Whenever this dark begins to fall
Whenever I'm vulnerable and small
Whenever I feel like I could die
Whenever I'm holding back the tears that I cry
Whenever I say your name
Whenever I call to mind your face
I'm already praying
—Sting, Whenever I Call Your Name
I have never found it easy to pray as an adult. And it's not that I don't believe I'm not heard. . . . I'll rephrase that: I do believe that I'm heard when I pray; it's just that I don't want to be heard by others when I pray. I've sat through too many prayers that were announcements of this event or that coming up, of appeals for money to refurbish the lobby, tuck in reserves for the dry spells of giving, for the new carpet, for the upcoming evangelistic series, for campmeeting, for this radio ministry and that one, and inevitably, "for all those sitting here tonight who are resisting the sweet call of the Holy Spirit to come forward and surrender all to Jesus."
While I do not doubt the sincerity of those who utter such prayers, I nevertheless am not moved by them. If we need to rally round and give for our causes, just tell me, and I'll do what I can. If you want me to come to the event on the 15th, print it in the bulletin. And if you want me to surrender all, I did that years ago, and I continue to re-enlist on a daily basis. But we are members of a community of faith, one that opens its arms to all those on the Way, no matter what stage of the journey they are on. So, I do not begrudge the offer of salvation to anyone, but I will also politely duck the mighty thunderbolt of guilt hurled by the speaker of the hour. You might call it the jujitsu of faith.
In like manner, I resisted thinly-veiled orders to begin every class I taught with prayer. I understand the intention behind it, I think. It springs from a need to assure the constituents that their college is visibly—and audibly—"religious." There were occasions when I led a class in prayer: when a student was gravely ill, when it seemed we needed assurance or when a tragedy of some magnitude fell upon us all, such as 9/11. Those are the times when a community is walking blind with hands outstretched in the dark, reaching for something familiar. Those are times when the prayers come forth like songs we are hearing for the first time as we sing them. They are not "vain repetitions," they are not sanctified boilerplate nor are they cleverly crafted phrases to close the deal. I think they are God talking to Godself so that we might hear.
In the time-honored tradition of giving a song multiple meanings I have lifted Sting's words off his Sacred Love album, a psalter of songs written as the U.S. and Britain were firing up their weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, a time of a breathless tightness in the throat before the lightning strikes. They speak for me when all I can do is shake my head mutely, as does Paul, the former terrorist, who stands in all humility, whispering that he does not know how to pray but he knows the Spirit hears his groanings and turns them into language that rings through heaven. I have also found comfort in this quote from Ladislaus Boros who says,
As to prayer, people today find it almost impossible to pray. When they shrink from praying, I would say that they are not trying to shrink from God but from themselves in their superficiality, from the hollowness of their own souls. We must make these people understand that waiting in the presence of God, simply being silent in his presence—that is prayer. It is even the deepest thing that one torn apart inside can do in the presence of God. Suffering under the inward incapacity to pray is already prayer.
That would be me, no question. After the thunder and lightning, the earthquake, wind and fire, there is a voice so deep that it resonates in our bones, not in our ears. In a time when lovers quarrel up and down the bandwidth while standing in a checkout line, when the words fall short of the music, when the surreptitious chirp of a tweet can transfix the fooling class, one longs for a moment of silence. But if silence is no longer golden, a commodity in short supply, we can still find it alone within the crowd, for just a moment—that's all we need. Thus, from moment to moment we learn to pray without ceasing.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.
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