From Choosing Peace Through Daily Practices, Ellen Ott Marshall, Editor
Prayer is not so much formally addressing God with a list of requests as it is acknowledging that our connection to God is absolute, and unending, and urgent. (Prayers for Courage: Words of Faith for Difficult Times, Melissa Tidwell)
Recently, as I was marching with tens of thousands of others to protest the war in Iraq, I was forced to face what it means for me to be a person of peace, a bearer of peace, a builder of peace. My reflections evoked two memories, from the street and from the monastery.
A MEMORY FROM THE STREET
A little over twenty years ago, the U.S. military buildup of the 1980s was beginning to impact the national psyche. A seminary student at the time, I joined with a group of other students who were training to engage in civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance as a protest against tax dollars being withdrawn from services for the poor and directed to the production of weapons. Specifically, we were planning to take part in a large protest at the gates of a nearby shipyard that built nuclear attack submarines. One submarine in production, at the time had been “christened” the Corpus Christi; we were horrified that a machine designed for devastating destruction might carry out its mission under the name of the one we called the Prince of Peace.
At the shipyard, events unfolded as planned. Crowds filled the streets carrying placards and signs. Chants for peace rang out almost without ceasing. My professor, Henri Nouwen, led us in a powerful liturgy. Our careful attempts to be respectful of the police and of their responsibilities bore fruit in the orderly arrest of about a dozen of my friends.
But as my companions were being helped into police vans and as the meditative chants we had been singing took on a distinctly triumphalistic tone and rhythm of militaristic fervor, I grew uneasy. I glanced at Henri Nouwen, hoping to find reassurance in his face. Here was a man whom millions viewed as a guide for the spiritual life. I trusted him to calm my growing dis-ease. Instead, in his face I found only anxiety — or was it anguish? In any case, I did not find there the calm and assurance I sought. Next I looked beyond the fence, to the inside of the shipyard where workers had begun to gather. There I saw fury. We were calling for the shipyard’s military contracts to end. What would that mean for these workers’ jobs, for their livelihoods, for their families?
I had been calling this a peaceful protest, an action for peace, but where now was the peace of God? Here were destructive anger, anxiety, anguish, dis-ease — none of which seemed to me to speak of the “peace that passes understanding.” What was I to make of peace in this context?
A MEMORY FROM THE MONASTERY
Just months before the protest at the shipyard, I had returned from a year-long stay at the French community of Taizé. Taizé is a sixty-year-old ecumenical Christian monastic community comprising more than a hundred men from all over the world. In a tiny medieval village in Burgundy, the brothers live a life of contemplation and action committed to reconciliation between the faiths and peoples of the world. Their thrice-daily “common prayers” bring together elements of the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches in a beautiful liturgy of scripture, hymns, sung Psalms, darkness, icons, candles, and meditative chants written by and for the community. At the heart of these common prayers is an extended period of silence. In these moments of silence, the brothers wordlessly wait on God, attend to God’s presence, together. In fact, this time of contemplative stillness forms the nourishing center of the community’s life with God.
I went to Taizé on a spiritual quest, wanting to immerse myself in a life that would form me more fully in the ways of faith. I went to help the brothers welcome and care for the thousands of young people that visit the community each week. Once there, though, I struggled mightily. All the characteristics that I had embraced as defining my very being were of little value in the life I encountered at Taizé. My academic accomplishments, the people I knew, my knowledge of theology, and the impressive places I had studied seemed inconsequential. My life in community consisted not of the theological study I adored, but of kitchen chores, scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning the silent retreat house, building fences, and trying to maintain some semblance of order among the thousands of young backpackers who showed up daily to camp in the fields around the village. Thankfully, woven through the drudgery were the common prayers; three times a day they offered me an escape.
After several months I had almost exhausted my tolerance with this way of life. I determined to tell my sorrows to my spiritual director, Brother Thomas, with whom I met weekly. My litany of anxiety, anguish, anger, and dis-ease ended with, “I really don’t like my life here. Nothing seems fulfilling to me. I’m having a very hard time. In fact, all I like is the common prayers. If it weren’t for the prayers I wouldn’t even be here!” Brother Thomas looked at me for a long time, an uncomfortably long time. Finally, he said, “If it weren’t for the prayers you wouldn’t be here? Well, none of us would be!”
The prayers were the heart and soul of the thing. The prayers were meant to flow in and through and around their entire lives, transforming each part of them, filling even mundane chores with the spirit of prayer. They trusted that over the long haul, the prayers would transform destructive anxiety, anguish, anger, and dis-ease into God’s peace. Without their prayers, they could not practice the peace of God.
Truly I believe what Brother Thomas showed me. His way, carried in my memory of the monastery, is the way of the great Christian spiritual leaders. This way, I trust, counteracts the dis-ease that fills that other memory I harbor, the “memory of the street.” In the face of a sense of poisonous, destructive confusion, prayer offers me an antidote. To speak of prayer as an “antidote” may seem odd at first blush. But many early Christians viewed prayer as the peacebearing curative for what they understood to be diseases of the soul. For instance, Evagrius of Pontus (c. 345-399) believed that prayer healed the soul, restoring it to its original divine image of calm. (The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity, Teresa Shaw) Of course, such notions of prayer carried with them entire cosmologies, theologies, and anthropologies that may strike our twenty-first-century sensibilities as foreign, even bizarre. At the very least, we ought not to assume we can easily understand such ancient concepts. What, for example, did Evagrius mean by “original divine image”?
Answering such questions, in all their complexities, is beyond the scope of this chapter. Still, I want to suggest that in the ancients’ words and lives we can find certain enduring truths about the human psyche, spirit, and condition. This is especially the case, I believe, in ancient Christian views of the peacebearing role of prayer. So, in this chapter I draw extensively on early Christian wisdom as I discuss the nature and practice of prayer in relation to the building of peace in ourselves and in the world. First, I explore the notion of interior peace. Then I offer suggestions about the nature of prayer in our contemporary context. Finally, I describe ways of praying, as well as the historical and conceptual contexts from which they have arisen.
The earliest Christians insisted that becoming a person of prayer fosters a life of peace that came to be referred to as “detachment.” The apostle Paul paved the way for this notion in its Christian form when he taught the faithful or “pray without ceasing” as they sought lives that were “in this world, but not of this world.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Over the ages the notion of detachment has been much misunderstood and often misused. Many have taken it to mean a state of uncaring retreat from responsibility, an ignoring of calls to live in active love. In fact, those who have sought true lives of detachment view it quite differently.
Beginning in the fourth century the notion of what I call “practicing the peace of God” appears with particular strength among the desert monastics of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The desert sages went into the wilderness to “be solitary, be silent, and be at peace.” (Abba Arsenius’s rule for life) We have no extensive written descriptions of the details, shape, and texture of the experience of inner peace of sages sought. Still, some of the writings refer to the “single eye” of life directed toward God; attention of the heart to God’ and “the all-wise knowledge of God,” which is “the crown of the virtues.” All of these attributes of the spiritual life are connected to a heart of stability and peace. (Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, translated by Norman Russell; introduction by Benedicta Ward) Further, the monks speak of “stillness” (hesuchian — “hesychasm”), a sense of “inner tranquility and silence.” This is a profound “quiet, the calm through the whole [person] that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. To be in true relationship with God, standing before [God] in every situation — that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of the monk.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward) With this inner quiet came apatheia, the experience of inner freedom, freedom from anxious caring. This was a state of feeling dependent only on God. In this state the sages enjoyed “detachment,” freedom from “inordinate attachments.” This was not a state of cold, distant uncaring. Instead, it was a sense of “freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and God.”(The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, Douglas Burton-Christie) Today, we might say that they sought lives free of addictions, both large and small. They sought to allow the Spirit of God to flow through their lives unimpeded.
In the ages following the desert monastics, even the most thorough-going mystics, those who may seem the most intent on being “not of this world,” have insisted that the purpose of the Christian life is actively to love one another. Most accurately, then, detachment has referred to a steadiness, a stability, at the core of one’s being. In this state (the pure form of which is seldom, if ever, experienced), the center of the self is firmly anchored in or attached to God. Because of this stable grounding, one is able to be open to whatever may come in life. One is able to receive and appropriately respond to the gravest threat or to the most wondrous joy. Detachment, then, speaks of a grounded interior openness, an interior readiness, a lack of obsessions, a lack of addictions, an ability to attend to the Christian call to act with love in the world.
In other words, to speak of detachment is to speak of a state of interior peace. Such a grounded peace expands beyond the interior life into one’s interpersonal relationships, one’s relationship with the environment, and one’s interactions with the systems and structures of the world. The soul at peace bears peace to others, builds a just peace in the world. From a place of interior peace, we can act appropriately, justly, mercifully, with legitimate anger that is not simply the external expression of our own unresolved wounds, issues, anxieties, and fears. For this stillness, this peace, does not foster a passive presence in the world. Quite the contrary: this is the place of fearlessness, from which a grounded courage comes, a clarity of purpose, a compassion of heart that refuses to trample human lives and the gift of creation just as surely as it refuses to allow lives and creation to be trampled.
THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN PRAYER
Stillness of soul, interior peace, is not easy to achieve. In fact, most, if not all, strands of the Christian tradition insist that interior peace can never be achieved; it is a divine gift. And yet, the traditions insist that in some mysterious way the gift of peace most easily finds its resting place in the soul that is nurtured by prayer. Perhaps it is fair to say that though prayer is not necessary for bringing interior peace, its presence is inevitable in the lives of those who discover this holy gift.
Of course prayer itself, as the struggles of Christian sages have demonstrated over the centuries, is no easy thing. The desert monastics, after all, experienced prayer as a foreign battleground for the soul’s struggle to fullness of life. Robert McAfee Brown suggests a similar idea, though with a less militaristic metaphor:
Prayer for many is like a foreign land. When we go there, we go as tourists. Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place. Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.
How do we enter into this foreign land? How can we settle there? Surely God’s grace invites us to go and offers us the courage to remain. But how can we respond to God’s desire for us? What is the process of becoming a person of prayer?
In offering an answer to these questions, I want to give here a taste of some of the ways the tradition of Christian prayer may help us grow our souls into prayerful containers of stillness, dwelling places for the peace of God. Before turning to explore some of the many ways of prayer available to us, it may be important to say a bit about what I mean by prayer.
Christian history offers no uniform definition for any of the classical terms describing prayer. Even when Christian writers use the same terms to describe the same movement of moment or disposition or aspect of prayer, they may conceptualize in very different ways what they are meaning by the term. For instance, scholars of early- and late-medieval Christianity point out that we cannot take the word “contemplation” at face value in any writing, because a seventh-century writer will be thinking of it in a way that differs appreciably from the way a fourteenth-century writer conceives of it — even when they seem to be writing of the same moment in prayer. The earlier writer might be describing a form of contemplation that consists of the mind carefully considering concepts concerned with the nature of God, while the latter might be speaking of being absorbed in an affective sense of love for God. The theological and philosophical systems connected with their experiences and the personal and social contexts in which they live form their prayer experiences in significantly different ways.
Perhaps the best place to begin in trying to encompass the breadth of experiences of Christian prayer is to consider the ancient tradition of lectio divina (“holy reading”). It seems that the practice of lectio divina began developing prior to the fifth century among desert monastics, though an expanded, formalized description of lectio divina does not appear until the twelfth century. In The Ladder of Monks, Guigo II (d 1188?) specifies four “rungs” in the process, by which monks “are lifted up to Heaven”:
. . . reading [lectio], meditation [meditation], prayer [oratio, or prayerful expressions directed to God], and contemplation [contemplation]. . . . Reading [the Bible and other spiritually helpful books], as it were puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it, and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavor, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes.
Other twelfth-century writers compare the practice of lectio divina to a cow with her cud: pray-ers “ruminate” on what they read, speaking (mouthing) it to themselves over and over, deriving nourishment from it as they “chew” it, “swallow” it into memory, and later “belch” it up to ruminate on it again. (“St. Benedict’s Approach to Prayer,” Michael Casey, Cistercian Studies 15, no. 2 (1980)) The pray-ers trust that they become what they “eat.” Praying, they believe, transforms them inside and out into a living Word of God.
Arguably, each form of Christian prayer practice that has developed over the ages can be found within the movements of lectio divina. These ancient movements show us that prayer’s process of moving us into a grounding stillness of the soul may take many forms: focusing our attention and opening ourselves in preparation (as attentive reading and ruminatio do); studied consideration of an idea, object, sensory experience, or affective experience (experienced in meditatio); expressing to God our hopes, our fears, our joys, our longings, our thanksgivings, our angers, our deepest selves (the essence of oratio); or simply soaking in the presence of God in whatever way that comes to us (contemplatio).
As we engage these varieties of prayer, certain questions may arise: What does praying have to do with God? Who or what is this God? What kind of God is implied by the practice of prayer?
Though I am not writing a theological treatise, it may be helpful to present some basic assumptions about God that are connected to my own practice and understanding of prayer. I offer these not as prescriptions. Rather, I hope that my own transparency sparks you to consider more deeply your own understandings of the relationship between prayer and the Divine Presence you know.
Briefly, “God” is the word that names for me the endlessly creative source of love, justice, compassion, hope, and peace that pervades the universe. Within this broad definition, I offer five theological assumptions that I have drawn from what I see as the heart of Christianity: intimacy, sovereign ubiquity, variety, mystery, and longing.
1. Intimacy. The God of my experience, the God I see portrayed in scripture through Jesus of Nazareth, the God whose presence I look to encounter in every moment through the Holy Spirit, is an intimate God, a God of loving intimacy. God is more than personal. God is suprapersonal. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves; so close to us that we often miss God’s presence with us; so close that we often miss the Christ in us and in the people we know and meet; so close that we often miss the presence of the Spirit in the world around us. God is that immanent, that intimate. In God “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
2. Sovereign ubiquity. For me, God’s nature includes awesome omnipresence, being present with and in and over and under and through all time and space, everywhere, in all things — and greater than and beyond all things, too. God comes to us in every part of life: through scripture, within ourselves, through other people, in our connections with the social systems in which we work and live and play, in our experience of nature and the environment in which we live, and in written and artistic and other expressions of culture. In each of these parts of life God is waiting for us. I assume that if we begin to look at life with new eyes, with a certain attentiveness, with a certain expectation, we can begin to catch glimpses of the holy. We will sense the activity of something that just might be the ripples of the presence of God.
3. Variety. God comes to us in a variety of ways, according to the gifts, struggles, capacities, contexts, genetic heritage, and personalities unique to each of our lives. Divine Presence accommodates itself to the quirks of each individual and each community. The Bible is full of stories that vividly illustrate this, from Noah to Ruth, Nicodemus to Thomas, Martha and beyond.
4. Mystery. Even God’s intimacy is part of the vastly mysterious nature of God, the infinite transcendence of God. To put this in the form of a question: How can such a vast mystery be so intimately known by us? Or put another way: God is immanent in a way that is transcendent, in a way that goes beyond our understanding, that is utterly mysterious. Even God’s intimacy with us is a mysterious thing.
5. Longing. God is a God who longs for us. This mysterious, sovereign, intimate, ubiquitous God of Jesus longs for us, calls to us, beckons to us, invites us. And in that longing, God attracts and summons, and calls forth from us (and all creation) something new. This God keeps drawing us in a spiritual direction, attracting us by the sheer power of pure love, pure grace. And so God’s longing activity, or God’s activity of longing, works on us to heal our wounds, to free us from sin, to animate us toward lovingly transforming the world for justice and peace, to fill us with new life, to finally reconcile all things in God.
What role, then, does prayer play in relation to such a presence, a God of intimacy, sovereign ubiquity, variety, mystery, and longing? I suggest that this God welcomes and creatively embraces whatever we have to offer, whatever expression of ourselves, our lives, our world brews and bubbles up from within our selves and our communities. In this way, at least, prayer “works”: those who pray are changed. Arguably, every strand of the Christian tradition stresses that prayer is primarily a divine gift for those who pray. Prayer is not meant as a tool for manipulating God or the world. Ultimately, whatever its form, Christian prayer is a process of developing intimacy with God through intentionally communing with Divine Presence. It is in intimately communing with God that we find the place of grounded stillness of soul. In the gift of intimately communing with Divine Presence we enter more fully into the life of God as we experience more of God’s fullness in, through, with, around, and among us. In prayer we come more fully to practice the peace of God.