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 forth.
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.
We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.
In 1656 George Fox wrote,
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God, as Ground of Being, not bring good, healing (Romans 8.28) to those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?
John Woolman, too, saw this:
I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God… and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature… was a contradiction in itself.
[An earlier version of this post appeared on my previous blog, The Mercy Blog, in April 2013]