By Jan Fung
February 23, 2015
Prayer has been a stumbling-block for me over the past years, as I watched and listened for a response from God to my constant cries for help within traumatic life circumstances, and none seemed to come. That I apparently waited in vain, set me up for disillusionment about prayer, and reinforced my latent belief that God was mostly disinterested in me, except when I was doing something wrong, and then I could be sure He’d arrive to heap shame and condemnation upon me.
Others’ prayers on my behalf also seemed to go unheeded, which on the one hand brought a sense of relief because God was evidently not listening to them either, but created all kinds of angry questions about Him. Did His lack of response mean He just did not care? Was He powerless and therefore unable to help? Or, was I so inconsequential to Him, did He have so many more important things to which to attend, that my circumstances did not even warrant a fleeting glance much less His intervention?
As I shared the reasons, just disclosed, about my confusion around prayer with my spiritual director, he asked a question which jolted me: “What did you want God to do? How did you want Him to show up and intervene for you?” Since I had never pursued this line of thought before, I could not immediately delineated or articulated a response to such a direct probe. The question reminded me of Jesus’ query of the blind man in Mark 10:51, and over the next weeks I pondered the answer and also my way of seeing. What had I expected God to do? Had He responded and I been unable to discern? Had my preconceived expectations blinded me? Did I, like Bartimaeus, need to have my sight recovered?
In journeying with the questions I’ve been gradually living into the answers as I’ve read The Transforming Friendship: A Guide to Prayer by James M. Houston, and the initial chapters of Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr, and continue to ruminate specific points that are resonating deeply with my heart while challenging my notions. I am discovering that prayer is so much more robust than my previously emaciated definition, and paradoxical in that it is at once both incredibly complex and yet so simple. Complex in terms of the postures, formats and technical approaches to the act of praying as contrived by the various denominations and sects. Simple in that when all the attire of prayer-as-activity and spoken-word is stripped away, prayer at its core is a heart stance, an openness and receptivity to God, a way of living or being in continual awareness of the Presence, as Rohr so aptly states. If true, this brings a great deal of relief regarding my long drought of silence with God, when disappointment had inhibited my ability to speak directly to Him. Perhaps my silence has been as much a prayer as my speaking?
I am admonished by Houston’s analysis of prayer as magic, for when I dig down into the question of how I wanted God to respond to my situation, I realize that I wanted such a display, God miraculously bursting through the door and saving me in grand Hollywood fashion, an enchanted, riding-off-into-the-sunset, fairytale rescue. This misunderstanding of prayer as a magical device had led me astray, being less about deepening my relationship with the Divine, and more about trying to manipulate and control Him, convincing Him to hyper-manage the circumstances of my life so I could live a comfortable, problem-free existence.
I am wondering now if in not responding to my situation in this manner, God was in fact empowering me to grow up, find my voice, and take responsibility for my choices and actions. I am also wondering whether in looking for that kind of rescue, I missed, dismissed, or minimized the ways in which He did align the people and circumstances of my life to offer me routes of escape. If so, I am smitten to the core, deeply humbled to confess that I have wrongly accused Him of not hearing or caring!
I am also challenged by Houston’s exploration of the effect of my woundedness upon my ability to trust God, imposed assumptions drawn from vengeful-God theology, and my authoritarian upbringing. Rather than seeing God as foremost loving and gentle, I have prayed to Him through the lens of trying to earn his approval, and like the prodigal, begging mercy from the posture of a servant. My abusive relationship reinforced this kind of perspective, in which affection and necessities were withheld as a means of domination and control. Houston states, “Against the evidence of our own wounded lives, we have to disbelieve the mean picture we may have of God’s character” (Houston, 59). On this wise, what if I’ve been wrong? What if God is truly Other in every way, and that the kindness of Jesus incarnate really is reflective of the Father’s heart toward me?
Because of God’s apparent silence in the wake of my prayers, I also concluded that He was absent, that my prayers were insignificant or annoying, and that He had therefore withdrawn Himself beyond the reach of my voice. Houston challenges this negative perspective, instead offering that perhaps by appearing to withdraw, God has invited me out of a life-stance of absorbing suffering, into a season of allowing those bitter feelings to surface so they might be healed. Likewise, Houston states that only when God is withdrawn, though not ever really absent, can we “learn to know God as God. [A] God who is not our patron, our wish-fulfiller, or the generator of more illusions about ourselves, [but] Himself” (Houston, 111). The experience of God’s presence held me bound to a sensual and narrow understanding of Him that confined and contained his Otherness. His absence has offered me the opportunity to engage with the Mystery of all that He is and is not.
Two further and interrelated concepts have elicited a deep emotional response within me, moving beyond the frozenness that anger has produced in my heart, toward the beginning of a gentle thaw. Despite my frustration and confusion, despite my withdrawal from the Father, despite my angry silence in withholding verbal prayer, an ongoing dialogue within the Trinity has continued on my behalf. Firstly, the Holy Spirit has been praying for me “with groanings too deep for words “(Romans 8:26), and secondly, Jesus himself, sitting at the right hand of the Father, has been interceding for me (Romans 8: 34). The impact of these truths is only begin to stir some measure of transformation within me though I cannot discern or describe the exactness of the change being wrought. I can only say that I am profoundly moved by the idea that when my prayers and others’ prayers seemed to be ineffectual, when my prayer resources were ill-informed, and my well run dry; true, unadulterated prayer has never ceased to ascend on my behalf and find an audience with the Father.
To Jesus’ question of the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” I respond with a repentant inward-turning toward my Center. I would that my vision be restored to wholeness and to its original intent, that the veil of distortion be removed so that I can see my true self and true character of God. I want to be “reparented”, to use Houston’s phrasing, so that I might begin to understand the scope of the Father’s love for me. I desire to learn how to look so fully on Him, that in so doing, I shed the dark mantle of shame that has been overshadowing me, and become radiant with joy! (Ps. 34: 5 paraphrase)
Inward orientation, descending downward
Moving through the dark passages of my humanity
Toward the luminescence of God within