We cannot ever understand the nature and actions of God, who is by definition unknowable except as he lets himself be known to us; what we need is a symbolic language which can allow us to represent to ourselves how we understand God in relation to existence. Liturgy, doctrine and the whole equipment of religions provide this. If I as a Quaker come to discard these, I at any rate must ensure that I do still have access to a symbolic language of some sort, even to be able to talk to myself about God.
In The Mercy Blog last year I wrote,
I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.
Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.
To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed throughout his life, death and resurrection.
Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)
If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.
What is prayer, though? Without some form of symbolic language for it, I find prayer almost impossible to think about. I imagine that in some way I do it unawares, yet to pray intentionally I find I need something to intend. Compassion – suffering with – brings the need for prayer into focus, sometimes into acute focus. Inarticulate though that heart’s cry may be, it needs a carrier wave even for the assent of the waking heart to its pain.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote,
A person may go on pondering deeply in intense emotion about his needs, about the need of the moment. That is not yet prayer. Adding “in the name of God” to it will not make it prayer. It is the cry of anguish which becomes a realization of God’s mercy that constitutes prayer. It is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God’s mercy. That is prayer… It may last a moment but it is the essence of a lifetime.
The Insecurity of Freedom, with thanks to inward/outward
It is that turning to God and trusting in his mercy that for me needs some kind of pivot on which to turn. In meeting for worship the act itself, the presence of Friends, the nature of silence among us, provides that. Alone, or with one other, I am returned again and again to the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…
I wrote in The Mercy Blog,
Intercessory prayer, at least the intercession of the contemplative, does not mean presenting God with accurate analyses of the situation or the person we are praying for, nor presenting him with detailed solutions we have worked out which he is to bring to pass “in Jesus’ name.” True intercession, as I understand it, is simply being with the person in God’s presence—being in God’s presence with the person held in our love and our shared distress.
The Welsh Franciscan Brother Ramon in fact wrote better of exactly this:
It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate… The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that "eye has not seen nor ear heard", they speak of "joy unspeakable" and "groanings unutterable" and "peace that passes understanding".
But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.
Thus we can say that the "prayer of the heart" unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world’s ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief", and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.
Brother Ramon SSF Praying the Jesus Prayer Marshall Pickering 1988 (now unfortunately out of print)
Ramon’s explanation is probably the nearest I can come to finding words for the huge longing and conviction that fills my heart. The call to the Jesus Prayer has been with my for many years now, more than it would be decent to admit, and it is only in faithfulness, somehow, to that calling that I shall be able to do whatever it is I am to do, here among my sister and brother creatures for the time I’ve been given.