how I dealt with this particular plight last week was "Lying Meditation", but that doesn't really cover the whole range of things. How do you pray with less energy? Well, clearly you use less energy. You have a low-energy prayer. Then my over-developed idealism comes into play. Is a low-energy prayer worth praying? Is it "really" prayer?

Luckily I can say that for last week at least it really is. Ok, just do it. Here we are. There's the window and the sun. There's the sound of the little fountain on my table. There's my icon. Here's my fever, my headache. Here's how weakness feels. Here's my nice soft blanket. Here's my dissatisfaction with this kind of prayer. I just touch each thing, each sight, each sound, each feeling, let it be there, and pass on to the next. That's all, except that sometimes one of the things that I touch is the sense that I am doing all this in God's presence. I'm just being sick with God.

And then, every now and then there it is - that opening, widening. What descended is the knowledge that I'm in a wider, broader, deeper (whatever any of that means) place. It means freedom, I guess: the sense of being released from the prison my my own expectations and delivered into a realm where I'm free to just be me, here and now, with God.

Is that really prayer? I'm just not going to go through all the things one could say about that. All I'll say is that I tried it. I got an answering experience. God was there. That's enough.

Only you know how you can pray. And that's the scary part about this journey. The responsibility is squarely in your own hands. Other people can help, of course, so can books. But the most helpful thing they can do is to help evoke what is in you, the gift of prayer that the Holy Spirit has placed in your heart. And the only way to get there is to go to your heart.

Easy to say..............

One of the great spiritual worthies whose books I have read is a Buddhist monk of Thailand. He says that at one point in his journey, when it came time to meditate each day all he could do is lie on the floor and cry. For a couple of years that's all he could do. Fortunately he had a wise teacher who didn't urge him to do anything else for a long time. He just sat with him while he did what he could do.

An Eastern Ordthodox priest who conducted a retreat for us some years ago talked about a parishioner whose mother had what we would call today some advanced mental dysfunction - Alzheimer's? Maybe, or one of the others. In any case she sat in the living room of their home all day long and mumbled the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Over and over. All day long. It drove the family bonkers. They were ready to scream. What should they do? "Well, said our retreat leader, you might try tuning in." And for me, that answer has been foundational. There it was, a real answer. Whatever else that situation might call for, it was at least an invitation to step into the possibility that I will be able to pray when my mind is gone. We so often identify prayer with the mind, but much, much more is involved. It's a promise and a hope that gives real joy to me. Tune in to the part of you that wants to pray, not the part that can't pray.

My own adventures in this realm have not been few. There were the times when all I could do was get up in the morning, have a shower, and then make a cup of tea and get back in bed. That's the only prayer I had. It was a great relief to have spiritual friends who understood and didn't chastise. There was also the time that I discovered a chapter in a book by Evelyn Underhill on darkness and depression in prayer that touched me so deeply that I cried. Someone else had been this way - I wasn't lost. I was just doing what I could do.

And of course it isn't all difficulty and pain. There are the moments of unexpected joy, the lightening of a burden, the forgotten song that erupts in your heart. These are times when what I can do expands. It isn't just "the only thing I can do", prayer then becomes so many wonderful things I can do.

But in the end, the only one who really knows how I should pray is me. I've taught meditation for enough years now to have discovered that everyone really has their own way of doing it. Everybody departs from the instructions one way or another, sooner or later. We find our way. The Spirit guides us, and sometimes pushes and shoves us. Books will help. Spiritual guides can be crucial. Friends are irreplaceable. In the end, though, Teresa was right. All we can do is pray like we can, not like we can't.

It's either that or spend our whole lives fighting ourselves.

2 comments:

John Backman said...

My goodness, Bede, this reflection could have come right out of my journal. It's a blessing to hear that someone else has walked this path and can reaffirm the conclusions I'm almost afraid to believe. Thank you.

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

That's why we have to talk with each other, John. Otherwise we never develop wide enough hearts to believe the goodness that God showers on us. Mary Gates (with whom I conduct the Meditation Retreats) quotes from a Buddhist teacher who talks about how necessary it is to have a teacher or director, and says it is mostly because otherwise we would be too hard on ourselves. Left to our own devices, of course, we would come up with precisely the opposite conclusion! One of the greatest gifts we have is our own imagination and it is so crucial to the living of a rich spiritual journey. Blessings.