There is widespread misunderstanding about prayer. I heard on the radio the other day an advertisement for the Auckland Prayer Breakfast that declared that ‘when we pray God acts’. At its worst this makes god sound like a puppet that does our bidding. At its best this statement makes prayer into a form of lobbying, imploring god to do what we want.
I remember decades ago, when I was a newly ordained assistant curate, being shocked when my vicar – who was a very gentle kindly soul – refused to pray for a woman. He told me that she’d been coming to him for a long time to seek counselling and prayer. He believed she’d become stuck, dependent on a theology that believed a minister’s prayers were better than her own. So eventually he refused to collude with her ‘stuck-ness’. And she in turn complained to the bishop!
Prayer is not value-free. It gets tied up with our own psychological, as well as theological, health. Prayer, especially public prayer, can be manipulative – both of god and of others. Mind you I don’t think the absence of public expressions of spirituality. Just tricky.
When we start to move away from the idea of god as some sort of Santa Claus and start to understand that prayer is a language of soul, a language of god who is closer than our breathing, a language exhibited in silence or compassionate action… then other ways of praying are opened for us.
Last Sunday I spoke about the soul: That which is different from body and mind but also a part of body and mind, that which eludes close definition, that which is nurtured by such diverse things as
imagination, playfulness and creativity;
satisfying food and company;
generosity and dreams;
music and art; and
connection with animals, birds, trees, and the ocean.
Such soul experiences open us to prayer.
What I didn’t talk about was loss. The path of prayer, the path of the soul, is often about loss. Indeed one of the ancient disciplines of prayer was called ‘letting go’ – letting go of things, relationships, ambitions, and ego.
Jesus spoke a lot about loss. Think about the phrase: ‘Take up your cross’. That is code for challenging the Empire of Caesar and dying for it. Horribly. It’s not about following Jesus and finding fame and fortune.
Think about: ‘The first shall be last’. This is code for the gifted, hardworking, and lucky [those who usually come first in the fame and fortune stakes] coming last. It’s talking about a collapse of the normative hierarchical system of ordering people’s worth. Remember Matthew’s difficult parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.[i] That’s a parable subversive of the norm of allocating wages and worth based on hours worked.
Think about the Gospel of Thomas’ little parable of The Empty Jar[ii]. The kingdom [or empire] of god in that parable is associated with an empty jar, not a full one. Jesus is saying that following me will not get you rich and famous, satiated, or even particularly satisfied.
This week the ecumenical church calendar remembers St Matthew, and we heard the story of his conversion this morning. He left his desk, shed his tie, and like other disciples before him, walked off the job and into a peripatetic life of following Jesus - a life that came with no security and no salary. Because he felt a conviction when Jesus said, ‘Follow me’, doesn’t mean that Matthew didn’t have doubts along the road, especially when the hard times came. My point is simply that the empire of god that Jesus talked about was, for both Jesus and his followers, a path of loss.
As we mature and get older we learn more about loss. Our grandparents and parents die. Those who were elders and mentors die. The security, comfort, and encouragement we received are gone to memories. And unfortunately it’s not only the old that die, but friends and loved ones and those too young.
Our bodies also change as we age, as does sometimes our minds. We make jokes about it as a way of coping. Our strength that we have relied on diminishes, and we become more dependent on others. Our autonomy and independence are compromised. This too is the path of loss.
For some of us our faith too leads us down the path of loss. Our images of the God, described as reliable and omnipotent, begin to fracture. God is no longer a loving Father [or Mother], the omnipresent friend, the one who the ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poster says will never leave us – though sometimes we wish it was so. God is now no longer, in the words of John Spong, “an external, personal force that could be invoked, but rather an internal reality that opens us to the meaning of life itself.”[iii] We, like Spong, try to frame this change positively, but there is a part of us if we are honest that experiences it as loss.
There is now no God hovering in the wings [the deus ex machina] ready to swoop down and rescue us, to change us from being losers into winners. There will be no God to soar in and sweep up when we mess up; or to punish those we don’t like and reward those we do. The God with the capital ‘G’ and the Empire with the capital ‘E’ –– are no longer real for us.
Rather god’s empire, as Jesus once said, is already here, among us. The presence of the sacred is in the tiny inconsequential things, in the unknown, in the suffering and joy [as O’Donohue reminds us], in the meaning and the absence/loss of meaning.
There is a form of Christian prayer that is called ‘walking meditation’. It takes literally the idea of following a way or path into the depth and wisdom of god. Since the 13th century there has been a labyrinth made of stones set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, and parishioners and pilgrims have been welcome to slowly walk its route. It is a copy of that design that is on our floor this morning.
The actual design of the labyrinth is much older than the 13th century with pre-Christian examples having been uncovered in Crete and the deserts of the American South-West. Other Christian cathedrals have also been built with labyrinths – two I’ve walked are in Amien Cathedral and Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. St Matthew in the City, Auckland, also has one made from river stones constructed for Holy Week.
In its early Christian form one of the functions of the labyrinth was to give pilgrims who would otherwise have been unable to make the journey to the Holy Land a way of emulating the experience. By following the path from the outside of the circle to the centre and back again they hoped they would experience something analogous to the transforming journey to the “centre of the world’, Jerusalem, something that pilgrims had been doing since the 4th century.
The rationale behind walking meditation is firstly that prayer is not just a matter of the mind, or the tongue, but a matter for the body and for both our conscious and subconscious selves.
Secondly, that prayer is a journey. We do not stay the same. We follow the one whom the 4th Gospel called ‘The Way’, that is a path of and to and into wisdom. That path, changes and turns, and changes and turns us.
The path of a labyrinth is not one that heads into the centre and then out again. Yes, you do get to the centre eventually, but it weaves all over the place. In this sense it reflects the ups and downs, the forwards and backwards, of our spiritual lives.
It is also a path you can’t get lost on. So, right from the outset, it encourages you not to worry. You will get there. Just don’t be anxious or time conscious, for both are detrimental to engaging with the depth called god.
It is also a very inclusive way of praying. You don’t have to believe anything, or behave in any particular way, to begin or complete the journey. You don’t have to be an adult to walk it, or a Christian, or any type of religious believer. There is an open invitation to engage with the experience and see where it leads you.
Zorba the Greek once said, ‘a person needs a little madness, or she/he will never dare to cut the rope and be free.’ Michael Leunig, in a lecture, commented, “I have found that if one is to have and enjoy and be helped by one’s spirituality, it is necessary to at some point cut the rope.” Walking the labyrinth is a rope-cutting activity. If we listen too much to the fast-moving, rational world we inhabit it will disabuse us of our spirituality.
Walking the labyrinth is not a rational, productive activity. In doesn’t make cents. Like other spiritual/prayer exercises it takes us into the unknown into both dark and light, pain and promise, being lost and being found. Spirituality is a path of sanity in an increasingly mad world, it’s a path of being and hearing and knowing that in the depth, yearning, is love.
[i] Matthew 20.
[iii] Why Christianity Must Change or Die, J.S. Spong