Prayer for busy people

notes for opening talk by Jim Forest at a retreat at La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA; Nov 8-10, 1996

We all regard ourselves as busy people or we wouldn’t be taking part in a weekend retreat on prayer for busy people. I have been wondering, though, in what way, if any, would the actual content of the weekend be different if had been called Prayer for People with Lots Free Time on Their Hands. Or Prayer for Lazy People. Of course some of you — maybe most of you — wouldn’t be here. You would be too busy.

But prayer is prayer whether you have a simple or complicated life.

We cannot say prayer would be easy if we were not busy people. A life that isn’t busy probably means we’re in ill health, unemployed or retired. But for most people here and now, life is heavily loaded. Most of us probably feel like the pair of jeans in the Levis symbol being pulled by horses in opposite directions, only we are being pulled in more than two directions. We have perhaps half a dozen horses testing our rivets: work, family, friends, religious life, recreation, health … plus perhaps one or to addictions or semi-addictions, passions we can either just barely control, or can’t control.

Probably we sometimes feel a little guilty about being so busy. But even more often we feel guilty that, busy though we are, we aren’t doing more.

The truth is: busy-ness by itself is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t aspire to anything less than life full to the brim. we are meant, as human beings, to live an engaged and responsible life, a life in which we have keep making choices that stretch us intellectually and spiritually.

On the other hand, the word “busy” can suggest another definition. It can mean being frantic — too many things happening, no sense of control, no sense of life having a center or of the pieces fitting together and reinforcing each other.

Probably for many of us life is more than busy. A lot of people feel harried, exhausted, frightened, powerless, with little or no sense of meaning.

Probably this is something that rings a few bells for us. But we are, after all, people of our time and place. We live in an age that in many ways is hard on the spiritual life — or just plain hard on life.

Let’s think about what we are up against.

There is the problem of living in the “information age.” No previous generation had to absorb so much information that had to do with events that were beyond the range of sight and sound or had such access to information resources. First newspapers, then radios, then television, now the Internet and the World Wide Web. The positive aspect of these tools is that we’re more aware of inter-connection and inter-dependence; we are better able to respond to needs and build relationships. Within hours we know about important events happening in any part of the world — a scientific discovery, a hurricane or earthquake, a war, an act of heroism. The negative aspect is that we become simply information junkies. We know far more than our grandparents but understand less than they did and live less responsible lives.

You probably saw the film “Amadeus” and so recall the scene where the Emperor told Mozart there were “to many notes” in his opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” “The human ear can only absorb so many notes.” In fact there seems no limit to the number of notes we can absorb but there is a limit to have much information we can usefully absorb and respond to. I can easily get into a numbing state of information exhaustion.

Another factor that seems more modern than ancient is the pace of life. Things change and change at unprecedented speed. Technology changes. Family patterns change (to the point that there is hardly any family life).

If we were looking for a symbol for our era perhaps the clock would be a good choice. There aren’t many of us not wearing a watch. If we start counting the time-keeping devices in the average home, it will at least equal the number of icons you might find in the home of a pious Orthodox family of the old school.

At it’s best, the clock is simply a benign and essential tool of social coordination. At its worst, it is a tool of social disconnection. How many things of real importance do we fail to do because we haven’t got time?

I often think about an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was giving lectures in the United States. We were at the University of Michigan, waiting for the elevator doors to open. I noticed my brown-robed companion was looking at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.”

He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

I also recall a story related in his journal by Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come from Britain to Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland near St. Petersburg. A group of peasants was sent to his house with an urgent message, knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside to look for the engineer. First things first, however. Once inside, one’s first duty as an Orthodox Christian is to find the icon corner and say a few prayers, but this proved difficult. Nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? What impressed them most was the mantelpiece clock. They decided this was a British icon and so crossed themselves, bowed before the clock, and recited their prayers.

In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at a theological school in America. A number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These weren’t to be publicly delivered but recorded on tape for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were interested in more than what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Among all those preaching sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and overcrowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by worry or fear or plans for the future that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand while the next person is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to change direction. Learning to pray in an unhurried way can help us become less hurried people.

Another crucial factor effecting us is fear. Fear is reinforced by the front page of every newspaper, every TV news program, by events in daily life that reach us directly, and even by most of what we call “entertainment.” A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, feat of failure in our primary relationships, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. Fear itself becomes a kind of death sentence. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments, for fear of muggers, in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. They died of fear.

It is a fact that fear impedes spiritual life. I don’t mean the fear of God. Paradoxically, the fear of God puts all other fears in their place. The fear of God is nothing like all those fears which undermine our being. It means to stand in awe of the incomprehensible, the Creator of the universe with all its wonders and mysteries, God who is both more intimate than breath and as remote as the darkness beyond the furthest star. But a person overwhelmed with anxiety tends to limit prayer to complaints and appeals. Keep in mind the advice that angels give in nearly every biblical account we have about them: “Be not afraid.” A vital prayer life opens the door for God gradually to help us move fear from the center to the edge of daily life.

Still another problem confronting is embarrassment about being seen to be a religious person. Isn’t religion for stupid people? If smart people believe in God, it had better be some blind force, something as impersonal as gravity. This is the age of the Jesus Seminar — the age of people with doctorates who have buried the Bible in footnotes. The G word itself is a problem. The G word is God.

So let’s look at the G word. How are we going to talk about prayer if we don’t? To whom are we praying? And better yet with whom are we praying? We mainly find out who (rather than what) God is by praying.

Buy often times we are impeded in finding an answer because we think we already know it. We know who God is. We learned it as children . He is, for starters, all powerful. We’ve heard it thousands of time. In fact we have quite a few words about God we’ve heard a thousand times. God is love. God is just. God is truth. We also have a few images of God that are somehow very familiar. The God of the White Beard: the Lord Chief Justice God. The image of Gentle Jesus with the children; or Teaching Jesus on the hillside preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus on the Cross. Jesus in the manger. The Child Jesus in the arms of his mother.

But often we know God no better than we know the Great China Wall. Or, in case you have been there, then say no better than we know the North Pole. We know it exists though we haven’t been there. We know God as a fact of reality. And so far as it goes, thank God for that. It’s a lot better than imagining there is no God.

But prayer is what we do not simply to show respect to the idea of God or to recite to God a list of God’s various qualities. It is more than anything else our effort to experience the reality of God, so that finally we come to know the truth about God that the Evangelist John insists on again and again as being most central: God is Love. God is not a concept, a principal, an organizing force — God is love. If we don’t know that yet, prayer will more and more bring us to that love. If we know it already, prayer will taker is more deeply into that love.

Prayer is the on-going discovery of God.

Through prayer the real bridges are built. The same John who says God is love says this: “Whoever says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” John is a bit rude, isn’t he. Just how loving was he to speak in that way? But real love is truthful. Love doesn’t lie. Love doesn’t mislead. Love doesn’t take us off the track. Love is not a door into the fog.

“We who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” Plain speech. It can’t get any plainer.

It turns out the door to God is the very same as the door to my neighbor. We can’t love someone and not pray for that person. Acts of love have their roots in prayer.

Many people pray and don’t even realize they are praying and would be embarrassed to think of their caring thoughts as prayer. But they pray from the core of being. Because we are human, we are not capable of not praying, though it may be that we can be so damaged that the faculty is practically destroyed — just as an ear can be too damaged to hear. But we are born to pray. It is even more central to the design than the faculties of hearing and seeing.