Sunday, June 20, 2010

Called to Prayer

A number of jobs around the house are shared out in the community, week by week. I've written about being Refectorian, which is one of the jobs, and ringing the bells is another. There are a number of them, and one of them is called Closing Up. I am Closing Up this week (as well as Bell Ringer). Closing Up means that you go over to the Guesthouse sometime after Compline and make sure the doors are all closed, that lights that aren't needed overnight are turned off and that the coffee carafes are emptied and rinsed out, so that the Refectorian will have clean carafes to make coffee in before Matins the next morning.

The jobs begin on Saturday evening and go until the next Saturday noon, so I had my first evening of closing up last night. I went over to the Guesthouse and did as much as I could, but some of it had to be left because the group that is here this weekend was in the Refectory. So I did as much as I could and then headed back over to the monastery.

As those of you who have been here know, you get to the monastery by walking a corridor that goes around our Church, and last night when I got opposite the Church door there was again an experience that I've written about before: a small pressure that seems to reside in the pit of my stomach that can be fairly insistent, and that says something like "Come in". Some times I resist, but usually that's pretty futile. If I try to walk away, the demand seems to get stronger the further I get, and it finally becomes too much to be resisted. So whatever my initial reaction is, I usually wind up going in. Last night I didn't even bother trying to refuse the invitation, I just turned aside and went in. As it turned out, it was just for a few moments. I sat by the Tabernacle in the side aisle and was just quiet for a while. That seemed to do it, so then I went on to bed. Nothing any more "special" than that. I prayed for a while and went on my way.

In quiet conversations with friends who talk to me about their interior life, and sometimes in reading, I discover that I'm far from the only person who has these experiences. Frequently they seem to happen at night. I have a good friend who grew up in a small Evangelical church in which it is common for people - usually the women, I gather - to be wakened in the night to pray. He says that sometimes they know why, but often they have no idea, they just know they have been summoned to pray. He also says that some times they find out, maybe years later, what it was about, but that often they never know. These experiences aren't unusual apparently, but the people who talk about them seem to belong to Churches that are so small that none of us have ever heard of them. Those of us in the more usual churches seem just to deal with these "calls" however we do, and seldom talk about them.

My conviction is that these experiences are indeed common. But often we don't even notice, because we're not tuned in to that part of our lives, or we're embarrassed that they've happened, or we're afraid that people will think that we're crazy. But there is a whole society of people in the Anglican Communion (or at least there used to be) for people who feel called to pray in the middle of the night, and you can bet if that exists, there's a lot more out there than we ever hear about.

What is this about? Is God actually calling me to pray at that particular moment? God calling me? Well, I don't deny the possibility, but I think that speculating about these things is probably not particularly productive, because there isn't any certain answer, and the chance of getting "inflated" (as the Jungians say) is definitely there. But if we're not going down that analytical road, what do we make of this?

I think that one way of understanding is just to acknowledge the ancient Christian tradition that God dwells at the center of each of us, and that God reaches out to us at every moment. There is never a time when God is not reaching out to us, summoning us, inviting us, loving us. But mostly we don't know that's happening. The pressure of our daily lives and our constant distraction, and our semi-conscious conviction that "that sort of thing doesn't really happen" keep us from hearing.

But every once in a while that constant call breaks through, and we experience it. Often it happens at night because our defenses are lowered then. Sometimes it happens in a time of great need. Other times when our hearts are particularly open it will happen too. And some times we don't have any idea why it gets through. We only know that there is that small voice, that pressure at the pit of the stomach, that warming of the heart, that feels like an invitation. I also think that these things happen more frequently than we are conscious of. Often we half notice them and put them away. We're too busy, or too tired, or maybe too scared. It takes being sensitized to become aware of the "call" when it breaks through.

But once you're recognized it or heard it, then you don't forget it. Maybe you don't even answer it. There are plenty of times when I've said "no", because it seemed like whatever else was going on at the time was more important, or I was too worn out, or because I was doubtful about the whole thing.

However, if you do answer and actually sit down or turn aside or make room and pay attention to that little "call", a funny thing happens. You start hearing it again. Once the door swings open, it's likely to open up another time. The next time, it doesn't have quite so much trouble getting through. When you actually hear that small, insistent, loving voice/presence and respond to it, it tends to be there again. And again.

It's a grace. It's the realization that the Divine Presence does live deep at the center of me. So to consider again the question I mentioned above: "Am I being called to pray?", the answer is certainly "Yes!" But it's a bigger, broader call than I think of when this first starts happening. In fact, I'm called to pray all the time - everywhere, at all times, no matter what. I'm called to realize who I am, and to know that means that God's presence is always with me, and that my response is always called for. It's not that I'm being singled out because I'm special. In fact, I'm being singled out because I'm so ordinary. This is part of what it means to be a human being, as especially to be a Christian. Yes, it takes time to figure out what this means, and how to respond, and how anyone can possibly pray at all times. That Presence, which is meant to be part of our moment by moment experience is so closed off from most of us that we have to learn how to deal with it.

And that little call when I go by the door to our Church is just a summons to take one more step in realizing who I am, and what my life is about. It's important that I recognize those moments, and that I respond to them. Because responding means opening my heart, and that is the primary call of every Christian; to live with an open heart - open to God, open to the world, open to others. Even, if you can imagine, open to myself.

These special moments are, in fact, intended to become ordinary moments, part of the fabric of our lives, if we will but pay attention. In the words of one of the Quaker mystics: "There is that which is in you which will comfort and guide you. O, wait for it!"

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