Friday, November 25, 2011

There be dogs

There’s a house on my regular walking route with a chain-link fence that contains several dogs whose sole purpose in life seems to be to alert the world to the existence of any passersby. I have long since given up being annoyed at them. They’re just dogs, after all.

Their owner, on the other hand, I find to be unbearably annoying. An otherwise nice old lady, albeit a bit eccentric with her dozen animals and cluttered yard and eagerness to chat your ear off about as much as you’re willing to listen to, she has a frustrating impression that she can get her dogs to stop barking by yelling at them. Were this true, I might not mind so much. Yet as it is, with her dogs to alert her of my presence, she comes running to the sidewalk to chat with me whenever I pass by, yelling at her dogs to shut up every couple seconds while she has me stuck there, even telling me to wait there while she goes to the fence to yell at them from at a closer distance. The dogs, of course, never respond.

There be dogs inside my head, as impossible to silence as these lady’s backyard barkers. I never noticed how incessant they are until a friend started a weekly contemplative prayer group in one of the chapels on campus.

“This is not a time to articulate prayers or come to deeper understandings,” he explained. “The monastic tradition holds that God is beyond understanding, and we find him past ‘the cloud of unknowing.’ This is a time to learn the posture of waiting before him, listening, receiving.”

As an academic who spends my day accumulating and interpreting information, I find silence to be a harder a discipline than any I have tried.

“Inevitably, you’ll find yourself thinking,” my friend went on. “Don’t be upset at yourself for doing so; just gently push the thoughts away and return to silence. Sometimes it helps to have a particular word like ‘love’ or ‘Jesus’ to say to push the thoughts away, but don’t meditate on those words; try to quiet yourself before the Lord.”

In these weekly gatherings, I find my attempts to silence my mind to be about as fruitless as the lady’s attempts to silence her dogs, my silencing words about as ineffective as her yells.

The contemplatives call us to let “your thought of self be as naked and simple as your thought of God, so that you may be with God in spirit without fragmentation and scattering of your mind.” My mind is fragmented and scattered indeed, but there is a longing in me to be whole, to be unfragmented, to be listening, to be in his presence without the constraints of my own understanding. One day, I might learn to be silent long enough to begin that journey.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

However long it takes

Over the summer, the small African-American parish I attend near my home had their annual youth vs. adults Father’s Day flag football game. The event was a fundraiser for the youth group and a generally fun time for all.

They had been preparing for months and, when the day came, it was cloudy and drizzly. As one would expect, the priest prayed in mass that morning that the rain would stop for the game, and I returned home rather dubious.

Yet in an hour when I drove to campus for the game, the sun was out, the grass was nearly dry, and the temperature had gone up to the upper 80s.

“We couldn’t have asked for better weather,” I commented to Deacon Alvin.

“Well, of course,” he said with a joyful laugh. “We did pray about it, after all!”

I was startled for a couple seconds, remembering how I had brushed the prayers off earlier that morning. “Funny how we prayer for things and are surprised when they actually happen,” I mused mostly to myself.

Deacon Alvin stopped in his tracks. “Oh, don’t be surprised,” he insisted. “You gotta believe that God is listening to our prayers.”

But truth be told I was surprised, and more inclined to interpret our amazing Father’s Day weather to Mother Nature’s finicky Midwestern temperament than to the intervention of God in response to the prayers of a little urban parish. I had lived in too many farming communities that had prayed for rain in times of drought to imagine that controlling the weather was as easy as asking God, even in times when people’s livelihoods were on the line. I had prayed for homeless friends or urban teenagers who later ended up in prison or back on the streets. If we want to insist that prayers are efficacious, I’d have to do some mental gymnastics to come up with how they could be.

So months later when it was not for good Sunday afternoon weather but for a friend’s safety from a murderous ex-boyfriend that I was praying for, I found myself with as little faith that my prayers were being heard than I had had back in June.

“We pray for so many things that don’t happen,” I cried to Deacon Alvin. “I feel like when I pray, ‘God, please may my friend not get murdered,’ I need those to be the prayers he hears.”

“He will,” Deacon Alvin assured me, with the same confidence that he had about the weather back in June. “You gotta have faith that the God who is hearing your prayers is a loving God who cares about your friend.”

Flashbacks of seemingly unanswered prayers crowded into my memory. “What if I can’t make myself believe that?” I asked with trembling voice.

“Then pray. Keep praying until you do believe, however long it takes.”

I wish I could end this post with a strong note of confidence in a God who is lovingly hearing and acting upon our prayers, especially the seemingly unanswered ones. I have to admit I still struggle to imagine God is acting in the places I have seen raw evil more obviously at work. In the mean time, all I can do is continue to pray “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” until the first part is true, to prepare the places for faith and entreat God to enter. As Deacon Alvin told me, all I can do is to keep praying until I do believe.

However long it takes...