In my spiritual journey I have learned many things, as would be expected. Indeed, it would be sad if we were to be on a journey for a period of time and learn nothing. That sounds more like stagnation than a journey. One important thing I have learned is to balance working with the new---staying connected to the relevant things happening in our world---with the traditional---things like spiritual disciplines to keep me grounded.
A good bit of what I read comes from the spirituality in my contemporary world. I do not fall for the illusion that anything new has to be better than the older ways of being spiritual. But I am not so naïve as to think that most of whatever is new will have no staying power in our world. For example, there is so much research coming out of our scientific community, we would be idiotic to ignore that. Neuroscientists are discovering so much about how our brains work, how humans develop and how they learn, it would be silly to ignore or denigrate this.
I am not a religious fundamentalist. I believe God is continually at work in the world and in us, the people of the world. I firmly believe God wants us to join in laboring for the coming of the Kingdom. If I am aware of contemporary events, I know there is so much more peacemaking to do. There are too many guns in our society and deaths and injuries caused by guns. If I know God, I am sure I know that God is calling me (and you) to a life of action and service.
Having said this, I also recognize the need for me to be grounded in the living tradition. One time-honored way for me to do this is through prayer. As old as it is, prayer does not become an old thing. It does not become outdated. I am not worried that neuroscience will finally debunk prayer. Neuroscience might help me understand how prayer works or even how I can do it more effectively. For me, that would be good news. In any case I will keep praying.
As I was thinking about the role of prayer in life, I had a chance to re-read some wonderful words of the twentieth century Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his book, Man’s Quest for God, Heschel writes, “Reading or studying the text of a prayer is not the same thing as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God. To pray means to expose oneself to Him, to His judgment.” Heschel contends that reading or studying the text of a prayer is not the same thing as prayer seems quite true for me.
Then Heschel turns to an insightful way of understanding of prayer. The act of prayer, he says, is a decision. This tells me prayer is the result of intentionality. In most instances I have to will myself to prayer---I have to want to pray. It does not just happen. And if I do it today, tomorrow is a new day and will require the same kind of intentionality.
Heschel sharpens his definition. The act of prayer is a decision to enter and face God. This precise way of describing prayer is helpful. I think sometimes I have not really understood prayer. It seems like I have often sat in my chair and prayer was something like flinging my words out into the air: “Hey up there? Anybody around?” My prayer has no focus. It has no expectancy. When I fling those words into the air, I don’t really expect a response. Heschel helps me focus and find.
The act of prayer is the decision to enter God’s presence. While this may still sound pretty general, I think it is actually specific. My theology holds that we are in God’s presence all the time. In fact, it is impossible to live life outside of God’s presence. However, what is normally true for me and many others, is we are unaware of God’s presence. Because we don’t seek it or sense it, we assume that God is absent. We feel stuck in God’s absence!
Heschel’s words on prayer are a reminder that prayer is actually a form of coming-to-be-aware. Prayer is waking up to what already is. In this sense prayer does not create anything; it becomes aware of something. Prayer is exposure. What Heschel means by this is prayer makes us vulnerable. To expose myself to God is to allow my vulnerability to open me to new and deeper possibilities in life.
To expose myself vulnerably in the face of God means I risk having to give up some control of life. To come into the presence of God is come to grips with another factor in my life---a major factor. I know I want to do that, even though exposing myself does not always sound inviting! But as I see it, unless I do it, I am just playing around. To play or to pray…that’s usually my choice.