Christianity gives us lots of beliefs that feel like impossible dilemmas because they involve holding together two very different realities: Jesus is God and Man. Communion is Bread and Jesus. We are Redeemed and we are Sinful. The trick is to hold both sides of these dual realities together. But we don't. We're always falling off one side or the other. As a seminary professor once said to one of our brothers about Jesus: "Once you've called him God, it's hard to call him anything else." Zen deals with this human difficulty with koans, which are little impossible dilemmas. Christianity does it, in the words of Alice in Wonderland, by 'resolving to believe two impossible things before breakfast each morning.'
So I got reminded of this in a fairly powerful way this past week. I was sitting with a close friend, talking about the dilemmas of life (my life,of course)and some of the difficulties of sustaining a spiritual pilgrimage amid the pains and difficulties we encounter (I encounter). After we'd gone on for a while, he gave a small pause and then said (as I recall it): "You know, the first time my brother took me body surfing, before we got in the water he said: 'The wave is going to pick you up, and you can't fight it. You have to ride the wave. You have to let it take you where it's going to. If you try to control it, you'll get in trouble - maybe bad trouble. You have to let it take you.' Then he said: "I think it's like that for you. You have to ride the wave. Sometimes you'll even get dumped on the beach, and that hurts, until the wave comes back and carries you off again."
On occasion, I do have the grace to realize when something important has just been said, and I knew as I heard that story that I'd been zapped again. As it turns out, this was not just important, it was momentous (in the sense of 'for this moment').
Later, I thought about it, and again I was fortunate enough not to think too much. This was mostly because I didn't know what to think. I knew this image applied to my life, but I didn't see just how it applied to the situation we'd been hashing out. So when thinking didn't prove fruitful I just went with it. I imaged that wave and I tossed myself into it and I rode it. That certainly worked. The image wanted to be used that way, not in reasoned thinking. That wave that I summoned up in my imagination took me for a wild ride and tossed me down on a beach and didn't come back for me. I waited quite a while, waiting to be carried off again and knowing all the time that the wave wasn't coming back.
And then I knew. Prayer is one of these sharp-edged realities. We do it. God does it in us. Both are true. If we don't hold both of those realities together we'll go off in some funny direction and maybe get in trouble. And while I was lying there on that beach (in my mind) I saw the tiny cracks in my facade of spirituality where I had let in the attitude that my prayer depends entirely on me. It's my doing, my planning, my spending the right amount of time, my working with thoughts and distractions. It wasn't conscious, but it was what I was doing. And the wave was only going to put up with so much of that, and then it was going to dump me and not come back.
This is so easy to do in a spiritual journey. Early on in my spiritual searching I was given a saying: "Pray as if everything depends on your prayer and work as though everything depends on your work." It appealed to me because of it's insistence on balance between work and prayer (very Benedictine!). But it wasn't until years later that I realized that it isn't balanced at all. Expressed that way, it has the subtle insistence that everything depends on ME. My work, my prayer. For me, anyhow, I need something more like: "Work as though everything depends on you, and pray as though everything depends on God." That comes closer to getting the balance where I need it to be.
I had expected that this little visualization exercise would give me some ideas to work on, or thoughts about a way I could use to go forward. This is all about me, remember? Instead it was complete in itself. After I did it, a new road opened in front of me. All I need to do when I sit down to meditate is to image that wave, and that seems to restore the balance I need. I'm not the one in charge of that, but I do have to cooperate with it. It's an immense power/reality that I have to work with, sing to, make love with. If I do that, my prayer is ok. Otherwise I get dumped.
Ain't God wonderful?