From The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See
Jesus’s own style of teaching in stories, parables, and enigmatic sayings was undoubtedly learned in his own prayer practices. He clearly operated from a consciousness different from that of the masses and even that of the religious leaders who largely fought him. Most seemed to misunderstand him, or even ignore him, despite what seem to be astounding healings and miracles. Yet he did not let that discourage him, and he merely ended his parabolic discourse by saying, “Happy are you that do see, and happy are you that do hear!” (Matthew 13:15) It is almost as if he recognized that contemplative/nondual seeing would be the exception and not the rule. How did he attain such freedom and authority? (Let’s attempt to answer this without jumping too quickly to “because he was God!”)
1. Jesus himself seemed to prefer a prayer of quiet, something more than social, liturgical, or verbal prayer, which is mentioned only a very few times. What we do hear are frequent references such as “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place to pray.” (Mark 1:35; also in Matthew 14:23 and Mark 1:12-13) Luke describes him as praying privately before almost all major events. There are the forty days alone in the desert, which means he must have missed the family-based Sabbath observances and the public temple services. And of course there is his final prayer alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
2. His own teaching on prayer is profoundly instructive and direct:
a. He warns his followers about the very real dangers of public prayer or “standing up in the synagogues” (Matthew 6:5), as he puts it. It does not seem that we have listened to that advice and insisted on a personal prayer journey to undergird and balance the explicit ego dangers of social prayer.
b. “You should go to your private room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in that secret place.” (Matthew 6:6) This is again rather explicit and also intimately invitational, especially because most homes of his people would have had no such thing as a private room.
c. “In your prayers, do not babble on as the pagans do, thinking that by using many words they will make themselves be heard. Do not be like them!” (Matthew 6:7) Again, this is very direct, yet rather explicitly ignored by the traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – who often prefer public worship services and lots of words. (It keeps us clergy feeling useful.)
3. Luke, in his presentation of the only verbal prayer that Jesus ever taught, the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer), offers a most telling introduction. He mentions that Jesus “was in a certain place praying,” where he is interrupted by one of the disciples who has a request of him. “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (11:1-2) Groups were usually identified by having their official group prayer– something like the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous today. It identifies us and our spirituality to others and to ourselves. The very fact that they had to ask for it seems to imply that he had not given them a verbal prayer before! Perhaps it was even a concession.
When we emphasize public, verbal, and social prayer forms, along with group rituals, while not giving people any inner experience of their own inner aliveness (the “Indwelling Spirit”), it tends to keep religion on the level of a social contract; this is often what we call cultural Christianity or civil religion. We can perhaps see this more easily in Islam than we can see it in Christianity. Surely this is why the prophets so often criticized the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the sanctuary. (Jeremiah 7:1-11, Isaiah 1:11-17, Amos 5:21-24, and Hosea 6:6, which was often quoted by Jesus)
Social and public prayers hold groups and religions together, but they do not necessarily transform people at any deep level. In fact, group certitude and solidarity often becomes a substitute for any real journey of our own. Hear this clearly, I am not saying there is no place for public prayer, but we do need to heed Jesus’s very clear warnings about it. In my own church, I am afraid I have met many priests who have recited the Divine Office and performed Mass most days of their lives, yet who show little evidence of any inner life or depth. It is perhaps not a personal failure as much as a “structural sin.” We all live inside of a common domain, which largely determines energy, depth, and how much we can hear or even imagine. As René Girard so well illustrated, we are imitative beings at the core. Our holiness is always the group’s holiness first; our sin is invariably a social sin before it is our own.
Prayer conducted primarily in public becomes a matter of making announcements to God or to the group or to your own self-image. Jesus specifically says this is unnecessary since “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:9) Social prayer runs the risk of becoming an elevating of one’s social image and one’s self-image; this is exactly what Jesus points out and warns against in the story of the Publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. Remember, the Pharisee says all the right things publicly and even does all the right things privately, but Jesus says he “went home not right with God.” The other guy just beats his breast in the back of the synagogue, with no mention of any correct behavior at all, but “he went home right with God.” Pretty amazing, considering what we emphasize in our religious teachings today!
What all of these teachings of Jesus seem to say is that we probably need “unsaying prayer,” the prayer of quiet or contemplative prayer, to balance out and ground all “saying prayer.” Many Christians seem to have little experience of prayer of quiet, and tend to actually be afraid of it or even condemn it. They have not been taught what to do with their overactive minds, and so they are afraid of silence. Without an inner life, our outer prayer will soon become superficial, ego-centered, and even counter-productive on the spiritual path. This is much of the import of all of Matthew 6, where Jesus emphasizes interiority and clarification of intention in each of the three spiritual disciplines – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Western culture has tended to be an extroverted culture and a “can-do” culture. Prayer too easily became an attempt to change God and aggrandize ourselves instead of what it was meant to be – an interior practice to change the one who is praying, which will always happen if we stand calmly before this uncanny and utterly safe Presence, allowing the Divine Gaze to invade and heal our unconscious, the place where 95 percent of our motivations and reactions come from. All we can really do is return the gaze. Then, as Meister Eckhart so perfectly said, “the eye with which we look back at God will be the same eye that first looked at us.” We just complete the circuit!