I want to thank every one who has commented on previous posts or emailed me regarding the present end to my PhD pursuits. Your words have been an encouragement beyond the simple need.
I have been particularly mindful of the comments that an online radio host, whom I greatly respect, has left, as they have paralleled words from another counselor and my own self-reflections. I have been thinking of things like vocation, this Protestant notion of “call,” the will of God and prudential wisdom in our choicemaking, but most especially of prayer.
Things changed for me in a very radical way the day of my chrismation. I experienced a reorientation that has drastically altered my understanding of, to borrow a phrase, “our life in Christ.” Although that reorientation was conceptually anticipated (you can see evidence of the wrestling and anticipation in the various posts of this blog in the months preceding our chrismation). I am ashamed to admit, that, at forty years old, my basic prayer practice has been almost wholly oriented around instrumentality. To paraphrase the late Richard Rorty, “prayer is what we use to get what we want.” Lord, forgive me.
Most of what I knew prayer to be was praise, requests, and thanksgiving. Praise, of course, was primarily utilitarian. Not usually, or, rather, not consciously, a verbal pre-payment for expected service, but it at least was to get the pray-er in the right frame of mind to ask for his or her requests properly. Then there were the requests. We were to submit all our requests to God, as Scripture indicated, but, being a Restoration Movement Christian, I was always concerned about whether or not my requests were proper. After all, God would not grant a request that violated his own will, but one could rationalize a lot of that for which one asked. And of course thanksgiving was the final installment in the payment for the requests granted.
I’m hyperbolizing quite a bit, of course, to make a point. But it is not an exagerration to say that my prayer life was primarily about asking God for things. Among the difficulties of this view—not the least of which was that this perspective turns God into an idol of one’s own making, and, more blasphemously, that one could, by prayer, “manipulate” “God” into blessing one’s own will and desires—was that one’s faith and relationship to God began to be predicated on how many successful withdrawals one can make from the heavenly ATM. Getting one’s requests indicated a “successful” prayer life and put one at some “stature” as a “mature” and “praying” Christian. After all, the more of one’s requests God answered, had to indicate God’s favor. Right?
This was all I knew regarding prayer for nearly all these past four decades. But, on my chrismation, I learned directly that prayer is much more than a bunch of checkmarks in the yes column of one’s prayer request list. (An excellent resource is the two part interview with Abbot Jonah: part 1 and part 2 [both are mp3 files]). The wonder of it all, of course, is that God does condescend to us in our gross sinfulness and out of love does answer our needs and requests. Even when we turn God into the idol of a heavenly ATM, even when, may we be forgiven, we attempt to turn God into a divine Pavlovian dog.
What sort of utterly mysterious and deeply loving God is this who stoops to our level out of no other reason than that he loves us? What mouth-stopping wonder that even though it risks confirming us in our utilitarian immaturity in prayer, God still embraces us with his unbounded love and grants us our needs and requests!
But on the day of my chrismation, my prayer idol was thrown down. I learned that prayer is not anything like what I once knew. Conceptually, of course, I could pay service to these notions, yet it was like teaching my daughter to say “entelecheia.” Her voice and lips could properly repeat the word, but she would not then be an Aristotelian and would still have no idea what it meant. I could repeat the concept of the experience of God in prayer, and maybe even sound as though I knew something. But I was nothing so great as flatulence in a windswept desert. Then, in the Sacraments, Christ gave me Himself. Then was when my education in prayer began. Then I realized I knew nothing of prayer.
In the past, when I prayed for my own needs and those of others, I exerted quite some energy in detailing my request. I knew God knew it all, but still somehow felt compelled to dot i’s and cross t’s. It was, of course, more of this programmatic “God” idol.
But it has dawned on me, event though I’ve used the little red Antiochian prayerbook for years, that the Church gives me the words “be mindful of . . .” persons in various stations and circumstances. “Be mindful, O Lord, of those who travel by land, by sea and by air” (and I will usually insert the first names of those I know to be traveling). That’s all. No, “and make sure they can leave on time, and make sure they are kept safe, and make sure they arrive on time, and . . . and . . .” Just, “be mindful, O Lord, of them.” Keep them in mind. Hold them in your thought.
What more does one need than that?
I am reminded of a citation from Nicholas Cabasilas I posted more than a year ago (had the concept, didn’t know a thing):
[W]hy is it that, whereas the priest asks them to pray for so many different things, the faithful in fact ask for one thing only–mercy? Why is this the sole cry they send forth to God?
In the first place, as we have already said, it is because this prayer implies both gratitude and confession. Secondly, to beg God’s mercy is to ask for his kingdom, that kingdom which Christ promised to give to those who seek it, assuring them that all things else of which they have need will be added unto them [Matt. 6.33]. Because of this, this prayer is sufficient for the faithful, since its application is general.
Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, (SVS Press, 1960/2002), p. 47
This is why the Jesus Prayer is so powerful, it seems to me. It includes it all. We former Protestants are wont to think of mercy in terms of juridical forgiveness. And there is that, to be sure. But God’s mercy is simply the greatness of his love. His mercy is his love for us, a love that desires for us all that we need, all that we are created to be, and the reception of all Himself in his goodness. Being creatures, we are united to Him in His divine activities: His mercy, His compassion, His sanctification, His forgiveness, His healing, His love.
Prayer, I am only just beginning to see, is very simple: be mindful, have mercy. It is to embrace and hold Him, and to be embraced and held by Him. That effort to embrace Him in prayer is such a struggle. For our sins and passions weight our arms, distract our minds, and cause his love to be experienced as burning and pain. And yet, out of His incomprehensible love, He comforts us in the pain and with the burning, warming us, comforting us. We are at once sorrowful and joyous. At once ashamed, and driven by the boldness of love. We plead mercy, are embraced in His mercy, and plead more mercy, and are the more enfolded in His amazing and terrible and wonderful and awful compassion and tenderness.
I have no way to figure out what is going on with this PhD failure. Perhaps it has all been a big error, an idol, a grand rationalization. Or, maybe I “had it right” and yet it was only to be for a season. Or maybe the whole thing is adiaphora and it only feels so painful because I have reified my desire into “God’s will.” I don’t know. And I’m not sure, at least for now, that I should spend very much effort trying to analyze this.
It is enough for now to simply wrestle with my disappointment and sorrow. And to hold God in prayer and be held by Him, pained by this consuming fire, and yet withal warmed and comforted, too.
Lord, have mercy.