by Eric Nelson, guest contributor
photo: C. Jill Reed/Flickr, cc by-sa 2.0
In honor of the 60th National Day of Prayer today, I thought it fitting to share a bit about what prayer means to me.
Most recently I’ve been thinking of prayer as an unmistakable reminder from God that I’m not helpless and alone in this world. These reminders come not just during moments of peaceful reflection but during even the busiest of days as I find myself appreciating qualities of God I see expressed by others — qualities such as patience, compassion, grace, wisdom, order, intelligence, and joy.
I find these reminders are essential, especially when circumstances leave me feeling utterly helpless. Most challenging, perhaps, are those times when I’m not feeling up to snuff physically, whether it’s something minor or a more serious condition.
For instance, a few years back I found myself lying flat on my back in excruciating pain. I had trouble getting out of bed, standing, sitting, walking — even thinking clearly. Although I was never examined by a doctor, all indicators were that I was suffering from a bad case of sciatica.
I’m sure I could have availed myself of any number of remedies. However, based on previous experience, it seemed to me that prayer would likely be the quickest and most effective of them all.
For some, I suppose prayer is about going to God and pleading for a miracle to happen. For me, it’s a reminder of God’s care; in this case the specific reminder — inspired by my study of the Bible and the teachings of Christian Science — that health is not a physical condition but the natural and perpetual expression of wholly spiritual qualities like strength, stamina, and flexibility.
I’d like to say my recovery was immediate. It wasn’t; it took at least a couple of weeks. But it was steady. And complete. And permanent. The really good news is that this healing left me feeling better physically and spiritually; that is, not only did my body feel more flexible but my thinking about others and myself did, too.
Regardless of one’s faith tradition, being reminded that you’re neither helpless nor alone can go a long way towards healing the ills of this world, both individually and collectively, mentally and physically. This, in and of itself, is a rather nice reminder as well.
Eric Nelson lives in Hayward, California and serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. He also works as a Christian Science practitioner, helping those interested in relying solely on the power of prayer for healing.
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by Susan Leem, associate producer
On Being has made an identity shift, expanding its scope to exploring questions about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. But our host Krista Tippett still asks her guests a key question during the interview about their religious or spiritual traditions in their formative years. And for a producer, it’s like watching her turn the key in the ignition.
The question always propels the guest somewhere unexpected even if, and maybe especially if, it’s a “no.” It really disarms them; you can almost hear their shoulders release and sit back a bit through the mic. Maybe they’re surprised that a radio host wants to know them as a human being and not just as a pundit or a preacher.
On Thursday, Minnesota Public Radio asked its listeners a similar question: “Do you pray?” And I’m dying to know the people behind these wise and sometimes humorous comments:
"Every day, throughout the day."
Posted by Philip | April 21, 2011 10:16 AM
"I NEVER pray to ask God. I ONLY pary (sic) to thank God for what I have. It doesn’t make sense to pary (sic) to ask as if God will hold back on something you need and say ‘oh, you prayed so here’. Just doesn’t make sense. I finish that by saying I’m not sure if there is some one listening to my prayer but if I’m wrong, I rather be worng by praying to no one than not praying while God was waiting for a prayer."
Posted by Mike | April 21, 2011 10:07 AM
"As an atheist, none. But, I certainly appreciate the potential of thoughtful introspection that often arises from prayer. Centering one’s self and understanding your needs (wants?) is important to all of us and if prayer may do that for some."
Posted by Brian Ropers-Huilman | April 21, 2011 9:55 AM
"Given the state of the world, and humanity’s glaring incompetence to deal with its own problems so far, what else is there to do?"
Posted by Steve the Cynic | April 21, 2011 8:09 AM
"Good God no."
Posted by J | April 21, 2011 8:00 AM
"As long as I can remember, even when my family went to mass weekly, I have always, always had a hard time with prayer. I kind of wonder if it’s not what help lead me to lack faith in Christianity as an adult. However, there is one exception: I’ll still say a Hail Mary or two in especially stressful situations. I’ve always done that, and I find it’s almost a reflex."
Posted by vjacobsen | April 21, 2011 7:44 AM
About the image: Krista interviews Avivah Zornberg during this year’s production trip to Israel and the West Bank. (photo: Trent Gilliss)Comments
by Pádraig Ó Tuama, guest contributor
A sign hangs on the wall of a Taizé community in Burgundy, France. (photo: forteller/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
It is Easter week. This week, we remember the events from Thursday’s meal to Friday’s torture to Saturday’s silence and Sunday’s mystery.
Years ago, 13 years ago in fact, I fell apart. I was 22 and I had already been sick for a year. It had started with a bad flu that had never gone away. After 12 months, I was bewildered and dizzy and achy, confused with a fatigue and an illness that would take a further five years to diagnose and a total of nine years to recover from.
Up until that point, I hadn’t spent much time contemplating chronic illness. However, after a year of being ill, hearing doctors’ opinions, berating myself with my own opinions, I was firmly contemplating chronic illness. When you are chronically ill, there are some things to learn — you must learn to relate to your sickness, and you must learn to relate to your feelings about being sick. In the face of these two lessons, I was gutted with a raw fear in the face of the unknown.
For Lent that year, I read a chapter of Job every day. It was less a religious exercise and more an exercise of survival. I needed some kind of echo of the bewilderment, loneliness, and confusion. Job became a friend. I heard his grief, and I heard his sadness.
Taizé community celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (photo: Damien Mathieu/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
And, for the last two weeks of Easter in 1998, I went to a monastery in eastern France for two weeks of silence. Looking back on it, it might seem unwise — responding to a hollowness inside me by going to a place of silence. I don’t know what prompted me to go, but I went. I was welcomed by a gentle monk who showed me to my small room and told me that it might not be a good idea to read all the time.
“Il faut écouter, avec les oreilles de tendresse, à ton propre silence,” he said. “You must listen, with ears of tenderness, to your own silence.”
Ha! I was petrified of that silence. I read The Lord of the Rings in five days flat.
It took 11 days before I began to relax. By that time, it was Holy Thursday, and the time when the Last Supper is remembered. That morning, the brother spoke to the pilgrims gathered for a few minutes after breakfast to set a tone of inspiration for the day. He noted how Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, “I have earnestly desired this meal.”
He didn’t paint a picture of a Nazarene who ran to the arms of Roman torture willingly, but he depicted a character who believed enough in a way of life to take that way of life to the death. The monk spoke about how Jesus lived the last days of his life in a way that was faithful to the life he’d always lived — calling enemies and dispossessed ones “friends,” having concern for his mother, accepting help from a Cyrenian stranger, looking for moments of life while life itself was draining away.
I don’t know what happened, but somehow, I began to breathe. I remember I was sitting in a chapel, listening to a German nun tune an eclectic zoo of musicians into some kind of harmony. Nothing cataclysmic occurred — it was just that I began to fear my own darkness a little less. I began to feel where I had only known numb and lonely survival. I began to feel that if I am here, then perhaps I am here with a companion. There were few words of prayer; there was a deep sense of accompaniment. I began to recognise that I didn’t need the words to describe the chronic illness that was indescribable.
That Easter Sunday I cried. Not because of some miraculous resurrection. I had eight long years to wait before my health began to improve. I cried because, in the words of an old monk, I heard an echo of an understanding that went beyond words, and, in that echo there was companionship.
Tree at Taizé community in France. (photo: etch indelibly in the mind/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Years later, when studying theology, I came across Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar is noted for many things, one of which is his poetic retelling of Christ’s descent into hell. He said, “Jesus descended into hell. He is dead with us, and disturbs our loneliness. … God, in the weakness of love enters into solidarity with us who find ourselves damning ourselves, in the form of the crucified brother abandoned by God…and in such a way that is clear to the sinner that God-the-Forsaken is so for my sake.”
Each year on Easter Sunday I find myself moved. Not because there is a happy ever after ending to all of our stories. It is quite clear that there is not. I am moved because of a sacred echo of a hope that there is solidarity for those who feel like we inhabit a small hell of our own experience. The hope of Easter doesn’t damn this hell with a bleaching light. Rather this hope enters and squats with us. The celebrations of Holy Week for me are not about cataclysmic resurrections, but about being moved to follow in the life of the Nazarene, bravely entering into loneliness with a small spring of consoling company.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, a native of Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland as a faith & peace worker of the Irish Peace Centres. His poetry and writing can be found at Hold Your Self Together.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments