This blog post is the first in a series of three posts inspired by the most popular post from the archive of 99Brattle, “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” by Chris Glaser, published two years ago this week. We will publish the next installment of this series next week and the third installment the following week.
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas will be participating on a panel entitled “Faith and Environmental Justice” during “Religion in the Public Sphere” which takes place at EDS on May 8-9, 2013.
By the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas ’88
At its best, prayer is vital, lively, even wild, setting us free for intimate encounter with the Divine, who is always new. But our notions of prayer can be so small! Prayer can be hobbled by misconceptions and half-truths that prevent us from experiencing our soul’s freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). That was certainly the case for me, and over the years my ideas about prayer—and my way of praying—have radically changed. There are many half-truths about prayer, and here is a starter list of four. Each statement contains elements of truth, but needs to be dismantled and expanded if we’re hoping for a breakthrough in prayer.
1. Prayer is full of words.
Yes, Christians are people of the Book, and we trust the Word of God. Elegant words honed over centuries can convey God’s presence, connect us with the faithful of every generation, and articulate thoughts that give comfort with their accuracy and beauty. When we’re flailing around in prayer, not sure how to begin, reading someone else’s words can help to settle the mind and open the heart.
But prayer is much more than words. Prayer can be expressed as a sigh, as a sob, as laughter, and especially as silence. It is only when our minds grow quiet and we touch the silence that lies within, beneath, and beyond words, that many of us can sense the living Presence of God. As the 14th century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, put it, “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”
2. Prayer is polite.
Yes, we approach the living Mystery with reverence and awe. Honest prayer is never off-hand, slapdash, or casual.
But let’s not limit our prayer to sharing only our “best” selves, our noblest thoughts and warmest feelings! What if God wants to encounter who you really are—not just the self you wish you were? C.S. Lewis wisely counseled: “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” Our intention in prayer is to be our real selves and to encounter the real God. As in any relationship, intimacy with God depends on our being willing to be vulnerable and real, not just formal and polite. I like to imagine God whispering in our ear as we sit down to pray, “Get real!”
3. Prayer is peaceful.
Yes, taking regular time to pray can help us to discover within ourselves a place of deep stillness. Even in the midst of a hectic, fast-paced world, we can learn through prayer how to stay inwardly steady. “Never fail, whatever may befall you, be it good or bad, to keep the heart quiet and calm in the tenderness of love,” wrote the 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross. Equanimity and balance are often a fruit of prayer.
Yet prayer also releases deep feelings, memories, and energies. Prayer can be as turbulent as a storm, as fierce as a wrestling match. If we consider God a friend, someone who welcomes and loves us, just as we are, then we can explore whatever arises in prayer, without trying to control or dominate the process.
4. Prayer is a luxury.
We all know the argument: in a world full of hunger, poverty, and pain, prayer can become an escape, a self-centered, bourgeois, navel-gazing enterprise in which “spiritual” types focus on cultivating their inward garden and ignore the suffering around them. Prayer becomes an exit strategy, a way to hide out.
But when prayer draws us into the heart of God, we discover that the whole world is there, too. We awaken to the divine love that embraces, sustains, and infuses all things. True prayer is subversive to the powers-that-be within the self, for it dethrones the reign of the ego. True prayer is also subversive to the powers-that-be beyond the self, for it sends us out into the world to bear witness to the love that has found and formed us. The mystic becomes a prophet. Prayer is an ongoing source of energy and hope to all whose faith urges us to heal and transform the world. And prayer purifies and prunes our intentions, so that the search for justice is not converted into and reduced to just another ego-project.
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (MDiv ’88) taught courses on prayer at Episcopal Divinity School for many years. She now serves as Priest Associate of Grace Church, Amherst, MA. A retreat leader, writer, and climate activist, her latest book is Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward Movement, 2012). You can learn more at her website: www.holyhunger.org.
Copyright © by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. All rights reserved.