10. Prayer II: Body Surfing and the Lotus Leaf

Christ as a mental image for prayer is the Jesus of tradition and history. Once in a writing class, where I try to get students to do some real writing that they have to work on anyway, I had a Jewish student who was applying for rabbinical school. So she chose to draft her application narrative, as one assignment. If admitted, she would be the first woman ever to study there; she wanted it to be really well written. One part talked about prayer, and as we worked on the sentences, she asked me if Christians really pray to Jesus. How could we pray to a certain man? Her question was genuine and respectful.

Probably each practicing Christian finds, over time, a personal vision of him. It’s done in terms of one’s own needs, knowledge, and cultural conditioning. For myself, I see him walking rough stone streets and rocky hill roads, maybe with a donkey, delivering carpentry work. He comes to his home village after a time away and reads out the prophecy of Isaiah on the anointed one, claiming it. People are angry. They push him to a cliff edge. He stares them down and walks away. He goes through lakeside towns. He tells stories. People join him. They get interesting, generous, strong together. After nights of fishing he’s ashore making breakfast barley cakes and grilled fish. He talks to men–farmers, villagers–about living Moses’ laws, not stealing, not even wanting other people’s goods, not informing on each other to the occupation force. He talks to women about the two sides of hospitality, food and company, or about escaping prostitution. He talks of living in so much God-fullness, so much God-presence that those things aren’t issues any more. The wildflowers don’t own their colors, nor the birds their songs, so laws aren’t an issue for them. Why for us? Abba the father grieves for even a sparrow’s fall, so how much more should we grieve for each other’s pain? Jesus does politics. He knows how to talk to whom, when, where. How to gather groups of people who can find the ‘reign of God’ in each other. How to turn aside threats with well aimed words and careful, warm responses. How to give blessings for curses, push for peace, outtalk insults, decline humiliation. Ordered to give, you give more, claim moral high ground, tell better stories than the oppressors have. Write simple questions in the sand with your foot, until the mob around a scapegoated woman drops their killing stones and drifts away. Of course eventually the big-time collaborators kill him. But people carry it on anyhow—the kingly reign of God. I see this Jesus inside my eyes when I pray through consciousness (which is only one way of praying), and I think that when I see him, I see God.

As a way into prayer to God the person, sometimes one could start with a kind of second-person saying of the Gloria prayer, then move into something beyond it. Its poetry dances through and among the persons of the trinity, weaving in and out of their oneness and multiplicity, adoring them each as both alone and together. ‘Glory to you in the highest, Lord, and peace to your people on earth. Lord God, heavenly monarch, almighty God and father-mother, I worship you, I give you thanks, I praise you for your glory. (Or one can say this with ‘we’ and ‘us,’ having someone in mind to pray with and for.)

After this dance of interwoven persons, one could in a sense start talking to them as one, by saying something like ‘Let me love you and listen to you.’ Then there could be a stretch of silence and attention, when some current problem, or maybe a sense of regret, could be held in the mind, to be turned over for scrutiny and help. A person one has offended. A failure one hopes to make up for. Or there might be no need for such a step. Then there could be a mental scan, in search of what one most wants to beg blessing for just then. A friend in surgery and mental trouble. The priest who blesses so many–ask him to go walking tomorrow. The task of tomorrow that one doesn’t know how to start. Someone who seems flush with gifts and is only to be celebrated with a flow of thanks.

This is not a listing of items but a kind of enveloping of each person or matter with love and concentration. After only a few, one may need to stop for this time. And then a while there can be just alert presence, as it were a time of sitting, looking into someone’s eyes. Some words of love particular to the moment may form in the mind. Or they may not.

This is only an example, a mode for ordinary time. (Moments of great trouble or fear, for instance, would need other modes.) It’s not so much that the words spoken in the mind are prayer. Rather, the words launch the self into prayer, as when in body-surfing one paddles briskly up to speed, launching onto the wave approaching from behind. Then one rides. The prayer is at once the wave, the rider, and the riding. If the colloquy with Christ is the riding, then God the Father-Mother may be the shore.

A different, in a sense opposite form of prayer is explained in the opening chapters of Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart. While the prayer suggested above is fully passional, like the pleas and joys of the Psalms, at the other end of a pendulum swing is Keating’s centering meditation. It is quietistic–the drives of body and psyche are calmed into clarified, unmoving attention to the inner face behind the chora, until even the gaze of attention becomes unnecessary as one drops into sheer absorption in the divine.

One can start by sitting comfortably, breathing deeply and easily, thinking a while only of the breath, or the sounds in the room. Then choose a sacred word, something low-keyed, general, and positive, like ‘peace,’ ‘kindness’ or ‘light’—perhaps have a lit candle present. Speak the word once firmly, inwardly and say you are assigning it a meaning for this time, like ‘God, I give myself now only to silence in your love, and let this be the meaning of my word.’ Then simply wait, putting all thoughts whatever out of one’s consciousness. Twenty minutes. Half and hour. Maybe longer, though one may well set a time limit. It’s best not to try to reach any particular state of God presence. That will happen over multiple sessions, with the faithfulness of the practice. When distracting thoughts intrude, as they will, accept their presence cheerfully; just use the sacred word as a kind of easy feather to brush them along slowly, out of sight, down the stream of mental flow, like leaves or driftwood on water, so that silence is again achieved. The first several times maybe nothing will ‘happen.’ One will not always reach a sense of God presense and that does not matter. The good is in the practice of self-emptying, the quieting of the need to ‘say’ anything at all.