From Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality
Saint Francis, that great medieval lover of nature, attended Mass every day throughout much of his life. Dorothy Day, that great American witness to peace, nonviolence, and justice for the poor, did the same. As we continue to consider the journey before us, I will not ask you to emulate such saintly practices – at least, not exactly. But I will ask you to think about the importance of spiritual practices more generally and of one spiritual practice in particular: saying the Trinity Prayer. Why? Because, we can learn from great spiritual forebears like Francis and Dorothy Day. And, more particularly, because today most of us live in a culture of secularity, which makes it difficult for many to pray.
Yes, in the United States we have our megachurches, bursting at the seams with members who love to talk about praying. We have our television evangelists who command audiences in the millions and who have the habit of offering highly dramatic public prayers. Our presidents also generally like to be thought of as champions of prayer. They make a practice of attending highly publicized prayer breakfasts now and again. That presidential practice sends a message: we are a nation of prayer. Or so we are led to believe by media reports and, sometimes, by our own observations. Even 20 percent of the religiously nonaffiliated in the United States, the Nones, report that they pray every day. I would imagine that the percentage of Nones-Sympathizers in our churches who pray every day may be even higher.
Still, the truth is that it is not easy to pray, at least not for many Americans today. Even in the ranks of those who like to think of themselves as persons of prayer, finding the time to do so appears to be a monumental challenge. This spiritual problematic is sometimes said to be the result of the hectic pace of our lives. How can you say your prayers when you’re still on the crowded commuter train at 7 p.m., and when what you really want to do when you get home is have a cocktail and collapse into bed? How can you say your prayers when you have just finished seeing two additional clients and your supervisor wants you to see yet another, never mind the fact that your two young children are waiting at home for their supper, with a frustrated babysitter who should have departed long before? How can you say your prayers when you’ve just finished another day of job searching and you don’t seem to have any inner energy left for anyone or anything? How can you say your prayers when you have a term paper due tomorrow and you know that you’re going to have to stay up all night to finish it?
Others look beyond the hectic pace of our lives to explain the difficulty of praying by pointing to the much discussed materialism of our culture. We are in love with things, not with God, they observe. Why should we pray to God? Still others maintain that ours is a “culture of narcissism” (Christopher Lasch). Why should we look to God with full devotion in prayer when we’re so preoccupied with looking at ourselves in the mirror? Then, some observe, there is the agnosticism, even the atheism, that some prominent natural scientists seem to think is necessary if they are to be true to the scientific method. Doesn’t that agnosticism and perhaps that atheism leach into the minds and hearts of many of those who study science? How can you pray if you’re under such influences?
Finally, there are the perennial questions about the goodness of God, which have been hugely amplified in our time, in the wake of the Holocaust and the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the global hunger crisis and other monstrous evils. How could a good God permit such things? Perhaps, some think, there is no God who cares enough to hear our prayers. So why pray? I will return to this last wrenching question – technically, it is called the issue of “theodicy” – in some detail in the following pages.
First, however, in this chapter, I invite you to bracket thoughts about the spiritual dynamics of our era, which make it so difficult to pray, and to think about something much more mundane. Consider the truth of this simple spiritual maxim: practice makes possible. This is not an original thought on my part, by any means. Practices have been celebrated by many Christian spiritual guides (and by many in other religious as well) for centuries. Just think of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a work that has shaped Jesuit spirituality ever since the sixteenth century. But the theme of practices has perhaps become more popular in our own time, spiritually speaking, than ever before. Here, however, I don’t want to survey the variety of religious practices, past or present, or review theories about them. Instead, I want to share with you my own take on the matter, what it has come to mean to me personally, because this is an essential theme in my own spiritual story.
I must stress at the outset that to highlight practices in this way is not to suggest that our practices somehow can call God to us, so that we can then know God. On the contrary, left on our own, however much some of us might want to “work at our spirituality,” we still live under the sign of the eclipse of God.
I want to suggest something quite different here: not that our spiritual practices open the door to God for us, but that, now and again, the Holy Spirit works to channel the self-disclosure of God to us though our practice. That is one way the divine initiative claims our minds and hearts. And that is why this account of a journey of a thousand miles begins by proposing this small practical step. I invite you to consider what spiritual practices generally can mean for you, even if you’ve already given this matter some thought, and, more particularly, to reflect about how the practice of a single prayer, one that has been critically important for my own spirituality, may be just what you need.
I believe that this particular spiritual practice, the Trinity Prayer, was given by the spirit of God. But this divine gift was a gift of the obvious, from a classical Christian perspective. In fact, there’s nothing new in this prayer, as far as the ancient faith of the church is concerned. As far as I know, only the form of the prayer has not been used in practice ever before. This is what I am calling the Trinity Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.
My purpose in this chapter is to persuade you to begin to practice this prayer without any further delay, whether or not you’re confident that you understand its meanings or the value of its practice. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re being “authentic.” Just do it. This is the meaning, I think, of a line drawing produced by the Roman Catholic artists Corita Kent a half century ago. In her own handwriting, she quotes a traditional Jewish (Hasidic) saying that depicts an unidentified holy one at prayer: “He repeated the letters of the alphabet over and over, beseeching the Almighty to arrange them into the appropriate words for the prayer.” The practice of praying, just doing it, counter-intuitive as it might seem, makes the praying itself possible.
How to Pray: Practice Makes Possible
The best way to learn how to ride a bicycle is to get on a bicycle and start to ride. The best way to learn how to swim is to plunge in. The best way to learn how to dance is to get out on the dance floor and start to dance. The best way to learn a new language is to go to the country where that language is spoken and start speaking. Likewise, I believe, the best way to blessedly engage God, in, with, and under nature, as a seeker or a teacher or a pastor, is to start praying in the name of Jesus or to devote more attention to that practice.
Don’t assume that you can’t do it if you haven’t tried it. Experience the surprise! Don’t assume that this prayer won’t work for you, because it may sound so familiar, if it does. Many have learned to ride a bike or to swim or to dance or to speak a new language or to pray, notwithstanding their initial assumptions, sometimes strongly held, that none of that adventurous stuff would ever work for them. Practice will not make perfect, in other words. But, as my own experience has taught me, practice can make possible. And, it can make possible in many places. You can be on the subway as well as in church. You can be walking down an old country road as well as attending a monastic retreat.
Sure, for the swimming and the dancing and the foreign language speaking and the praying, it is often best to have a guide. That is what I’m proposing to be for all of my readers, especially for those who are beginners but also for those who are already in some measure under way. Having a guide or not, however, the most important thing for the reader who is with me thus far is this: to begin, to take “the leap of faith,” as the nineteenth-century Danish theologian and spiritual master Søren Kierkegaard invited his readers to do.
Many years ago, I read somewhere about a traditional rabbinic legend concerning the Exodus, the Biblical story of God’s deliverance of God’s chosen people from Egypt through the Red Sea waters. This was the scenario. The children of Israel were hastening to the Red Sea in order to escape. The Egyptian army, with all its worldly might, was in hot pursuit. When the Israelites got to the edge of the sea, however, the promised miracle of the parting of the waters did not happen. Was all lost? No. According to the legend, it was only when a single Israelite jumped into the sea that the promised miracle occurred and the people of Israel were delivered through the waters.
Reflecting About Practices
This anecdotal approach to the theme before us – practice makes possible wherever you find yourself – can now be complemented by a certain kind of descriptive (or “phenomenological”) analysis. An instructive example of this kind of approach is outlined in an unpublished paper by the Cornell University Biblical scholar and ethicist, Richard A. Baer, Jr. He juxtaposes Quaker silent worship, Pentecostal speaking in tongues (glossolalia), and high Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran liturgy. These seemingly dramatically different forms of worship, Baer argues, actually have a similar, even identical, spiritual function. They make it possible for the practitioners of these rites to “break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind.”
Contrary to uninformed speculation and opinion, Baer observes, speaking in tongues, in particular, is not typically a form of religious hysteria, nor is it usually an uncontrolled expression of emotion. The glossolaliac is typically fully aware of what he or she is doing and can also stop at will. Striking parallels exist between the practice of speaking in tongues, Baer points out, and Quaker silence. “At its best,” he explains, “Quaker silent worship involves a kind of letting go, a lack of strain or effortful attention, a willingness to ‘flow’ with the leading of the Spirit and with the larger movement of the entire meeting.” Further: “It is almost universally felt in Quaker circles that rational analysis and argument over what is spoken ‘out of silence’ is inappropriate. As in the case of glossolalia the process of speaking out of silence and of listening in silence involves a resting of the analytical mind, a refusal to let deliberative, objective thinking dominate the meeting for worship.”
Does “high liturgical worship” fit into the same pattern? Baer’s answer: yes. Just as glossolalia and silent Quaker worship may at first be puzzling, frustrating, or even irritating to the non-initiate, so to many outsiders the practice of liturgical worship sometimes appears to be little more than a mechanical exercise in futility. What good can possibly come of the repetition week after week of the same prayer of confession, words of absolution, intercessions, and petitions?
But all of this is not surprising, Baer observes, and is not unlike the person first learning to dance. Thinking how to follow the proper dance steps does not help all that much. But, when one “has mastered the dance steps, a kind of ‘wisdom of the body’ takes over which indeed permits the analytical mind, the focused attention, to rest. One begins to ‘flow’ with the beat of the music, the rhythm of the dance.” So it is with the liturgy, says Baer. As beautiful as the music and the stained glass windows might be in a liturgical setting, he observes, “there is yet a deeper movement of the human spirit as it encounters the Spirit of God and the presence of the risen Christ. The analytical, objectifying mind is permitted to rest and thus the human spirit is free to experience reality on a new level.”
Baer is careful to acknowledge that the varying expressions of speaking in tongues, Quaker silence, and high liturgy that concern him the most are all intended by those who practice them to give expression to the mind of Christ, as we know that mind from scripture, in particular from texts such as Philippians 2, in which Paul celebrates the servanthood of Christ. It’s easy, in contrast, to think of radically different examples of practices that may also help people break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind but which can prompt them to act and believe in dysfunctional, even demonic, ways. Consider, for example, something as apparently mundane as the binge drinking practices on some college campuses today. Such practices, when they break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind, may make it possible for the “initiates” to engage in a range of abusive behaviors, such as date rape. Consider also the public rallies of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, when a kind of mass psychosis settled upon ordinary people, in the context of huge and extended rallies, prompting them to endorse a demonic leader and to follow his ways. Such practices did break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind, but with disastrous results. Not just any practice that breaks with the tyranny of the cognitive mind, in other words, should be celebrated.
Notwithstanding these counterexamples, Baer’s thesis is insightful and instructive. To enter into a sustainable life of prayer in our time, one must, indeed, find appropriate ways to break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind, to let that mind rest now and again, as Baer suggests, in order to engage a different dimension of reality, what the English spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill regularly called “the Real.”
The practice of the Trinity Prayer, I believe, can be one helpful way to break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind. As I have experienced it, it can be like dancing, when, if you are so graced, you get carried away to new and invigorating levels of experience – in this case, a blessed engagement with nature. Practice will surely never make perfect, in this sinful world. But practice can make possible. And practice can make possible, as I have already observed, in different places. You don’t have to be in a cathedral or at a Friends’ meeting. You can be on the job, on a walk, or on an airplane; you can be weeding the garden or backpacking in the Rockies.
The Emergence of the Trinity Prayer: A Personal Story
Here is precisely how the specifically Christian dimension of the story I am telling emerged in my own life. I began a practice of prayer that was new to me, with the distant but, for me, critically important guidance of a tradition of prayer that I had never heard of before. I took that plunge. Knowing very little about this way of praying, I simply began to pray this way, as best as I could, by the grace of God. At first, it was like learning to swim or learning to dance or learning to speak a new language. But, in due course, I was enabled to “go with the flow” in a way that I eventually realized was liberating.
When I was a young theological student, a friend introduced me to what he called “the Jesus Prayer.” He had learned this prayer at a retreat led by an Eastern Orthodox priest who himself had been influenced by a movement in traditional Orthodox spirituality that focused on the Jesus Prayer. This was the idea. You say the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (or words like that) – repeatedly, even constantly, day in and day out. In this way, you respond to the injunction of the apostle Paul that we are to “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). You practice the presence of Jesus Christ in this unfolding temporal sense – just the way my own family always says at meals, “Come Lord Jesus, be thou our guest. And let these gifts to us be blest,” but still more frequently. You keep saying the Jesus Prayer, again and again, until it becomes part of the stream of your own spiritual consciousness, to the point where you may not even be aware that you are saying the prayer anymore. You begin to pray subliminally or unconsciously. And by this practice, Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate, crucified, and risen Son of the eternal Father, will dwell in you and you in him, in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the promise that is given with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, according to the Orthodox masters.
I never investigated the Jesus Prayer movement in Orthodox spirituality, either in practice or from a scholarly point-of-view. Nor did I stay in touch with the friend who once told me about that retreat. But the thought of such a practice set me thinking on my own. Before too long, variations of the Jesus Prayer found a place in my own spiritual practices, which had to that point been shaped not by the Orthodox tradition but primarily by the ways of faith bequeathed to me by the baptismal theology of Martin Luther and by his vision of every Christian’s vocation as a kind of prayerful walk through one’s everyday experience.
For some time, I experimented with different ways to give voice to the Jesus Prayer, and this was what was eventually given to me, not by my own invention, I believe, but by the Spirit of the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ – not just the Jesus Prayer but something larger and much more explicitly baptismal, predicted on a vision of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Certainly, this prayer does not belong to me, since its words are so self-evidently expressions of classical Christian meanings, but I do not know whether any other Christian soul speaks these meanings, or has done so, in precisely this way.
These are the simple words of the prayer that gradually devolved upon my soul in those years. I quote this prayer often in this book, in one form or another, since repetition, as sages throughout the ages have opined, is the soul of wisdom.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.
I hope it will become evident as my narrative unfolds why this prayer took on its threefold shape in my spiritual life, moving as it does from Jesus to the triune God then to the Holy Spirit – why it could not, in fact, have been otherwise for me. As I recall, I was not consciously aware of this spiritual logic as I first began to find a way to identify and then to practice the petitions of this prayer. Such an awareness was to emerge only later.
The Heritage and the Practice of the Trinity Prayer
There was, of course, ample traditional precedent for this threefold shape of the Trinity Prayer, beginning with the words of the apostle Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” (2 Corinthians 13:13). More to the point, the words of this blessing by Paul were the very words (in a slightly different translation), spoken by the pastor-presider, that began every Sunday liturgy in which I had participated since the days of my earliest conscious liturgical experiences as a child – and to this very day. Thus, if I may speak figuratively of these moments of my own spiritual pilgrimage, I did not discover the Trinity Prayer. It discovered me. As a lifelong participant in the church’s liturgical practices, it was no wonder that a prayer concerning the mercy of Jesus, the glory and the mystery of the triune God, and the power and the enlightenment of the Spirit so deeply claimed my soul.
Whenever I use the prayer, I repeat each line four times, this in order to speak with the cadence of many traditional hymns of the church, such as “The Doxology,” (Old Hundredth). I then repeat the whole prayer (again, each line four times) as often as circumstances and spiritual stamina will allow. In addition, in the morning and the evening, as the beginning and the ending of the prayer, I always make the sign of the cross, in order to begin and to conclude the day by reminding myself of the prayer’s baptismal meanings and of my own baptism.
This prayer, where circumstances require, can be spoken, either aloud or in the silence of the heart. I opt for singing it, whenever possible, almost always in settings of solitude, in order to give a more resonant, physical voice to the fragile faith within me. The singing helps me to invest my whole embodied self in the praying. If you do choose to sing the prayer often, as I recommend, you may also wish to vary the music from season to season of the church year.
On the other hand, I don’t want to give you the impression that this Trinity Prayer is complicated to practice. You only need to call to mind the three simple lines:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.
Begin with these silent words in your heart, if that suits you best. Take the plunge. You can add the variations later, if you are so moved. It has “worked” for me, very simply, for a long time and in many places.
For decades, I have said or sung the Trinity Prayer numerous times during any given day and almost without exception, every morning when I have awakened and every evening as I have been ready to retire. I have prayed this prayer when leaving on a trip and upon my arrival. I have prayed this prayer when I have been peacefully weeding the garden or when I have been cut to the quick by a professional crisis. I have prayed this prayer as I have been walking in the woods, full of contentment, or walking along city streets, full of excitement or sometimes righteous indignation. I prayed this prayer when, a few years ago, my wife went into a coma after a stroke and when, a day later, thankfully, she suddenly awoke and began to make a full recovery. I have prayed this prayer when the news of the day has prompted me to recall the witness of saints like Francis of Assisi or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela, and when I have encountered the influence of the principalities and powers of death in the lives of “good Christian people” who have in word or deed taken stands that have contradicted the acts and the witness of such saints.
As I have reflected about this regular practice, I think I have begun to understand that apostolic injunction to “pray without ceasing.” Experienced practitioners of the classical Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” – have reported the emergence in their souls of what sounds to me like a subliminal consciousness that somehow undergirds the conscious awareness of the person praying. That subliminal consciousness, it seems to me, is where the oft-repeated Jesus Prayer dwells. I have experienced something like that with the Trinity Prayer, even though this prayer is longer and therefore less amenable to uninterrupted repetition than the Jesus Prayer is.
For me, the petitions of the Trinity Prayer – or, perhaps more often, fragments of them – seem to float constantly in the chamber of my subliminal mind – here an image of the divine mercy of Jesus, there a glimpse o f the giving of the Father, here a sense for the presence of “Christ beside me,” there a sense for the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. This produces a kind of near-constant mindfulness of the triune God in my life, even though the thoughts and images and affections may be fleeting.
Explicit and regular repetition of the whole Trinity Prayer seems to keep my subliminal mind supplied with those fragmentary images that always seem to be there in one form or another. I suppose that it is no surprise, then, that I have occasionally had dreams about the Trinity. I am not sure what to make of that fact, but it does not seem to be surprising in a life given to regular repetition of the Trinity Prayer.