I have just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s chapter on prayer in her book, An Altar in the World. I really like this book and the group I am using the book with likes it, too. Most of us in the group commented that we thought her chapter on prayer was written for each one of us. All that means is somehow her experience with prayer resonated deeply with many of us. For many different traditions prayer is something you are “supposed to do,” but many of us feel like we have been utter failures.
I resonated with Taylor when she penned the first line of the chapter. “I know that a chapter on prayer belongs in this book, but I dread writing it.” Some of her best humor comes out in the chapter. She continues, “I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life, I feel like a bulimic must feel when people ask about her favorite dish. My mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem.”
It is not long before Taylor turns to one of my favorite resources, David Stendl-Rast. She claims Stendl-Rast summarizes the essence of prayer in two words: “Wake up!” That’s not bad. This is a pretty good summary of what prayer is about. While many of us learn words to set prayers, there is usually a nagging feeling that prayer is not the words. The words are trying to get at prayer, but they often feel inadequate. We all know that words can be cheap. In fact, we live in a culture that tends to cheapen even big, important words. Love is a great example. People love everything from God to pizza!
So if prayer is deeper than words, how do we get at it? If it is not words, then how do we pray? It is not as if words never matter, but surely it is true that there is a level of prayer that is beyond and deeper than words. How do we get there?
It is at this point that Taylor talks about the field trips she has taken with students. I smile because I have done this so many times. She talks about going to the monastery, the mosque and the synagogue. This can get students into worship contexts that are strange to them. They confront prayer in different forms and in different articulations (which is more than simply a foreign language). At one point she talks about silence. And that grabbed my attention.
I am so used to silence, I don’t think I fully appreciate how someone experiences it---someone not used to it. Listen to how Taylor describes the experience for her students. Taylor describes taking her students to a Vedanta Center. Vedanta is a form of Hinduism, which focuses on knowledge. I am sure most of Taylor’s students were wandering a foreign land for them. Taylor says, “we join the Swami in a few simple verses and then we sit quietly on cushions for close to an hour, focusing all of our attention on listening to God instead of trying to get God to listen to us.” (185)
She continues by noting that is the longest most of them have ever been quiet. That much silence can be unnerving to many folks. Indeed, since it is such a long time, Taylor notes, it “means that it is also the first time some of us have found the entrance to the vast wilderness inside…They had no idea there was so much space inside of them.” I have seen this happen to countless numbers of students. I like the idea that there may be a vast wilderness inside each of us. That resonates with me and, I believe, is probably true for most of us.
That also leads to Taylor’s other comment that we have a great deal of space inside us. Again, I doubt that many folks live with this kind of awareness. To think that I have so much space and that much of it may be wilderness may intimidate some. However, I see it as a huge potential. The wilderness is often wild. But it can be tamed---or at least fashioned so that it lets you know that part of God that is not part of a theme-park spirituality.
The wilderness does not have to have monsters. It simply means you have not explored it yet; you don’t know it yet. More than likely it has treasures in store for you. It is the land to travel through on your way to where God will want you to be. It is a spiritual training camp or boot camp!
Silence is a good practice to pair with solitude. If you can make it a discipline, then you can get to know that vast space within. It suggests a more expansive way of experiencing God. It is the place and space where the routine and normal are sidelined for novelty, freshness and spontaneity. Remember, it was in the wilderness that God made the covenant with the people of God---the Jews and the Christians.
Silence is the doorway into that world. Go there often. Be not afraid. While you may not choose to live most of your life there, make friends with it and visit often.