“I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!” cheerfully advises the fourteenth century English author of the Epistle of Prayer.
The author, most likely a country parson, is writing to a young person, who asked for advice on how to control the mind when saying prayers. This is a request I often hear. Some things never change in the praying life.
I recently tried the parson’s advice and it about did me in. I attempted to make certain I would die before I completed my prayer, and learned that there is little like death to focus the mind:
The world rushed in with her fetching beauty, her clear blue sky, and yellowing maple leaves, waving, “Don’t forget about me, and me, and the red bird house, and the wren, and the dragonfly and the glaciers gripping the ground, and the wild horses pounding over the plains. The wind, whooshing leaves down the street, sent a shower of glimmering memories – babies, kitchens, ginger snaps, story books – I gave thanks for galoshes to help me wade through all the goodness. I will be ancient or dead before I finish stringing the pearls of this gratitude.
After the gratitude came the love, flowing up to the porch, running under the door, pooling at my feet and rising, slowly to my knees. I climbed up on the table and the love still mounted. Love is the color of spring and snow and fire. It moans and sings and weeps. It tastes bittersweet, smooth and creamy, warm and rich as hot chocolate. Then I grew bold and dared to believe that I could breathe in it, could breathe under-love, and that I would not drown or melt in it. So I slipped off the table and swam a few strokes around the room, then let the love sweep me out an open window into the world, buoyant and giggling.
When I came across the English parson, I had been feeling little gratitude and not the least bit buoyant. Instead of gratitude and this exuberant love, sorrow and longing for God had occupied my heart. My praying life had honed down to a narrow naked ache, like a thorn, for several weeks. I hurt. I went to sleep with the thorn and woke with it, a stab of incompletion and desire, lodged like a fish hook in the center of my being. There was no one thing I could name that would satisfy or heal this pain, but only the one whose name was above all names, who was before there were names.
The thorn was part grief and a prickly call to deeper freedom. As I grieved recent and old losses in the midst of many present blessings and considerable gladness, I was being weaned from some of the things of this world, which are lesser than God. And it hurt. I sensed there was something I was to let go of, but I couldn’t quite see what that was, though it seemed to have to do with some of my mental constructs, attitudes, ways of naming and holding what I knew as reality. It seemed to have to do with who I thought I was and how I held myself together. And this felt really, really scary.
So I prayed, meditated, read holy words, exercised, talked with friends, listened to and felt deep compassion for others. I also played a lot of mindless solitaire on my phone.
I went to the Antiochian Orthodox church down the street, where, except for the jean clad worshippers, I felt I had stepped into an ancient Syrian synagogue where Paul might step out and begin preaching any moment. I let the tonal chants in four part harmony wrap around me, as the icon saints gazed out from all four walls. Each word and act in worship was directed, not to audience appeal, market demographics, or video screens, but to the Holiness that filled the space. It was clear most of the people, as well as all those saints with their sorrowful eyes, also had thorns of longing love in their hearts too.
I have had periods of prayer like this before and trusted God was at work somehow. I know that uncertainty, alienation, and disorientation are part of growing in faith. The temptation during such times is to turn in disgust on oneself, dredging up failures, mistakes, weaknesses, and falling into a dark pit of self-negation. Yet I have learned over the years, that it is precisely, when we feel the most pitiful, that we are most in need of our own tender compassion and love.
During this time I gobbled up The Cloud of Unknowing, another fourteenth century English classic I first read years before. The writer affirmed what I was experiencing and assured me that it was God at work in me. He counsels “to reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after God whom you love. … Your whole life now must be one of longing… And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent.” Rats, there seems to be no escape, short of solitaire or The Voice.
I recently realized with relief that the thorn was gone. The longing remains, but the acute pain is gone. This was a few days after I imagined that I would die before I finished my prayer. I have no idea why or how it left. I am just grateful to not feel so gripped and mournful reaching out to the heavens. Living in the cloud of unknowing and uncertainly is difficult to those of us who take pride in our intellect, our ability to be in control, to know things, and manage our own destinies.
Some religion is all suffering and damnation. Some religion is all sweetness and happy thoughts. Mine is sorrow and love. In the painful friction of sorrow and love new life ignites, leaps forth, and gives light in the darkness. Lately the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross have been singing themselves in my mind. So much of Christianity is mystery and wonder to me. I am clueless. I go walk around the block with my dog, praying that God make something holy of my life. I do not care what it is.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
– Isaac Watts
Have you ever found yourself wandering in the cloud of unknowing without a prayer, but the longing of your heart, the aching desire for God?
If you wish, share a little of your experience here.