From The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World
When I used to try to keep too many worlds together, I learned that I needed a way to break stress, and I taught myself to nap, invented a little technique. I decided that what keeps people awake is they’re thinking about yesterday and they’re guilty, and they’re thinking about tomorrow and they’re worrying, and so I have to invent some techniques to live in the present. It’s as if you’re on a high without drugs, and you soon learn just to let go of everything, and a few minutes later a timer goes off, and I wake up refreshed.
I believe very much that to the degree that we carry the burden of the past, which is always full of failures and frustrations, to that degree we’re not free for the present moment, we’re better off. I’ve always been moved by the heart of the Lord’s Prayer. It says give us this day our daily bread, and the Sermon on the Mount says don’t take thought for tomorrow. These are part of the announcements of the kingdom, they’re announcements that tell us that the one who created us doesn’t take care of everything that will ever happen to us, but we get strength for the day we’re in, and a nap frees me for that.
A nap is a form of praying. I have never believed that prayer has to be something you are uttering all the time. I think it’s a way of life, it’s a conversation with God, it’s a conversation with reality around you, and this is one of the modes in which you surrender. You’re not in control, you’re not trying to be in control, and I think that is very much what happens in good prayer.
My practices are really quite simple. Gathering over the bread and wine on Sunday in a little tiny church, waking up every morning and reminding myself that, in our language, I have been baptized, I have been turned over to God — I’m free for the day. I wake up, and I make the sign of the cross for the day as a reminder of that, and that frees me and liberates me. Most of the time, what other people would call Bible reading, for me would be Bible study, and that usually happens if I am going to preach, which isn’t every Sunday. So I can’t say I’m a daily Bible reader or a daily student of the Bible, though I’m immersed in it, and it flips through my brain all the time.
The disciplines of prayer, for me, are much more in the context of community than in the context of individuality. I describe myself spiritually as a hitchhiker on the spirituality of others. That is, just as in music there are Mozarts and in art there are Rembrants, so in the spiritual life there are profound people, medieval mystics, many of them women. Many of them have written about this so profoundly, and I will open a page of that and let it work on me, and that’s, for me, a much better way of rising or going deeper than if I just try to sit there and think blankly about inner space.
In our own time, interesting for me, because I’m a Protestant, have been Catholics like Dorothy Day, because she carried her piety into action, and Thomas Merton, who, though he was part of the time a hermit, had the Vietnam War and civil rights in the front of his mind and taught us a great deal of it. Also Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish student of scripture and a philosopher. I suppose, again, among the contemporaries, the one who did the most for me was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because we’re of the same theological lineage. He writes books about things I would be reading anyhow and then goes to what we call guilty martyrdom, that is, he was in on a plot on Hitler’s life and then had to give his own life up for it.
Then, most of all, I guess, the Psalms. I wrote a book after my first wife’s death, Cry of Absence, which is entirely a reflection on the Psalms, and I think they’re inexhaustible. During long, long sessions of chemotherapy, my wife had midnight medication. It was palliative, it was to make the effects of the chemotherapy less terrible, and she would wake for that, and in the starkness of the night, we thought, “You can’t just take medication, we want to do something that will get us back to sleep,” so we decided to have a reading of a psalm at midnight. I would do the even numbers, she would do the odd, and when we reached Psalm 88 — which I would commend to anybody who thinks the Bible is only about good cheer, it’s about being alone, being in the pit, being abandoned by friends, by God, it’s really down there — well, I just slid over, and she said, “Why did we get off, why didn’t you read 88?” I said, “I didn’t think you could take it.” And she, with that early feminist tinge of saying, who do you think you are that you think you know what I can take, said, “No, we need those down ones, we need those dark ones, too. Otherwise the joyful ones, the hallelujahs, won’t touch our lives.” I have learned in dealing with people that a spiritual life devoted entirely to highs and happiness and “praise the Lord” simply doesn’t do justice to reality, including biblical reality, and the most profound Jewish and Christian spirituality.
I believe by disposition I’m sunny. I’m not an optimist, but I’m a hoper. I also believe in every life, there is disappointment every day, for everybody. I don’t care who it is — the highest and the mightiest and the richest and the smartest have disappointments — and if you identify God with nothing but the one who makes everything come out right, you’re not ready.
What strikes me is that the people who have been the affirmers in the world, the ones who say, “yes,” the ones who then carry it out into action, have been people, Martin Luther King style, who have forebodings. I think it was Albert Schweitzer who said that if he’s told that every morning you jump out of bed and you’re nothing but happy, you’re not ready for what you’re going to see as the day goes on. So, I have always found that it is in the impression of the absence of God where his presence is most felt, that in the wintry spirituality one sees more clearly. You see the structure of the tree when the leaves are gone, you’ll see the whole horizon when all the bushes are down. In winter you see a very clear outline, and I think that’s what I look for. It rings true to the human condition, and it also affirms.