Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Listening to the Sacred Silence

I believe it was Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes who once asked Mother Theresa of Calcutta about prayer; "What do you say when you are praying to God?" She replied, "Nothing, I just listen." "Then what do you hear God say" asked Wallace and Mother Theresa replied "nothing, he just listens."
Today marks the beginning of the Lenten Journey for me and all those who are struggling to walk with Jesus in this life. Prayer is an important element in this journey and the above story is a reminder that the practice of prayer is more important then the words of prayer. To listen is to focus on the other without distraction and to be prepared to respond to what is being heard. Mother Theresa's words are a reminder that the Divine is as interested in focusing on us as we are in focusing on the Divine. Prayer is the act of being present, available, open, and sensitive to God's Spirit. Isn't this attitude essential to the growth of any relationship? Going for a walk with my spouse of 40 years is a joy not because of what we might say during the activity but because we are walking together, breathing the same air, seeing the same sights, and enjoying the presence of the other. This is similar to what happens in the act of prayer.
Now I am not saying that words are not important but that they follow the act of listening not proceed it. Achieving an attitude of receptiveness is foundational to the prayerfull conversation. Without that foundation prayer becomes a list of wishes and wants. Glenn Liebman writes in today's Albany times Union; "There will be a lot of theories why the Giants won the Super Bowl, but I will let you in on the real secret. Two hours before the game, I took my son and his friend to the Giants' practice field at UAlbany and both said a prayer for the Giants." While I am thankful for the Giants' victory I don't believe it was because of divine intervention. These kind of prayers treat God as Santa Clause and we are terribly disappointed when our wishes are not granted.
Even answered prayer can fall far short of delivering the results that we want. I am reminded of the story of the four Rabbi who had a weekly theological discussion in which three of the Rabbi would gang up on the one and try to convince hin that they were right. One day the odd man out got so frustrated that he prayed out loud, "God, if I am right, send a sign to convince my collegues." Immediately, on this clear day, a cloud formed blocking the sun and there was a single boom of thunder. Then the cloud disappaited as quickly as it had formed. The three Rabbi remarked that it was simply a weather phenomena and didn't prove anything. So the other Rabbi prayed again, "Lord, if I am right please send another sign." No sooner were the words out of his mouth then the sky became completely covered with storm clouds, there is a boom of thunder and one lightening strike. The three Rabbi responded in disbelief. "Why even this could be explained by natural laws. It doesn't prove anything." The other Rabbi was about to send out another prayer pleading for a bigger sign when a voice boomed out of the heavens. "Hey, he's right!" After a moment of stunned silence the three Rabbi turned to the other and said; "So, now the vote is three to one."
Author Anne Lamont suggests three kinds of prayer. "Help me! Help me!, Thank You! Thank You!, and Wow!" I like prayers that our honest like this one by Richard J. Foster;
I am, O God, a jumbled mass of motives.
One moment I am adoring you, and the next I am shaking my fist at you.
I vacillate between mounting hope, and deepening despair.
I am full of faith, and full of doubt.
I want the best for others, and am jealous when they get it.
Even so, God, I will not run from your presence.
Nor will I pretend to be what I am not.
Thank you for accepting me with all my contradictions.

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