Opening Hearts

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Jesus said, "Listen to what the unjust judge is saying.”Luke 18:1-8

This fall I’ve been helping facilitate a series of conversations at Shepherd University called “breaking bread and breaking religious stereotypes”. Using the compassion material that we engaged here at SPC last year, we’ve begun a whole different kind of interfaith conversation, one that begins not with religious difference, but with universal human experience; compassion, the center of all religion and the beating heart of every human being. I am very much aware that this is our work, not mine, but I don’t go out of my way to say so. You see, around half of these students pretty adamantly reject religion. Still, we do come together, break bread and explore what it means to live compassion; it all sounds and feels a lot like church to me (but please: don’t tell!)

Of course these students are just a tiny sample of a much larger trend in our culture today, one that I happen to think is poorly understood. According to a recent Pew Research Survey almost 20 percent of Americans and nearly one third of all those under 30 now consider themselves “religiously unaffiliated.” This does not, however, seem to signal a rise in atheism, with all due respect to all the atheists I know and love, and despite all the blaring headlines to the contrary.  Two thirds of the so called “nones” say they believe in God, more than half claim a deep connection with nature, and more than a third identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Over 20 percent say they pray every day.  

Of course, “everybody prays”, writes Frederick Buechener. “whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else's pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else's joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world.”

According to reformer John Calvin, “prayer is an expanding of our hearts in the presence of God.His contemporary, Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Catholic reformer taught that prayer is “an intimate sharing between friends.” The writer of Luke-Acts remembers Jesus as a praying person and teacher of prayer, whose essential message is: trust in the Source of Life and hope, especially in the deepest darkness. Pray always, and never lose heart.

Growing up in a progressive Presbyterian church in the 60s and 70s, I learned a lot of really foundational things. I learned about the importance of community, education, and reaching out to make the world a better place. My childhood church had one of the first urban AIDS ministries in the country. I grew up taking radical inclusion for granted. And, I learned early that life is a gift, but that the gifts of life are not distributed equally or fairly; those blessed with abundance are called to keep finding ways to bring life where life is in short supply.

There were many things I did not learn in a progressive Presbyterian church in the 60s and 70s: I did not learn much about God or Jesus or the bible (which also means I did not have as much to unlearn as some others!) and I certainly didn’t learn much about prayer beyond the stylized and wordy things that happened in a worship service.

In my young adult years, like my new friends at Shepherd, I chucked it all – bible, God, prayer, church (but unlike my new friends, I would never have been caught dead in a group discussion on spirituality!) Still, looking back it seems clear that somehow Something (or Someone) never really left me alone. Many years would pass before I actually noticed, but the minute I opened up a tiny crack, all kinds of stuff rushed in. Books appeared (sometimes literally falling off a library shelf into my hands; I still love you Thomas Merton). Opportunities materialized. Upheaval happened. My heart got broken more than once. And through it all, amazing people of prayer – living and dead – just kept showing up in my life. As the Buddhists like to say, when the student is ready, the teacher will come.

One of my favorite teachers was and is Teresa of Avila whose feast day is celebrated this very week on October 15. She was born in 1515, at another moment of religious upheaval. She was “a towering figure in Christian history… a mystic, a religious reformer, the foundress of seventeen convents, the author of four books, and one of the outstanding masters of Christian prayer.” writes scholar Robert Ellsberg. She was also sickly, full of doubt, and subject to constant official scrutiny. She was an ordinary woman with extraordinary spiritual wisdom, which I think was the source of her incredible courage and imagination. Without these she never could have survived at a time of such dangerous fear and extreme misogyny. This was the height of the Spanish Inquisition, and women way less out there than Teresa were burned at the stake by the thousands.

Teresa was never more than a step or so ahead of those Inquisitors because her prayer was just too radical. Women were explicitly forbidden from ever praying without words, words prescribed by the male hierarchy. Listening prayer, what Teresa called the “prayer of quiet” was way too risky.

But for Teresa all those words just kept getting in the way of her unfolding relationship with God. She struggled with devastating illness and depression, but later said that the worst thing in her life she was giving up on prayer during some especially difficult years in her youth.

Teresa says that the Holy dwells at the center of every human soul, which God plants there like a garden. We don’t sow the seeds of goodness and beauty, because God has already done that. And we don’t need to pull weeds; God does that too. We are simply called to water the garden through the intimate attentiveness of prayer. A prayer practice may begin in effortful activity, structure, words, which Teresa says is like hauling buckets of water to the garden. But over time it will move naturally toward a kind of inner surrender and a posture of open receiving. This prayer, Teresa says, is as effortless as the garden receiving rain.

Prayer is always a form of radical resistance to the powers of this world. In prayer we stand against the tyrannies of literalism, materialism, busyness and despair, as we move toward willing cooperation with the Holy within. Prayer is not about requirement, it is about relationship, discovering our intimate connection with the Source of Life that is always already there, waiting to be noticed. This relationship unfolds over a lifetime, and can take many forms, but the invitation remains the same: pray always (listen!) and do not lose heart.

Everyone prays. But not everyone risks a prayer practice. And so often when we do, we get preoccupied with telling God all the things that we think need a holy hand, and furthermore, just exactly what we think that hand should do; we rarely pause to listen. Praying for others is important. But if we do not also name and claim our deepest longings and desires, if we do not make space to listen to God’s prayer arising within us, how easily we can become the unjust judge, with no reverence for God and no respect for those around us. 

Teresa said that the biggest obstacle to finding God is all our assumptions about what we’re looking for. In his marvelous book Simply Pray--a pretty great place to start if you’re looking for one--my friend and companion in prayer Erik Wikstrom writes: “If you long to connect with the Sacred, if you desire to live a life more in touch with the Holy, stop listening for something and start simply listening… stop looking for something and start simply looking around you. Notice those places in your life where you have felt yourself in the presence of the Holy, remember those experiences in which you have heard your connectedness; seek in your own life—your own feelings, your own moments—those places where you have encountered or are encountering the Sacred. In other words, simply pray. Pray without any preconceived notion of what you’re doing or why. Simply do it and see what happens. “[i]

We are blessed with abundance in this community, including an abundance of longing, which I think is exactly what animates and energizes a community of prayer. There are so many opportunities here to gather, to listen, to explore opening hearts, and so many people who have a desire to share this journey together. We are a “community of prayer and school of love”, and make no mistake, neither exists long without the other.  

So, let us continue, listening carefully, together for the cries of widow within and beyond us. Pray always, open your hearts, and let the world fall in. amen.

[i] Erik Walker Wikstrom, Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005), 5.