Saturday, March 17, 2007

Learning Prayer

God has been teaching me this week. In the first instance, I’ve been learning rather directly from Anthony Bloom’s book, Living Prayer. This is a marvelous book. I tend to have a love-hate relationship with books about prayer. I know there’s something more I need to learn, and so I keep reading new books, but so often I’m unsatisfied.

Every book on prayer, it seems, has a section on unanswered prayer. This is where they usually turn me against them. The typical response (God answers all prayers: yes, no or wait) leaves me so cold as to suspect that the author doesn’t really know any more about prayer than I do, but is repeating taught answers. And this answer is just categorically off target for me.

This is where Metropolitan Anthony’s book won me over. He deals briefly with the misconception that “answers to prayer” are about getting what we prayed for, and then delves into what he’s really interested in. Namely, for him, and for me, the idea of unanswered prayer is more about prayer feeling like monologue – praying and not sensing that God is there. In this, I got the sense that Bloom is doing the same thing when he prays that I’m doing, but he knows far more about it than I do.

Metropolitan Anthony offers several suggestions at this point. First, it may be that we are so busy speaking to God that we don’t give him space to be present. He suggests more intentional silence – a time of standing quietly in God’s presence and only speaking when you can no longer remain silent. Second, it may be that we are placing a false idea of God between us and God. He uses the example of a schoolboy who knows his headmaster by what he does and only years later realizes that he was a man. If we approach God wrongly, but convinced that we know God, we may be praying to an idol who cannot answer. Third, it may be that God has something to teach us by remaining absent. I get the sense that I’m not in that place.

But in addition to this direct instruction two things happened that were connected.

I ride the light rail to work, and everyday on my way to the platform I pass a row of bushes which are growing along side a fence that separates them from the train tracks. Often, I hear a rustling in these bushes. I’ve guessed that there was an animal, probably a squirrel in there. I’ve looked to see it, but I’ve never managed to catch sight of it. Yesterday, as I heard the sound, rather than looking down and into the bush, I took a step toward it, and I saw a bird on the other side of the fence. This is an object lesson for me.

Today, my wife and I are at the Oregon Coast, celebrating our anniversary. I was sitting inside reading for a while, and then I decided I’d like to go out on the balcony and look at the ocean. When I went out, I could see nothing. A thick fog obscured my view. I could hear the roar of the waves. I eventually managed to spot some people walking in the sand, but I couldn’t see the water at all. I stayed and kept watching. Eventually the fog drew back enough that I could see the waves breaking on the shore, but no more. This also is an object lesson.


Brian said...

I think it's the use of cliches that drive me up the wall when dealing with prayer. One parishioner quoted recently "Yes, no, or slow" when we were talking about prayer. I affirmed her response, but secretly wished that pastors everywhere would quit using that language. We simply encourage bumper sticker theology rather than engaging in the life of the Triune God. I think your examples could be fleshed out a little more, but I think I understand what you are saying. At least I sense that they are beyond the cliches.

In The Parish

BruceA said...

It seems to me that the "yes, no, or wait" comes from a radical redefinition of prayer: The idea the prayer is mostly about telling God what we want. But if God really knows us better than we know ourselves, it doesn't even make much sense to ask God for anything.

It sounds like Bloom has some good insights into prayer. I'm going to try to find a copy of his book.

Andy said...

Hi Brian. Thanks for your comments.

I didn't flesh out the examples because I thought they worked better as parables. If I had said more I would have been tempted to allegorize them. :-)

Perhaps I'd have also turned them into cliches.

Andy said...


I completely agree about it not making sense to ask God for anything. And yet, the entire teaching of the Church on prayer is clear that asking is a fundamental part of prayer.

I think it was in C.S. Lewis' Letters to Malcolm that he talks about the difference between being known by God and choosing to be known by God and how this personal element makes prayers of petition of such value.

I sometimes get the sense that the "yes, no or wait" crowd doesn't move beyond petition, though I wouldn't want to judge them harshly. A simple faith has great value.