Thirst for God

I have just facilitated a retreat on transitions for a wonderful women’s group.

One of the things I love about doing retreats is the atmosphere of longing for God that retreatants create. In this heavily scheduled day and age, a person who is willing to set aside a whole day for God is a person who is thirsty for God. God created us with a deep thirst that can only be satisfied by God, and I believe that mine and the retreatants’ holy longing and God’s answer to our longing are the transformative power of a retreat. When I facilitate a retreat, I fan the flames of holy longing. In my mind, holy longing is one of the deepest forms of prayer.

When a person is thirsty for God, anything can happen. When a person focuses on a transition in her life, hungry for God to continue the life-long process of transforming her into a gift to the world….. Miracles do happen.

I started the retreat with a stirring poem by Mary Oliver, made all the more poignant by being written soon after her beloved partner through decades of life had died. It is from her recent collection, Thirst.

Thirst

Another morning and I wake up with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How can I nurture that holy longing, my thirst for God?

What Is Prayer?

Theologians and worshipers through the ages have come up with different ideas about what prayer is. That could have been a lovely thing, bringing more forms of prayer into the common domain and giving us more avenues to being close to God. But that’s not what happened.

Unfortunately the old temptation to claim that there is a Right way and a Wrong way to pray – everyone claiming that theirs was the Right one or the best one – found a toehold. C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape, would have been pleased at all the effort we put into fighting with each other instead of actually praying!

So when we ask what prayer is, I think it is important to ask first who gets to do the defining. Throughout the millennia, one of the biggest discussions was over whether prayer with sensory components (often referred to as kataphatic) or without sensory components (apophatic) was superior. Since prayer increasingly became the domain of people who prayed professionally who retreated from the world of farming, manual labor, and hands-on interaction with people and went into a realm of books and solitary prayer in a cell without adornment – guess which form of prayer gained ascendance?

I am oversimplifying, of course. The battle was never decisively won, many of the monastic orders maintained manual labor for their monks and nuns, and some of the greatest opulence grew forth in adornment of churches and in liturgy. Still, labor was generally seen as a way to chastise the flesh. Showing magnificence was seen as something befitting God’s stature, but creating beauty wasn’t seen as an act of worship intrinsic to human nature. The invisible, spiritual, otherworldly was seen as good, and anything that was created in physical form was considered inferior. 

Why does this matter?

It matters because, with the understanding of “formlessness” as the “best” way to pray, many of us have inadvertently put our spirituality and prayer life in prison and thrown away the key. And so, although God is constantly praying within us, we don’t hear God. We think we are bad at praying, and nothing inhibits prayer quite like believing we are unworthy of God’s attention. Screwtape gets to do another little victory dance and exchange high-fives with his fellow demons, who are constantly conspiring to keep us from hearing that we are God’s beloved and living as if we are God’s beloved.

So what is prayer? I think anything can be prayer. Any act or thought that engenders awareness of God or brings forth any of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is prayer – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would add harmony and creativity to that list. 

Here are some of the ways prayer can be: holding my hands in the dirt of the garden; a sudden awareness of the beauty of the curve of my daughter’s eyelashes; tearfully holding the fragments of what until recently was the mug my grandmother gave me shortly before she died; feeling the warmth of my husband’s embrace; listening to the birds going crazy at dawn; the smell of rosemary in the air after my hands brush the plants’ leaves; giggling with my daughters; the sensation of warm oil being put on my face in anointing; sweating as I liberate a rhododendron from the stranglehold of ivy; complete concentration in learning a new piece of music.

And these things are also prayer: wrapping a blanket around someone; dropping off a donation at the food bank; writing a condolence card; seeking the right words to capture the essence of the man whose funeral I’m planning; the tug I feel to sit quietly with God for a moment; the ecstasy as my soul is lifted up in singing a hymn; writing a check to a charity; learning about the plight of AIDS orphans; the warmth of feeling something that I can only name as being held in God’s loving embrace; the aha moment in a sermon; the sense of being exactly where God wants me to be even as I lament while I sit with a woman who would rather die than be alive.

I am unable to claim one as superior to the other. They are all just among the multitude of ways in which God keeps the promise to be with us – always.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What are some of the ways in which I experience God?

(Curious about my thoughts about Quakerism and prayer? See my other blog.) 

Be Careful What You Pray for…

On 12/5 I wrote about my new spiritual discipline of practicing gratitude and praying that my desire for things that aren’t simple would fade away, that those things would become undesirable to me. I also prayed that I would become more aware of God’s abundance in life. As many others do, I close my prayers by saying “amen” – let it be so.  

And indeed, that is what came to pass. It became so: Things that aren’t simple have become undesirable to me, they have lost much of their appeal. I have also become much more aware of God’s abundance all over. Am I happy, now that my prayers have been answered?

I feel a deep sense of peace. Things are right with me and the world and I feel more tenderness for and connection with all the children of God who populate this earth, the two-legged kind, the four-legged kind, the ones with fins and wings. I am keenly aware of LIFE pulsing and reverberating in all, through all, among all.  

But I would be lying if I said I were happy. As tender as I feel towards myself and those with whom I speak, most conversation topics are uncomfortable for me, both my own part and my conversation partner’s. I feel low-level distaste for many of the settings I am in and the activities I am engaged in. I had no idea that so much of what normal people say and do revolves around being dissatisfied with things as they are. And in the same instant I become aware of beauty and plenitude, my heart is pierced with how I – we – neglect to care for and nurture all these precious sparks of LIFE.

Gentle reader, when I started my exploration of abundance a month ago, I did so with a spiritual director’s confidence that although only God knows what lies ahead, I can still feel confident about  facilitating the process for myself and for others. Today I have no confidence in my ability to facilitate a process for myself or anyone else. All I have to offer is my own sorrowful sense of peace, my own broken-open-ness, my tenderness towards all LIFE. All I can do is come before God as Samuel did and say and “Here I am…. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

For prayerful consideration:

God, here I am. Speak, for your servant is listening.

Gratitude

Every Tuesday for the past 4 weeks, I have co-facilitated an Ignatian Prayer Experience at the Recovery Cafe in downtown Seattle. Women and men who are in various stages of recovery from alcoholism, drug use, homelessness, and mental health challenges meet to support each other in the hard work required to stay on the journey towards healthy mind and spirit. Every Tuesday I am amazed again at the courage these men and women show in admitting their past mistakes and rededicating themselves to the hard work required to take the next step towards right living. And often they do this without the support of family and friends, who have left them because of past mistakes.

The grace I receive, over and over again, is their spiritual practice of gratitude and absence of self-pity.

As I learn from Jesus and the men and women of Recovery Cafe how to turn my life upside-down and how to experience God’s abundance, I have added something to my spiritual practice. Every morning before I rise and every evening when I get into bed I pay attention to how nice, warm, and comfortable my bed is. I savor the experience. I consider how fortunate I am to have a warm, comfortable bed. That’s all.

Yet I have a deeper hope that acoompanies my simple spiritual practice. I pray that my attitude of gratitude would seep into other aspects of life, and that ultimately I would come to know – to really know in the depths of my heart – that a life with God is abundant, and that my desire for the things that aren’t simple would simply fade away. I pray that gratitude for a bed would help the non-simple things to lose their appeal and become undesirable.

Query for prayerful consideration:

God, please help me to be grateful for the simple things.

Recipe for Upside-Down World

I turned to Matthew 19 to look at the story in which Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Then my Quaker seminary training reminded me to check the stories that came before and after to see how they would shed more light on the story, and what I found just blew me away. Here’s the deal:

First comes “unless you are like a child, you can’t get into heaven”. Then Jesus talked about how hard it is for a rich person to get into heaven. This is followed by the sons of Zebedee arguing about who gets to sit next to Jesus, and they’re told that the first shall be last and vice versa. They are also scolded for their blindness, immediately following which Jesus gives sight to two beggars, his last act before he rides into Jerusalem to be crucified.

Do I detect a theme?

Jesus places children above adults, poor people above rich people, servants above masters, blind beggars above his own disciples. And these are the final words of his itinerant ministry, so they must have been important.

Jesus tells us who the spiritual giants in society are: people who are unsophisticated, poor, have low status professions, and have a disability. 

Whenever I bring up this topic, I want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that you maim yourself, take substances that reduce your mental capacity to that of a three-year old, sell all your belongings, or take a low status profession. Guilt is not a language spoken in this blog. My God-given language is Abundance.

Lovingly, promising a life of spiritual abundance, Jesus gives us a recipe for health: turn things upside-down.

 Query for prayerful consideration:

What is God asking me to turn upside-down in my own life?

Joyful Ineptitude

I’ve started taking piano lessions again, just like I did when I was a teenager. I played the piano for about three years back then, and then I quit because I wasn’t very good at it. You see, I’m pretty much tone deaf and I’m also rhythmically impaired. 

Now I’m playing the piano, not because I’m good at it, but because I enjoy it! What a spiritual awakening these piano lessons have been: It has made me aware just how often I try to be good at something. It also makes me aware how much those who love me also want me to feel that I am good, they want to build up my feeling of “goodness”. You see, when I talk about how bad I am at playing the piano, everyone rushes in to say “Oh, I’m sure you’re not that bad!”

The truth is that I am having a lot of fun with my piano-playing. It gives me so much pleasure to make noise, and whereas “not being very good” was enough to keep me from playing when I was a teenager,  it really doesn’t matter very much to me now. What freedom there is in doing something, not because I am good at it, but because I love to do it!

Is this a taste of the freedom God created us into? Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”

Friends, I am bad at playing the piano, and I am having fun. I am free!

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What freedoms might I be missing out on because I want to be good?

The Jesus Prayer

I have found myself using a prayer a lot these days that I never thought I would ever use. I just didn’t like its theology.

However, this year I have become much more involved in social justice activities and I am frequently filled with what I like to think of as righteous anger. Whereas anger can be a good thing in terms of drawing my attention to an injustice, it’s not a good place from which to act against injustice.

So I use this prayer, not necessarily because I agree with its theology, but because it is good for me to pray it: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I pray it with the 52 beads of my Earth Rosary. After repeating the Jesus Prayer 52 times, I have usually sunk back into that ocean of Light and Love from which I can act.