1. When the word “spirituality” is used, what comes to your mind?
2. Given your definition, would this form of spirituality be helpful to you in fulfilling your Christian discipleship?
I’ve been reading a couple of books on the topic of spirituality and I’m intrigued by what we think it is, and how we practice it in our lives.
Today I want to talk, for a few minutes, about just one of the forms of spirituality—the topic of prayer.
Over the years I’ve learned something –that is, if experience teaches me anything I have a hunch that a lot of you stopped praying a long time ago and there may be some who have never prayed at all. And the reason—at least the reason that I hear from people is this: I feel as though I am talking in space, or that I am on the end of a celestial phone line and no one is on the other end.” What I think, when I hear these reasons is that people stop praying because they believe that God doesn’t listen or hear prayers.
So let’s take a few minutes and talk about whether God hears us when we pray. I believe in a qualified “yes”—but let’s see if we can explicate what we mean by “yes”—or at least come to grips with a qualified “yes”.
One of the reasons that we wonder from time to time whether God hears us or not is that it seems impossible for us to visualize the complexity of the whole process. We simply can’t picture what this interchange with God must look like. We know that God isn’t an old man with a long grey beard—or at least I hope we don’t see God that way—but we do picture God in human terms. He’s the great OZ of the universe. And we picture God getting calls from all over the world—“Please make my child well”—“send $50 right away so I won’t be evicted from my apartment”—“We need rain so our crops won’t dry up”—or in another part of the world there is pleading that the “rain will stop so people won’t be flooded out.” Or a heartbroken person appeals to God to heal their unhappiness with life.
When we stop and think of all the requests—and all the variety of requests—and then all of the calls that cancel each other out—the whole idea of effective prayer seems simply unbelievable.
This is how many people picture prayer—the whole thing is too big to handle—even if we admit that we believe God is running the show. We can’t picture it, so we put it out of our minds.
Other people think of God a little differently. We think of God as the cosmic force behind the suns and planets who keeps the universe going. If we have that picture, we can hardly imagine God’s being interested in our personal problems and needs. We may think they are urgent, but we don’t think the God of the solar system and the whole Milky Way should be concerned with whether or not our child or grandchild gets home safely from soccer practice.
Well, whatever the picture of God may be, there may come a time when we simply give up on prayer because the whole concept seems unrealistic.
Let me make a couple of suggestions that I hope will put prayer in a new light for all of us.
Because we are human, we’re bound to be visual—we never get away from the development of pictures—and the deeper we go in thinking about God, the more we will visualize God through pictures. And my hope would be that the bigger the picture that we have of God, the better. In other words, I think we are on safer ground with a cosmic picture of God than a picture of God as our celestial CEO.
As we grow, our picture of God needs to change. And as we increase in imagination and in our depth of perception, we ought to reach a greater understanding regarding the nature of God so that God becomes vaster, more majestic, more transcendent and universal. We should begin to think of God not as someone on the other end of a long-distance phone line, but as a living spirit within us.
When we pray, it should be as though the particle of life which we are, is constantly becoming part and parcel of all of life. We need to feel that we are alive! There is life in you and in me. That life has conceived us, dreamt of us when we didn’t exist, created us unlike any other creature ever made before or any other who shall ever be made hereafter, and when we pray, the life that is within us is reaching out and searching for the life that makes all people, and all the stars, the sun, the moon and every other living thing. It isn’t impossible to believe that the life that took the trouble to become you is aware of our concerns and needs.
St Paul speaks to this in a vastly important line in Romans: “We do not know how to pray worthily as sons and daughters of God, but God’s spirit within us is actually praying for us in those agonizing longings which never find words.”
Another frustration with prayer is that we wonder if God hears us at all. Or we don’t seem to get an answer—or the answer we want to hear. We believe that if there’s no answer, no one is home. Most of us don’t expect a verbal answer to prayer. But the answer to prayer often comes in the course of events—the things that happen to us. It’s a mistake to think that if things don’t happen the way we want them to, to assume that we have not gotten an answer at all. If we believe that the answer may be “take some time with this issue yourself” then we jump to the conclusion that God doesn’t hear us at all.
For those of us who have lived a long time, we know, by experience, that we’re not going to get everything that we want or ask for. Can we understand that fact now and remember it later? We’re not going to get everything we ask for in prayer—we already know that ahead of time. Even Jesus did not get everything he prayed for.
There’s a story by William Butler Yeats. It’s about an old Irish priest named Peter Gilligan. He was a faithful priest, but he was getting older and he was tired. Late one night he received a call from a woman of his parish saying that her husband was dying—would he come right away? He complained to himself, got dressed and knelt down to say a prayer before he left the rectory. As he prayed, he fell asleep and the hours of the evening went by—the dawn came—and when he woke up he was terrified and cried out, “The man will have died.”
He went to the home as quickly as he could—the wife met him with a peaceful smile on her face and said, “O Father, thank you for coming again—he died peacefully and with a smile after you left.” And Father Gilligan realized that in the mystery of God, the wife believed that he had been there and that God had made up for his shortcoming in some way he couldn’t understand. What Gilligan said as he left the house—in spite of all the appearances to the contrary—was that God had heard his prayers. These are Yeat’s words:
He who hath made the night of starsLearning to trust in the power of God to make our prayers real—this is a life-long Christian learning and experience.
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.
He who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.