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Praying With Both Eyes Closed

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. Psalm 69:13

In January of this year, I began this series of Life Notes with a reflection about praying with one eye open. I used it as a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. Since that time I have written numerous additional reflections about the various ways we find to avoid or otherwise not surrender to God as much as we can or perhaps should. Make no mistake, I do not write these as a person who is particularly good at that type of surrender. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but these are topics I struggle with and assume at least some others do, too. I remember Sundays in church as a child during prayer time looking around the sanctuary for people whose eyes were not closed. I always found a few. I think I figured if I got caught, the captor would automatically expose his or her own guilt if he or she called me out. It was not that I was serving as the prayer police as much as it was just difficult for me to keep both eyes closed during the prayers that seemed to drag on forever. I, like most of us, was taught to pray with both eyes closed. I guess it was considered disrespectful to God to be looking around during prayer.

The years have given me a slightly different perspective on prayer. I no longer believe God cares whether our eyes are open or closed. I do, however, believe it can make a difference to our personal prayer experience. We receive so much information and stimulation through our eyes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on something ephemeral, like God, with our eyes open. We believe our connection to God is internal and, as such, that our gaze should be internal, too. That implies that our eyes should be closed.

As I have stated in earlier Life Notes, having both eyes closed makes us vulnerable. We cannot see what is going on around us. We do not know but that everyone else might be staring at something that has gone weirdly wrong with our hair. Keeping our eyes open is probably an instinctual trait dating back to the days when we needed to watch for angry Mastodons that might be coming after us. Keeping our eyes open helps us keep control of our environment, or at least gives us a sense of control. Which is exactly not the point in prayer. Closing our eyes requires a degree of trust and surrender, both of which are helpful orientations in seeking God’s presence. In my experience, God does not compete for our attention.

There is a school of thought that when we are doing something, we should be focused on that one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Work efficiency experts tell us to clear everything out of the visual field in our work space except for the immediate task at hand. Distractions like phone calls, emails, and other projects begging for attention come at a cost in terms of getting our tasks done in a timely and accurate manner. Experts tell us we cannot multi-task nearly as well as we believe, so attending to one task at a time is preferable. Under this methodology, when we pray, we should be completely focused on our prayer, and our eyes should be closed.

Certainly in our relationships, when a friend or partner is speaking, particularly about something sensitive, we want to give our attention wholly to her or him. A quick and sure way to damage the relationship is to check our cell phone while the partner is sharing something close to her or his heart. It is a colossal show of disrespect and an indication of how little we value what is important to him or her.

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, keeping both eyes closed during prayer is the best option. It helps keep us focused on God (at least in theory), and it puts us in an attitude of surrender. Having both eyes closed is a symbolic way of saying we trust God to protect us in our times of vulnerability. Those of us who are parents want our children to trust and feel safe in our presence, so why would God feel differently?

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Praying the Details

 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

I tend to think of God as a big-picture being. By this I mean to say that God is unfathomably expansive, inclusive, and larger-than-life. Such a God would not get bogged down in the minutia of our lives. If God is keeping planets in their orbits, there is certainly no time to attend to my latest facial blemish or the mixed message I may have received from an acquaintance the other day. Like many of us, I grew up believing that God was big and I was small. Praying for a good grade on a test I had not prepared adequately for was much too trivial an issue to trouble God about.

As I grow older, I continue to believe God is focused on the big picture. I also believe, however, that God is focused on the minutia. If God truly lives in and acts through us, and since the small details of our lives demand a large portion of our attention and resources, then it stands to reason that God attends to every small detail along with us. My teacher and mentor, Fr. Richard Rohr, says that God loves things by becoming them. To the extent that is true, the more we know and understand something in its richest detail, the more we can know and understand about God. Not that everything around us is God, but that God exists in the details of everything around us.

We see this playing out in our relationships with others. We cannot really know a person until we know details about their life and being. Ironically, the more we know about someone, the more difficult it becomes to describe them accurately to others. It is easy to dismiss a homeless person on the street when we keep our distance from him or her. It is much more difficult to ignore their plight when we take a few minutes to visit with them, listening to their story, and learning some of the details of their existence. If we dare to look in their eyes, we may experience a soulful tug that changes something inside of us, making it impossible to continue to see this person as an anonymous member of a homogeneous group outside of our circle of interest. Details matter. We also experience this in race relations. It is too easy to glance at those of other ethnic backgrounds and believe they all look and act alike, lumping them into a single, usually negative racial stereotype. And of course we will not be able to distinguish the unique character of any particular individual until we learn something about their details. We will not see God in them until we look in their eyes and take a genuine interest in who they are beyond their outer appearance.

In praying for others, the details matter. When someone asks for me to pray for them or for someone else, I ask for as many details as they are comfortable sharing with me. On the one hand, I want to respect their privacy. On the other hand, I want to be able to visualize where the pain is so my prayer can be focused there. Knowing the details helps in that process.

In the same way, details matter in my personal prayers. It is not that God is not already aware of every little aspect of my issues, but that my awareness is likely deficient. There are almost certainly parts of the issue that I deny, repress, or otherwise prefer not to acknowledge. There may be connections to my past that I have completely ignored. I am probably reacting in ways that are consistent with the ways I have always reacted to difficult situations, and those reactions may not be helpful or honest. Being up front with God about the entire situation, searching for and sorting through the details with God is helpful once we know God as non-judgmental and accepting of us as and where we are.

Revealing the details of our situation to God and others is uncomfortable because it makes us vulnerable. Making ourselves vulnerable – revealing ourselves in our essential nakedness – allows God to meet us in our pain, which is where healing begins. Praying vague, generic prayers is like praying with one eye open in that we are not fully giving ourselves over in prayer. Praying the details is surrendering ourselves to God where those details can be resurrected into something better.

This is the 24th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

A Special Invitation: For readers of Life Notes living in or near Lawrence, Kansas, we will be performing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass on the World this Saturday morning, June 22, 2019, as a way of welcoming and honoring the Summer Equinox. Meet us at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center Overlook (1365 N 1250 Rd), at 5:50 AM for the sunrise and at 6:00 AM for the service. It will last about 20 minutes.

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Praying Together

 Pray then in this way… Matthew 6:9a

Earlier this year I spent several days with a group of Benedictine monks south of Boston. I was allowed to join them during parts of their daily schedule, including the five daily worship services. One part of most worship services was what they consider praying together, which in this case was chanting the Psalms. They sat in two groups facing each other and chanted passages from the Psalms, sometimes one side at a time, other times in unison.

For the most part, I was taught that prayer was a solitary activity – me and God. Certainly, there were prayers before meals and bedtime where one person would pray on behalf of those present at the table or bedside. In church, the pastor would pray on behalf of the entire congregation. Those were community prayers, but it was still one person doing the praying while the others sat in silence. The exception was The Lord’s Prayer, which was recited in unison as a community. With those exceptions, I considered prayer a solitary activity.

It is interesting that the prayer Jesus instructed his disciples to pray was a community prayer. The language is distinctly communal:

Our Father;

Give us this day our daily bread;

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

            Lead us not into temptation;

Deliver us from evil.

I have tried praying this prayer in an individual way, i.e., My Father; give me this day, etc., but it feels wrong and selfish. Perhaps that is because I learned it as a communal prayer; or perhaps the prayer loses its power when removed from its communal context. It is also interesting that three verses before giving his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The latter prayer process is a distinctly solitary activity.

I suspect Jesus’ message is that both individual and community prayers are important. Nor should this surprise anyone.The community aspect of prayer, however, is the one I find most challenging. Actually, it is my ego that finds community prayer most challenging. My ego self desires a special relationship with God – one that sets me apart from others as a unique creation in God’s eyes. And there is biblical evidence for that very uniqueness (see Psalm 139). What trips me up is that everyone is a unique creation of God, loved and known for their individual traits by our doting, divine Parent. Wouldn’t that make any individual, i.e., me, less special? Although my ego is bruised at the thought, I believe we are all precious beyond belief in God’s eyes.

In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion (John 17), Jesus prays that we, as in all of us, might be one with him just as he is one with God. There is an unmistakeable communal inclusiveness to his words. In Paul’s letters, he describes us as the body of Christ (see Romans 12), identifying individuals as various parts of the one body. Again, this is not welcome news to the ego self who is more than willing to forego the salvation of many others in order to assure salvation for itself and those it deems worthy.

As I age and the more I read, the more convinced I become that salvation is communal. In other words, we become one with God together – as one body – or we do not become one with God at all, except perhaps in brief awakenings. This is why healing the sick and easing suffering and feeding the hungry and including the outcast – the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry – are so vitally important for us to continue today. As we awaken to our oneness, we understand that we cannot be well until others are well. And so praying together should be an important part of our prayer practice. It is an affirmation of our unity.

Personally, I recite the Lord’s Prayer as a regular part of my daily devotions. When I do, however, I try to assume the posture of being one part of a large body praying for and with the entire community of my brothers and sisters. No doubt, there are countless others across the globe and through the ages praying it with me.

Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another. Praying together is one way for us to fulfil that commandment.

This is the 21st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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