Something Like a Phenomenology of Crisis and Prayer

Let me say up front that nothing written here is to be understood as paradigmatic. I am simply trying to describe, for my own clarity, these present experiences that are my own and no one else’s. If I speak in generic terms, it is because this is my academic training.

When one’s life is going well, one simply tries to observe regularity of prayer. One might try this or that added prayer. One might shorten or lengthen one’s prayer rule. One might work to emphasize the “spontaneous” or “arrow” prayers that one is given occasion–or takes thought on occasion–to pray. But the orientation, it seems to me, is simply the work of regularity.

Which of course means the development of attention. So why is it that when a crisis emerges, even if such a crisis has populated one’s fears for months–even if one has no illusions as to the origins of such a crisis, however deserved or not, in one’s choices and acts–it is experienced with something like hurt surprise and shock? Hadn’t I been paying attention? Apparently not.

But now the attention is most markedly drawn. The wound hurts and I gravitate toward its central force. And now a most difficult choice is presented to me, a decision about pathways and the sort of life one will lead in light of this present pain. Do I accept it, or do I reject it? To reject it is the “natural” course. Pain wrenches and irritates. It is a fearful thing for we know intuitively I think that the acceptance of pain need not end in its mastery. Pain can consume us. Pain portends death, though of two kinds. One is a death of potential resurrection, the other of a sort of annihilation. And yet rejecting the pain is nothing more than another path of narcotization. We will find our balm in the illusion of control and superstition (if I pray more, work harder, if I somehow do something that will move and obligate God to me . . .), or in anesthetization and addiction (the escape of distractive pursuits and of alcohol and drugs). So the only option that presents a possibility of not just survival but of transfiguration is to accept the pain. To give to it that sort of hospitality that denudes one of just the sort of security I seek against that pain. I do not know if I will be consumed by the pain or outlast it. I have only this one guarantee, if I am in Christ, our man-befriending God will not let me be tempted beyond what I am able to bear but will with such a temptation provide a way of escape.

I cannot say this with any authority, but it seems to me that this verse and its promise of escape does not obviously guarantee an escape from the pain. It is, rather, I think, an escape into Christ, wherein lies the strength I do not have to endure and the faith I yet still lack to believe in the goodness and mercy of God.

So. Against every fiber of my being, I attempt to accept the pain. This acceptance is, of course, not a once and final act. It is a sort of hospitality to one’s enemy that must at times be enacted moment by moment. For I cannot see how it is that one will ever reach a state beyond which it will never be possible to fall. Not prior to the eschaton. I do believe there are saints who attain this dispassion in this life, make no mistake. And perhaps their souls become so fixed in virtue prior to the end that they will never fall. I just do not know how one could ever know that. And the lives of these very saints are full of stories of those who thought they so knew themselves, and yet they fell.

I cannot adequately describe, I do not think, what it is to consciously, often moment by moment, play host to the pain wrought by these crises I encounter. I cannot describe it because I am not sure I am doing it. I think I stand somewhere between the path of rejection and the path of acceptance. I strive only to not reject the pain. I’m not sure I have yet striven to embrace it. But, if I am not mistaken, it is the embrace that is required of me.

I mean by that simply this: All that God has given me is this present moment. If I am not attentive, prayerfully conscious of this moment, I will miss the very presence of God who, I can only claim by sheer faith, by providence allowed this pain. It is here, it is now that God has acted, and I will rejoice in him. It is here, it is now that is the moment of salvation. I must not let my heart be hardened as did they at Massah and Meribah.

Let me try again. It is here, it is now, it is right in this very place that God is. It is by embracing this now, in all its particularity, with as much holy awareness as I can muster and God will work in me, that I embrace the God who dwells in it. By shrinking back, then, I shrink back from him who is my only hope and consolation.

Because there is one thing I know to be true: God ascended the Cross, he descended into hell, he rose from the dead and he ascended into heaven. God became man and dwelt bodily among us. This God as the Incarnate Jesus suffered and was buried. He himself cried the cosmic cry of dereliction, calling out with the voice of the entire creation and all humankind, with the voice of the divine Son who brought us to himself: My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?

These nail-scarred hands are here in this moment if I will but see them, by faith, of course, with a single eye. In grasping the pain that is the center of this very now, this very here, I clasp hands with him who can draw me up from the waters.

A Psalm of David, 68.

Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. I am stuck fast in the mire of the deep, and there is no sure standing. I am come into the deeps of the sea, and a tempest hath overwhelmed me. I am grown weary with crying, my throat is become hoarse; from my hoping in my God, mine eyes have failed me. . . . But as for me, with my prayer I cry unto Thee, O Lord; it is time for Thy good pleasure. O God, in the multitude of Thy mercy hearken unto me, in the truth of Thy salvation. Save me from the mire, that I be not stuck therein; let me be delivered from them that hate me and from the deeps of the waters. Let not the tempest of water overwhelm me, nor let the deep swallow me up, nor let the pit shut its mouth upon me. Hearken unto me, O Lord, for Thy mercy is good; according to the multitude of Thy compassions, look upon me. Turn not Thy countenance away from Thy servant, for I am afflicted; quickly hearken unto me. . . .

Of course, this very psalm is a psalm of the Christ, that which Christ himself fulfilled, and so, in him am I rescued from these waters, this mire, this tempest and slick footing.

But saying and doing, and doing and continuing to do are different things, joined only by prayer and the energetic gracious work of God in and on the soul.

Where before prayer was about regularity, now these things for me fall to the side, and prayer becomes the continual cry of intensity. When once one fought to stay attentive in one’s prayers, now one’s attention is too close. Where once the heart fought off boredom, now one is immersed in a single monochromatic though sharp experience. The tears that come are not the grace of repentance, at least not for me, but the anguish of existence in the consequences of sin, not the least of which are one’s own sins.

The struggle now becomes, it seems to me–and I speak here with no authority–not that of attentiveness, but rather the temptation to superstition, to bargaining. One conditions the pain to one’s repentance. Ah, see, Lord, I now know what it is you have had to teach me. Now, let me go free of this. Or, If you punished the sinner, O Lord, who could stand? Or, I am too weak to endure more, please let it end. But this is not much different than the patient telling the surgeon he has cut enough, and anyway, the inflamed appendix can be endured.

No, I think I have come to learn–but to say that I have learned it is a bit much at this point–that only God knows truly how long the endurance of pain will be salvific. And one can be quite surprised at the layers of dead soul that such painful crises can slough away.

And this is all I can say. May the Lord sift the truth from falsehood here. I am not yet host to the pain of these present circumstances. I am not yet delivered. I am simply here. And, I trust by faith alone, so, too is Christ, his Most Holy Mother, St. John, St. Benedict, Blessed Seraphim and all the saints. Who also pray for me.

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