An Episcopal nun once told me about the time she served at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. St. Paul’s is across the street from the World Trade Center, and they opened their doors during those weeks following as a place of refuge, rest, and prayer.
One thing that stood out, for her, was that she learned “to pray while on my feet,” she told me once. That’s an odd thing for a religious, for their day is structured by the ringing of a bell that calls them to pray the Offices, at which they are to drop whatever they are doing and get on their way to chapel. They pray in chapel multiple times throughout the course of each day, and they pray on their feet (singing and praising), on their knees (confessing), on their seats (hearing). But not in motion; not while tending the sick, offering words to a bereaved, hugging a first responder, extending water to one who is thirsty and covered in soot.
This may sound odd to us, for we are people of the world. We are busy people who lead demanding lives and are very important individuals, if you ask us. Even when we’re not busy, our minds are. We’re thinking ahead about all the other things we must be doing and should be doing and will be, just as soon as we can get going and get busy. No, we don’t pray so very well, not all of us, anyway. We don’t pray our way through our day and bells don’t interrupt our schedules. No, we’re not so good about praying our days, but leave that to the monks and nuns.
Watch what Jesus does. After he’s sent his disciples out, they return and tell him about the healings and words they’ve spoken, about the lives they’ve touched. He says, “Now let’s get away, just you and me, by ourselves for a while. I know just the place; it’s entirely deserted. Get a boat, and let’s go.” Jesus hops in the boat with the twelve. But the locals – being watermen, themselves – know the winds and see the boat tacking and know precisely where it’s headed. At once, the Galilean grapevine kicks into high gear, such that by the time Jesus gets to that quiet, serene place it’s not at all deserted; in fact, it’s packed with thousands of people, all clamoring for his attention and power.
Watch what Jesus does or, rather, what he does not do. He doesn’t get back in the boat, doesn’t leave the people and stick stubbornly with his intended retreat plans. We wouldn’t blame him if he did, but he doesn’t. Instead, he ministers to the people gathered, responds to their needs, heals the lame and sick, and extends the Kingdom into their very midst.
Jesus responds in this way because this is the nature of God. It is God’s nature to receive all of God’s creation, especially all of our humanity in its depth and breadth and dysfunction and sickness. It is God’s nature to receive so that it may be redeemed, loved into still greater holiness. It is not God’s nature to reject or ignore. No, start from this other premise: God is. God is … in the fullness of all that is, whether it be good or bad, peaceful or chaotic, deserted and calm or packed and noisy, loss or gain, death or life. God is. God receives all that is and gives freely, vulnerably; hence the reason Jesus receives the throngs when he steps on Gennesaret’s shore, and gives them new life; hence the reason a religious gives of herself and her once-sacred hours of prayer, and gives even small tastes of genuine compassion to a broken world.
And yet we only scratch at the surface of this truth, for even our deeply religious sometimes have difficulty finding God in the dust and grime and pain and evil of September 11th, rather would they be in their chapel with their prescribed liturgies. For many people, God is best kept in a box or, at least, a container smaller than that labeled “the whole and fullness of our lives.” Many of us are so quick to show God and one another the parts of our lives we like, are pleased with, consider successful and well-off, and find happiness in. Few of us are able to show our warts and the stains of sin, not only to God and one another but, I’ll say personally, even to ourselves.
God wants the fullness of our lives, and wants to be found in the wholeness of it all – not just the quiet moments of prescribed, liturgical prayer but the busy-ness and disquietude, the anxiety and the dread. God wants all of it because all of it is redeemable, and none of it is foreign to Him.
A slogan of the ancient Christian church, first attributed to the fifth century writer, Prosper of Aquitaine, became much in vogue in the liturgical renewal movement of the 20th century. Lex orandi, lex credendi translates from the Latin to mean something like “the law of praying is the law of believing.” Or in more common parlance: the way we pray is the way we believe. Ask an Episcopalian what she believes, and she’ll talk about the Book of Common Prayer, which is designed to have us pray the whole of our lives.
Even those things that happen in life, as things inevitably do, which are not already covered in the index of the Prayer Book, we can learn to pray well, having trained ourselves in this school called ‘church’ faithfully and regularly beforehand. When we talk about grounding our church in prayer, we are talking about a community of women and men who are willing to pray their lives, or what the Apostle Paul called praying “without ceasing.” Sometimes that prayer takes the form of words and expressions, beautiful, measured, time-crafted language that resonates with the sound of churchy-ness. At still other times, that prayer is nothing more than a breath, a deep breath; or a frustration, echoed in God’s direction; or quietness, nice but not a prerequisite; or stillness in your heart while you dash about in the marketplace of the world. Praying our lives requires the fullness of our lives because God wants it all redeemed, and wants to be found amidst it all, in the first place.
I say these things because I believe they deeply matter, not just theologically but also how we live, and how we live wholly and well. Honestly, I fear those Christian traditions which emphasize perfection over reality, which stress rules before relationships, which talk about who we should be before coming to understand who we are. Having been raised with such messages, I find that those traditions (in many cases implicitly) teach people to present only those sides of themselves that are well-rounded, worked on, and nearing perfection, leaving a lot of in the dark shadows, leaving a lot of it there permanently and festering. Darkness is darkness, obviously; it’s the stuff that’s not yet redeemed. But that’s not to say it’s unredeemable. “Darkness is not dark to you, O Lord,” the Psalmist beautifully wrote, after all.
If we cannot pray the whole of our lives from the fullness of our lives to the God who wants to redeem all of our life, how then do we live? And how do we learn to live well? Sure, we can give thanks and rejoice during those times that are truly, definitively happy. I’m not talking about that, though. What do we do in the face of evil, suffering? Following 9/11, a terrible event, we rallied as a nation, but we also rallied against a common enemy; namely, Osama bin Laden, Al Quaeda, and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. I’ve been thinking about that these past several days because it’s quite different from responding to and living with the events that happened this past Friday evening [Friday, July 20, 2012] in which innocent victims were gunned down at a midnight showing of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado? How do we live and strive to live well in a world in which the faces of evil are not villainous villains, such as Joker or the Riddler, but, instead, a 24-year-old man who is probably deranged and sick? How do we live well in a world in which people who go out for a late-night movie might not make it home, and for no reason but an expression of senseless, banal violence? How do we live, and strive to live well in that world?
Pray it all, using words from time to time but other expressions, as well. Pray it all, the good and bad, the quiet and noisy, the frightening and peaceful. Pray it all, every last bit, to the God who redeems it all and wants very much to. Pray it openly, vulnerably, and without editorial comment so God will love it into holiness.