Monday, August 25, 2014

Compline and the First Weeks of Prayer Group

Early this spring two fellow parishioners invited me to help them start a prayer group.These two individuals had recently suffered serious difficulties in their lives and had developed very intense prayer practices through this great need. They wanted to be able to help other people find their way into prayer, to pray in a group for support and comfort and to grow further into their own spiritual life.

We certainly did begin this group. We met bi-weekly for three+ months and will resume a few weeks after Labor Day. We covered topics such as Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina; we discussed the different types of prayer, petition, intercession, praise, thanksgiving, oblation etc. We prayed together, It's been a qualitative, if not quantitative, success. Enough people have loved it that we feel encouraged to offer a second series in the fall.

It must be a hard thing to walk into a room with the purpose that you and others will pray together. You might feel exposed either in your inadequate praying (as if any of us are ever adequate) or vulnerable in your need. You might even feel that you have nothing to learn or gain from such an experience because you're fine praying as you are.The Sunday Eucharist does not deter people in this way despite the fact that, as we saw and studied, the prayers contained in the liturgy are just as soul-baring as anything could be. So our attendance was small, but enthusiastic.

The Daily Office has been a part of my life for 4 years. I find it so rewarding, so grace-filled, that I wanted to share it in some way with others. To that end I asked and received permission to lead a service of Compline during the summer months. It would be part of an overall prayer effort from the prayer group with additional elements to be determined in the future.

Unlike Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline does not have assigned readings that change from day to day. It is simple, short, sweet - actually very sweet. I set about preparing for this project.

So that people would feel entirely comfortable at this service, I made booklets that they could follow without having to find this or that page in the Book of Common Prayer. These were available on a table that people would pass on their way to their pews.

I transcribed the Order for Compline exactly from the Prayer Book, word for word. I didn't want anyone to have even one moment of uncertainty. I put the rubrics in red, just like in the old days. I included instructions for antiphonal reading of the Psalms and a request that everyone sit in the front pews. Remarkably, people did just that.

The one piece I did add was a prayer for members of our parish. Using the parish directory, I took all the first names of the parish and put them in columns on strips of heavy manila paper like bookmarks. It was easy to ask somebody to read one of these lists each night. Over the summer, we were able to pray for every member of our parish. Occasionally and serendipitously people were there to hear their own names and the names of their families read.

For atmosphere, I kept the lights dim and had one chair that the prayer leader (usually me but often another parishioner) could sit in during times of sitting. One candle burned to the side.

We began each evening with about 13 minutes of "still prayer," silent, undirected prayer. A chime would ring and we would stand and begin. Then followed another 15 or so minutes of spoken prayer, the Order for Compline. Many or few voices, once just my own voice. Praying into the darkness, the same words night after night.

Most nights we would observe the tradition of leaving in silence.

Over the months of Summer Compline, eighteen different people took part with an average nightly attendance of four. Five people absolutely loved the service and are eager for it to resume in the fall and again, more regularly, next summer. We hope.

Our next project is a half-day of prayer in November, sort of a mini-retreat. More about that when the time comes.

I feel a bit like the sower in the parable, tossing praying all over the place, blissfully unmindful that sometimes these efforts come to nothing. I feel that I have this one chance to do something and that I must get on with it. 

Over my life I have had many projects, some for work, some for family, some for church. This one has been different. The work is there, the preparation, the waiting, but the nerves are gone. Somehow gone. I feel oddly impervious to possible failure, ridicule or, even more dangerously, praise. 

That one evening when I said Compline alone - I didn't mind at all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Does God Pray?

This is an idea that has only recently occurred to me, possibly because it seems to assume that God might lack something. What would God ask for? To whom would he pray?

I asked this question a couple of weeks ago on Twitter and received several profound and thoughtful answers. @sjpat3 said “Why not? I'll go out on a limb here and say that maybe that's how the Holy Spirit moves. Or how God moves us. #worksforme” and @canticanovae added “Seems likely, as Jesus prayed, and ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’” while @jnotudor said “I think spiritual communion is in God's triune essence.” I was surprised and delighted that no one who answered seemed to be shocked by the question.

Looking beyond the standard forms of prayer: adoration, petition, oblation and the like and considering contemplative prayer, I find an opening, so to speak, to believe in God's prayer. 

Centering Prayer and its cousin Christian Meditation are predicated on the idea that God is deep within us. God gave us our lives and God sustains our lives. We cannot develop in any way without God. The Psalms are full of this. 


Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether. 
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.  Psalm 139

Although we have the physical ability to build houses, sew curtains, farm land, we are only pretending when we think this comes from our own strength. There is no progress without God - no holiness, no prayer, no virtue, no salvation. 

"For God alone my soul in silence waits," says the psalmist. (Psalm 62) We are born with this longing. We might need to set it aside some time while we deal with our life. We might not feel it equally every day. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we will see that our most powerful wanting is for God.

But what does God want?

The Lord looks down from heaven
and beholds all the people in the world.
From where he sits enthroned, he turns his gaze 
on all who dwell on the earth.
He fashions the hearts of them
and understands all their works.  Psalm 33

If I base my answer on Biblical texts, I'd have to say that what God wants is, quite simply, us. In fact, the entire body of Scripture is one big long chase scene. God is after us all the time. God pursues us wherever we go, whatever we do. God makes paths for us, signs for us, laws for us. God sends songs and poems to us. God sends his Son to us. 

Preachers tell us that God wants to be "in relationship with us." For me, that is much too mild a construct. A relationship is people having coffee, being Facebook friends, sharing golf tips. God's desire is total. Nothing short of complete union will do. 

"Batter my heart, three-personed God," begged John Donne. Could he have found that line, much less the thirteen verses that follow it, on his own? Was it not the link to the God of his heart that brought his glorious sonnet into being?

This is why I think God prays.

When we are moved to ask for God's grace, to seek his face, it is God leading us. When we marvel at the beauty of the created world or gasp at the tenderness between a child and parent, that is God showing us. When we walk up the aisle to receive the bread and wine made holy, it is God guiding our feet.

I believe that God's attention to us is continuous and total. I believe that God is never not looking at us. God pulls us toward him. God points us in his direction. Our prayers are sought by God even before we begin them. Our curiosity, our longing are nothing but the reflection of God's desire for us. And I call that desire prayer.

What is God's creation of the world if not a prayer? What is God's care for his work, the feeding of the ravens, the dressing of the lilies, if not a prayer? And what is the incarnation of Jesus, our Lord, if not a prayer?

So when you pray, remember that God has sought your prayers, that God is reaching for you just as you are reaching for God. Know when you pray, especially if you pray imperfectly, that God has put the words into your mouth, the ideas into your head, the passion into your heart.

"We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Romans 8:26

Monday, August 4, 2014

When You Can't Be Michelangelo

God is unknowable. Our efforts to realize the Divine must always fall short. In this falling short, however, we are not equal. Some of us fall farther short than others.

Prayer, my rector says, is right-brained, as is poetry, music and art. Some of us can soar God-ward through these higher abilities. Some of us can experience heaven by hearing and seeing beyond the ordinary. Some can even convey that higher understanding to others by painting it or singing it.

Even so-called ordinary life can be shown to be filled with God when just the right words are chosen, the right shading applied. Consider this passage from Homecoming by Marilynne Robinson. A young girl remembers her grandmother’s orchard:

I had seen two of the apple trees in my grandmother’s orchard die where they stood. One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it will be no great wonder…It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. (page 124)

Many years ago, I had the chance to visit the Sistine Chapel. Looking up at that sublime ceiling, seeing all the sacred beauty around me, I found myself wondering why God would need any more from humanity. Having achieved this magnificence, what more could be hoped for? It would have made sense for God to have finished up his project right then and there, closed down shop and called it a day.

Likewise, with Marilynne Robinson existing here on earth, what possible purpose can God have for me? I have no gift to give him. I cannot see as she sees. I might have the briefest glimpse, like Moses hiding in the rock’s cleft while God passes by, a quick flash of God’s blue robe, his tangled black hair.

In my high school, students were tracked. This is still the practice in most school systems. Gifted, high achievers occupy the top slot with all others sorted into appropriate lower levels. “Sorting” is a word to think about. My mother used to let me play with her button box. I would sort the buttons by size, color, shape. It wasn't long before I was preferring some over others, arranging them according to favorites. Quite harmless when you’re doing it with buttons.  

But this is our human reflex. We sort, categorize, prefer. Surely, God must do the same. God, who is the supreme art critic must find greater delight in Mozart than in, for example, Rogers and Hammerstein. The people who do the best must be the best.

No. This is merely an artsy rendition of the prosperity gospel and is, therefore, a lie. A greater understanding of God, a sublime sense of the Divine is a gift to be sure, but it is not a sign of God’s preferment. God does not prefer. God does not sort.

How can I be so sure? Maybe I am just consoling myself for my lack of theological, philosophical, artistic talents. Maybe I want to believe this because the closest I get to seeing God is when I am enjoying a piece of buttered toast.

How can I be so sure? Because of the Incarnation. Our Lord. Jesus Christ, the son of man, born into the human race, did not incarnate selectively into a high echelon of society. Nor did he come physically to earth as a grown full man to bless and ordain a selected group of individuals. Neither was he pure spirit, sharing his wisdom with the elite. 

He was born in a bloody gooey mess like all the rest of us. He lived physically and died physically. During his life, his physical matter became part of the earth’s matter. He breathed, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the air of the earth. He shed blood, ate the fruits of the earth. He spoke sounds, wept. Human. Fully human.

If God’s creation of the world is insufficient to make us believe that God loves the whole world, then the Incarnation of Christ should seal the deal.

In my imperfect, left-brained self, when I am very earth-bound, full of chores and bank statements and recipes, it is easy for me to think that God is looking just a bit more lovingly on Marilynne Robinson than on me. After all, she can bring God into focus for millions of people. She has witnessed for God continually and exquisitely. What is a suburban housewife in comparison with all that?

But then I look at Jesus. He is real. He is for me. I might be nothing, but I am his nothing.