By John Wessel
Note: Our understanding of prayer is always determined by our understanding of the Divine Mystery. We humans can never define that which some call ‘God’ so I choose to use the term Divine Mystery. I do this in this paper except where I refer to the concept of a theistic Being; at such times I then will use the term ‘God’, a term which is still used by orthodox Christianity.
Prayer is the experience of meeting the Divine Mystery.
Prayer comes in my living and in my engaging the lives of others.
Prayer is entering into the pain and joy of another not just in words but in action; how I actually relate to them in life’s journey;
Prayer is being totally present, sharing love, opening my life to the possibility of incarnation by the spirit of this Divine Mystery.
Prayer is the struggle for human justice.
Prayer is found in the centre of life.
Prayer is part of who I am.
The pre-modern understanding of a theistic God was of a male, anthropomorphic, supernatural being that is separated from, and outside of life, dwelling just above the clouds and who periodically visits life on Earth, one who is in control of everything and can change the natural order of things. If such an understanding in the postmodern world can no longer be believed because of a completely different worldview from that of the 1st century, this does not mean that one does not believe in a Divine Mystery but simply, does not believe in a theistic understanding or definition of God. If our understanding of this Divine Mystery changes then our understanding of prayer must change also. Let us never forget that we humans can never describe the Divine Mystery, we do not have the language or comprehension; we can only experience it and only because the Divine Mystery is present to and is infused with everything that exists.
To put things in their right perspective we need to understand that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were people of their time. They lived in a world of demon possession that was thought to be the cause of illness and natural disasters. An unseen power they called God gave them security. Beyond their geographical area they had little concept of the world they lived in let alone that of the wider universe. Like them, we are people of our time and our understanding is also limited and our knowledge is rapidly changing. We now know that our galaxy is so wide that light travelling at 300,000 km a second takes 100,000 years to cross it. Astronomers now estimate that there are more than 300 billion galaxies, each with billions and billions and billions of stars.
What does all this information about the Universe, that the writers of the Gospels did not have, do to our image of this Divine Mystery? Surely, we might be wary of the ways we have “boxed”, localised, and limited the Divine Mystery within the confines of our own images. I have photos taken by the Hubble Telescope; one photo is of the Sombrero Galaxy – 28 million light years from earth. Its dimensions are spectacular. It has 800 billion suns and is 50,000 light years across. Where is this God who is just above the clouds? Where is the ‘place’ called ‘Heaven’ the dwelling place of this God? This is why I choose not to try to describe the Divine or accept the first century definition of a theistic Being but to simply speak of it as a ‘Divine Mystery’ and leave it at that.
If the Divine Mystery is not “out there”, to whom do we address our prayers? Are we simply mouthing pious words into the air? I have struggled with this for a number of years. Then in March 2004 a new light beamed, at least, for me. Jesus the man embodied in himself the Wisdom and meaning of this Divine Mystery so much so that on reflection people believed they had met this Mystery and its meaning in him. The Gospels are man’s attempt to put into words what they believed about Jesus using the worldview of their day and the cultural/religious traditions of the Jewish faith/ history. Jesus lived the love that this Divine Mystery has for all people in such a way that the Mystery within directed the purpose of his entire adult life so much that he was prepared to die rather than let this meaningful relationship go. Following his death, the Easter experience enabled his followers to see that the meaning of this Mystery for the world, that they had seen in him, was released in such a way that they too were able to also live into its meaning; and that this same Spirit was also alive in them, in their love and in their life just as it had been in Jesus. That was what the metaphorical stories of the Resurrection and Pentecost are all about. That same Love and Life is also incarnate in all of us irrespective of race, religion or culture. Traditionally, we Christians have always offered verbal prayers to the theistic God “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let us now take that one small step further.
If we offer our prayer, which is our life, in the same spirit that Jesus offered his then we too, like Jesus, can enter into the same Wisdom and be drawn into its meaning. This was the Pentecost experience, a spirit filled experience. This becomes for us a meeting place with the Divine Mystery, a relationship, an incarnation in us. It then opens the way for me to engage others, to enter their pain and their joy, share love, and become present to them even though they may not be physically near. It opens for me an opportunity to enter the struggle for human justice, for unconditional love and for a barrier free world; it becomes important if I ever hope to discover who I am - it is a spiritual experience, a spiritual journey. This activity is now my prayer or to put it another way, the way I live my life is my prayer.
This however means that the content of my prayer changes. I no longer seek a distant God to alter the natural order of things to suit my desires. Rather, I seek within myself the resurrected spirit of Jesus to enable me to see the path I need to travel so that I too might be open to the Divine Mystery and grow into its meaning for my life and for my world. Such a journey, in the spirit of Jesus’ life, will enable me to see how I can meditate on life that is completely inclusive, accepting, loving, forgiving, one that seeks wholeness, is selfless, giving, seeks peace for myself and the world; that is caring, humane and compassionate.
Such a relationship with this Mystery within and beyond will enable me to actually live into the power of the resurrected spirit of Jesus in my life. This is now how I see myself in prayer. Sure, as I grow, I will desire to hold loved ones within such a Mystery, but not to change the natural tapestry that is woven into the very fabric of life with its joys and sorrows, its laughter and its tears but simply, in love, to share with them, through my life which is my prayer, that I may enter their happiness and their pain as I, in this manner, engage their life situation. Such prayer is not so much about talking to or addressing the Divine Mystery, but rather about deepening my awareness that this Mystery - the Breath of Life present throughout the universe – that comes to visible expression in me.
Such prayer opens for me, not only a relationship with the Wisdom and the meaning of the Divine that I see in Jesus but also, in a realistic way, opens a special relationship with those for whom I ‘pray’. I like the comment by John Spong:
I seek to find some experience inside my life that might correspond to that which drove our ancestors in faith into the activity they called prayer. I discover in my own depths a spiritual desire, an internal yearning, to be more deeply the person I am and thus to become one who is more capable of giving myself to others.... In this experience I discover a new sense of what it means to be fully human.
It leads me beyond prayer as we once knew it to words such as ‘meditation’, ‘contemplation’, ‘reflection’ and ‘life-encounter’. These words help me to begin to see a new definition of prayer and a new challenge for my life to grow into and become a living prayer.
For further reading and prayers see “Praying a New Story” by Michael Morwood. P.O. Box 613 Carnegie Vic. 3163.