The Prayer Which Has Made All the Difference
Of great focus and concern for me in the last year has been the present. Having spent much of my adult life recounting and recasting past failures while simultaneously straining toward tomorrows that never come, I have missed so many of the todays that they are nearly impossible to count. This could be one more reason for regret, if regret were not such a poison. It pulls us out of time into fantasy, into a world where if only we were as wise then as we are now, how much we could have done or made or avoided or whatever. It is utter foolishness of course, because the exact past we are trying to avoid is the exact past we needed to know how to avoid it.
The only me I have available to me is the one that is sitting typing this blog post. Just as the only you available to you is the one reading it. The gross majority of the media and advice you consume would have you believe that you should be thinner, more active, richer, a better conversationalist, more well read with a better sense of humor. It would have you more attentive to the important causes of our time, more inline with someone else’s political views. And of course it is sheer madness that you aren’t more inspired, more aspiring, and more enraged than you are today.
But, as I have learned in so many ways through this last decade of my life, the only “you” you get is the one you’ve got. The one sitting here reading this. With all of her regrets, goals and demands for being better sooner. The Now You is the only you. The Past You was not as you remember it (you’ve written a story about that person which justifies your present reality) and The Future you as imagined will never exist, because you have written only a handful of potential options into your imagined narrative… when there are literally an infinite number of quantum possibilities.
Into this both cosmic and personal reality, enter an uncommon ally: Prayer.
Yes, prayer. Of the Christian variety, in fact, though not as it might have been taught to you. Much of the training I received on prayer as a young middle-American fundamentalist was of the proactive variety. Prayer requests, praising God, thanking God… it was actively and somewhat obsessively involved with either my doing or God’s doing. There is nothing wrong with this type of prayer. I heard it admonished at length at a Sunday service this morning. The preacher broker prayer down into a project of what God Does and what We Do… with little to no concern as to whether “doing” was involved at all. Doing is one way of being. But it is not the only way. And hundreds of years of Christian mystics, spiritual directors, church fathers and mothers from a variety of Jesus Way traditions point to another way. A self-emptying way which ruminates us back to Philippians 2, a ceasing of grasping and controlling. A way of surrendering to the here and now so that God can fill in the empty space.
My prayer rhythm has been built on a merger of these tools from the ancient Jesus way. You may recognize parts of them from Father Thomas Keating’s teachings or the current contemplative movement’s affirmation of Centering Prayer. There are many good resources here. But perhaps you don’t consider yourself a contemplative and the idea of mystical traditions unsettles you. That is ok, neither is required to move out of our dependence on performance, regret and aspiration. The entrance into the Jesus way of being here and now is a simple as it is challenging, and I invite you to join with me in it.
The Three Stages of Welcome/Surrender Prayer
- Getting Here: The first stage of this prayer time is simply a metabolic one. It is bringing your heart and mind and soul and strength into some degree of alignment in order to be present to the Spirit of Jesus within you. I like to use the timer on my phone to keep time for me in each stage so that I feel safe to focus without worrying about if I am “doing it enough”. If you are first starting out, maybe give yourself 2 minutes or 3 minutes for each stage. I personally like doing 7. In the first time segment, all you are doing is breathing in and out deeply and slowly. With each breath in, you will focus on a phrase like “I am loved” or “Christ is with me” or “God is love.” You are literally breathing in truth here, so pick a phrase that affirms the deepest truths of the Gospel and is free from shame. Then as you breath out, pick a different phrase which expresses the fruit of these truths. Something like “I am free” or “I am safe” or “I don’t need to be afraid.” This deep breathing while meditating on the power of the Gospel slows down our neurology, calms our adrenal glands and creates space in our heart and mind for the presence of the Spirit. It quite literally gets us here and now.
- Welcoming: The second stage can be done out loud, by writing things down, or by reflecting within your own mind. It is simply taking an inventory of whatever is true in that moment: emotionally, physically, spiritually, relationally. The only rule is that you cannot analyze or judge. This puts you in the role of God and the purpose of this exercise is self-emptying. (So making yourself like God is the opposite of the Philippians 2 work.) For me, I have a very over-active system so this takes me quite a bit of time, “Welcome anger, welcome sadness, welcome regret, welcome pain in my knee, welcome anxiety about work project, welcome feelings of loss, welcome pressure in my lungs, welcome desire to impress my boss…” and so on. This is another place where the timer is quite useful. Otherwise—if you’re like me—this could go on for hours. 😊
- Surrendering: As you do the welcoming portion of the prayer you will likely find your mind wandering to a mix of things you should do to solve these things you welcomed (I really should do some stretching to help my knee, I need to nail this next project to impress my boss… etc.) Again, the task is not to judge these thoughts, but now we have a new opportunity. As all of our life-improvement projects come out of the woodwork (this is one of the benefits of the welcoming portion of the prayer) we have the opportunity to surrender them to God. Surrender is the most powerful human action we can take, because it opens up space for God’s love. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have work to do (God may want us to do some stretching for that sore knee!) but it puts us in a concrete posture of not fighting to live life on our terms. One of the most challenging and reorienting moments of my day most days is that repetitive sentence, “Surrender work project, Surrender exercise plan, Surrender boss’s feelings about me, Surrender career goals, Surrender kid’s struggles, Surrender frustration about…” And a way we go. You may find that along the way you have to really consider whether you are open to surrendering everything that comes into your mind. And that’s good. If the surrender is an act of rote habit, it’s unlikely that your heart is really taking all of this terribly seriously.
And then at some point you say, Amen! You may know that Amen is a way of saying “Let it be,” so it too is a verbal affirmation of surrender. The best part of this is that while this is a great start of the day prayer (that’s how I use it). There’s no “getting it done” because of course we are never “done” welcoming and surrendering. You may find throughout the day that you need to do your breathing to remind yourself of the Gospel. You may find out a big burst of new information from a work meeting or from a call from your kid’s school. This is a great opportunity for welcoming. And of course, when your body is tensing up, when you feel the need to fight or flight, to prove yourself or take matters into your own hands, surrender is always there as your best friend.
I can say that I have been “prayer trained” for over 30 years, and it was not until finding the rhythm I just described where I found a prayer practice which could serve a as a true foundation for the rest of my spiritual life. It is the closest tool kit I have found for the Bible’s admonition to prayer without ceasing. Amen?
Let it be.