Praying from Privilege

I’ve always loved this scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I often repeat the line, “Did you see what God just did to us?” after something relatively minor happens that didn’t quite go my way, even if (*especially if) whatever happened was my own fault. Just the other day I channeled my inner Benicio Del Torro and tweeted that God hated me because my Macbook power supply stopped working. It’s my subtle attempt to mock the way we approach God, assuming she is out there, worrying about the problems resulting from a life a privilege and decadence. For instance, we have lost the keys and we’re late for an important meeting……”God, where are my keys. Help me find them, PLEASE….GOD!!!” Not stopping for a minute to think that having a car at all is massive privilege that the vast majority of human beings on planet earth could only dream about. Or let’s say you’re on your way to Vegas in a convertible and the bag of cocaine on your lap somehow opens as your stash blows away in the wind. Just think of all the cocaine you have left in your stash and be grateful, right?

Richard Beck, one of my favorite bloggers and theologians, points to a great article that deals with this very dilemma. The article, written by Stephen Weathers, can be found at the Examiner.com – “The Predicaments of Praying from Privilege,”

“In the grand scheme of history, I have never confronted the magnitude of difficulty that befell the vast majority our human ancestors. Pestilence, famine, tribal warfare, drought, sytematic persecution, discrimination, religious violence and hunger are alien concepts to me. I confront them only as newspaper headlines. If I even look around the globe today, the global nexus of journalism opens my western mind to distant moral epidemics that I cannot even contemplate. Oppression of women, the poor and racial minorities around the world is simply staggering.
I set up this rather general backdrop because therein lies my spiritual conundrum. How do I pray before God, taking into account the rather miniscule weight of my problems?”

For me, this hits the nail on the head. I often find myself just ending prayers abruptly in mid-sentence as I hear myself saying things and can only imagine God rolling her eyes at my petty petitions. God doesn’t give a shit about my career or my Macbook power supply. If that’s the case I might as well pray to God that she sees to it that Sam Adams brews their Octoberfest beer all year long.

When I’ve confessed this with those close to me, I often get the push back that I’m limiting God and that may very well be true. But if God gave me this brain and this is the brain where things have to make sense, then I can’t really take seriously the thought that God is concerned with the vast majority of whatever personal problems I might experience from day to day.

This is why contemplative prayer appeals to me. It leaves petitions at the door and creates the space to open ourselves to what God petitions for us. Our circumference problems, our ego, our bags of cocaine dissipate into the wind. Only then can we sit silently, allowing the noise of our desires to slowly fade while we wait for God’s voice to fill the void.

Awaken Us

The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him. If we get rid of that thought, our troubles will be greatly reduced. We fail to believe that we are always with God and that He is part of every reality. The present moment, every object we see, our inmost nature are all rooted in Him. But we hesitate to believe this until personal experience gives us the confidence to believe in it. This involves the gradual development of intimacy with God. God constantly speaks to us through each other as well as from within. The interior experience of God’s presence activates our capacity to perceive Him in everything else–in people, in events, in nature. We may enjoy union with God in any experience of the external senses as well as in prayer.

Contemplative prayer is a way of awakening to the reality in which we are immersed. We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us. Our awareness, unfortunately, is no awake to that dimension of reality. The purpose of prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual disciplines is to awaken us.

–Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart

Face to Face with the Sham

“Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and “contemplative” tradition in the Church than a kind of gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary Christian by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and experience, delivering him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross. The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the “consolation of prayer” for it’s own sake. This “self” is pure illusion, and must end either in disgust or in madness.

On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called “worldly life,” in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit. The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more “bearable” because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes–and also with oppourtunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness. But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential “dread”– a sense of insecurity, of “lostness”, of exile, of sin. A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth. “Dread” in this sense is not simply a childish fear of retribution, or a naive guilt, a fear of violating taboos. It is the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with himself and with others: that one is living a lie.”

Thomas Merton — “Contemplative Prayer”

Silence, Work, and Suffering

008.JPGLast year a friend of mine, Adam Walker Cleaveland, the CEO of Pomomusings, gave me the book “A Year With Thomas Merton”. It’s a collection of entries from Merton’s journals that are broken up for each day of the Year. When Adam gave me the book I knew of Merton but had never read any of his writings. I must say that I am very much in debt to Adam for sharing with me this wonderful collection of insights from Merton. Even though Green Day tickets might have had a higher monetary value than a Thomas Merton book, Adam certainly got the short end of the stick in this instance. I read this entry this morning and it confronted me in a very strong way:

November 14 – Truth in Silence, Work and Suffering

We talk of God when He has gone far from us. (We are far from Him and His nearness remains to accuse us!) We live as if God existed for our sakes, figuring that we exist for Him. We use grace as if it were matter handed over to form according to our pleasure. We use the truth of God as material for the fabrication of idols. We forget that we are the matter and His grace is the form imposed upon us by His wisdom. Does the clay understand the work of the potter? Does it no allow itself to be formed into a vessel of election?

The truth is formed in silence and work and suffering—with which we become true. But we interfere with God’s work by talking too much about ourselves—even telling Him what we ought to do—advising Him how to make us perfect and listening for His voice to answer us with approval. We soon grown impatient and turn aside from the silence that disturbs us (the silence in which His work can best be done), and we invent the answer and the approval which will never come.

Silence, then, is the adoration of His truth. Work is the expression of our humility, and suffering is born of the love that seeks one thing alone: that God’s will be done.

–November 12, 1952

This entry reminds me very much of Richard Rohr’s fantastic book “Everything Belongs” in which he suggests that when we engage in prolonged, silent prayer and meditation, our agenda and selfish desires begin to evaporate. After about twenty minutes of silent prayer and reflection, we will begin to run out of our own material, our spiritual laundry list for God to deal with. Only when our agenda begins to subside are we then able to hear God’s voice. To do this is often a painful yet illuminating process of emptying ourselves of our selfishness and insecurities. The greatest hope of all in this life and the next is the promise that God will meet us there and fill that emptiness with his acceptance and everlasting love.