My friend Keith recently introduced me to a French writer, Christian Bobin, and I have been stimulated by reading an anthology of his writings, translated into English, and entitled ‘The Eighth Day of Creation.’
Somewhere in it he writes:
“I should like to know how to pray. I should like to know how to cry for help, how to thank, how to wait, how to love, how to weep, I should like to know what can’t be learnt, but I know none of it, all I know is how to sit and let God in to do the work for me, God, or more often, for one mustn’t be demanding, one of his go-betweens, rain, snow, the laughter of children, Mozart.
The most luminous moments in my life are those where I am content to watch the world appearing. These moments are made up of solitude and silence…..This experience is simple. It is not a matter of wanting it. It is enough to receive it when it comes.”
Now I recognise deep wisdom here, insights that I sense I ‘know’. And they prompt me to try and articulate a number of them.
The first is that in my experience many people think that prayer is important but that they are no good at it. But when I listen to them talk I sense that they are actually much better at prayer than they think, only their understanding of prayer is too small.
I define prayer as ‘whatever nourishes the relationship between God and me.’ Most of that nourishing, probably about 99%, is done by God. For it was God after all Who created all that is. And went on to give me the gift of life, such that I can be aware of all that is, and be full of wonder and amazement that it simply is. And moreover, curious about it, and wanting to know more.
It was a divine spark of God, dwelling deep within me, in my soul, Who awoke in me, as in all of us, our insatiable need for love, and our deep desire to reach out in love. And it is this combination of God-created wonder, curiosity and love that drives us to desire relationship with what we call ‘God’. So God both initiates the process and is its end: God is responsible for most of the nourishing of that relationship.
Our job then is the smaller, more modest task of nourishing our soul, where God dwells within each of us. That may sound difficult, but in fact God has made it both quite simple and frequently highly pleasurable. Indeed you spend more time doing it than you likely realise. Let me ask you a question: If I said to you that ‘you can nourish your relationship with God in any way that you like, but that you mustn’t use words.’ What would you do?
You might say:
I’ll go out for a walk with my dog,
I’ll enjoy the view somewhere,
I’ll sit in the garden,
I’ll listen to music,
I’ll make a cup of coffee or tea and gaze out of the window,
I’ll lie in a warm bath,
I’ll sit in a favourite chair, and perhaps light a candle,
I’ll watch a film or read poetry,
I’ll spend time with a friend or friends.
People rarely seem to have difficulty naming what they’d do, and its invariably something that they enjoy doing: I could just as well have asked you ‘what do you do for pleasure?’ for I’d have got much the same answers. That is not so surprising because when we are enjoying ourselves we relax and are more likely to be open to and aware of God, named or un-named. I’ve known lots of people whose prayer lives have taken off simply because they have given themselves permission to set time aside for what they enjoy doing. It really can be that easy and simple. Enjoy yourself, be open to God and recognise that God is doing most of the praying for you, most of the nourishing of the relationship between you.
The second follows from the first, and is that there is frequently quite a lot to be said for doing nothing and just being aware and open to the possibility that God might be up to something. It’s a much under-rated activity! There’s a saying that expresses it well:
“Sitting quietly and doing nothing,
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”
The truth of it was brought home to me while I was undergoing chemotherapy recently, after an operation for cancer. The basic pattern was that I had a dose of chemo every two weeks. My energy levels would dip quite significantly during the first week, and then begin to right themselves during the second, before the next dose.
Frequently during that first week I would find myself unable to motivate myself to do anything much: I’d open a book but find myself unable to concentrate beyond a mere page or two. Often I would pass the day without the energy to do anything apart from just sitting and looking out of the window. And yet,,,and yet, when I looked back over the day in the evening I was frequently surprised by how much had happened: none of it seemingly initiated by me. Some of it initiated by others obviously, but some of it just seeming to have happened without being initiated by anybody that I could identify. It was just life happening on the one hand, and my noticing it having happened on the other. And it was both humbling and strangely reassuring.
And the other thing that I noticed was that quite often, not always by any means, but quite often, when I was just sitting, gazing, without the energy for anything, something insightful and wise, would suddenly come to me. I recall one such time when an image popped into my mind of a face that I straight away ‘knew’ was painted by Giotto, and so I went to a book I have of Giotto’s paintings in a chapel in Padua, and looked again at one particular cycle of them, and found that the story and Giotto’s paintings of it spoke very powerfully to me and uplifted and energised my soul. It was exactly what I needed at that moment. Now how and why did that happen? I don’t know, but in my experience it often does. Its rather like waking up in the middle of the night and suddenly seeing clearly the answer to a problem that had been baffling me the evening before: an experience that often happens to me. I explain it to myself as happening because the rational thinking part of my brain is disengaged whether by sleep or lack of energy, and the intuitive side of my brain is able to get a message through from my soul. And that happened on a number of occasions when my energy levels were registering what felt like close to zero: when it felt as if I was doing nothing.
Thirdly, I’m reminded of a fine book by W H Vanstone written some years ago and entitled ‘The Stature of Waiting’. The insight that has stayed with me from it is that throughout His ministry Jesus was mostly very busy: preaching, teaching, calling people, healing people, sharing meals, telling challenging stories etc. Until the moment of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when instead of ‘doing’ He becomes someone Who ‘is done to’ by others. From being very active He suddenly becomes almost completely passive. And yet…….we think of that time, between His arrest and His resurrection, as the most significant time of His life: the time when He achieved most, despite being almost completely passive. So I guess that we really mean ‘the time when God achieved most through Him.’
So, there is quite a lot to be said for doing nothing and as Christian Bobin puts it “let God in to do the work for me, God, or more often, for one mustn’t be demanding, one of his go-betweens, rain, snow, the laughter of children, Mozart.”
We live in a culture that expects when something happens for people to leap in and to be seen ‘doing something’ about it. Now sometimes that’s fine, but often it isn’t. Often, if its not absolutely clear what one might do, its better to do nothing oneself, and to trust that either somebody else is better placed to be doing what’s necessary, or even that in God’s ‘bigger picture’ of things, there is nothing for any of us to do but wait and be attentive to what God might be up to.