“Lord, teach us to pray …”
Many well-meaning prayers fail to plumb the depths of the divine. We all know that rote pious phrases can barely even be called prayer. But, even very legitimate prayers, such as lists of people who are having a hard time, a litany of our worries, or telling God of our desires (which are all honorable, necessary, and welcomed) rarely escort us into the Holiest of All.
To borrow heavily from Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis, the underlying foundation of genuinely transformative prayer is the authentic I being with the Authentic Thou.
Many of us are so wrapped up in our personas we do not even know who we really are. Our identities are defined by family, culture, tribe, externally imposed dogma, and introjection. We define ourselves by our clans, careers, hobbies, sociopolitical views, nationality, and roles.
You’re a married ethnically mixed mother of three with a master’s degree in nursing who specializes in wound care. You’ve told me what you do, something about what you’ve accomplished, and what roles you fill. I can infer from what you’ve told me that you are smart, compassionate, hardworking, and dedicated. As you share about your family of origin, your experiences growing up, the obstacles you’ve overcome, the tragedies you’ve navigated, and your emotions, I learn much more about you. I can see more clearly how you got to where you are and why you struggle with your particular issues.
But I don’t yet know the authentic you under all that. Spouse, mother, and nurse are roles, personas. Familial and cultural influences colored the persona. As we dig more deeply, paying attention to your dreams, to what triggers your emotions, to the deepest ineffable longings of your heart, your genuine self, the “I” at the core of your being, peeks out, then surfaces.
Deep within, the little girl God created emerges from under the personas. It doesn’t replace them. There is nothing wrong with those personas; those are all honorable roles; they just don’t fully define who you are. God forbid, your spouse dies, your kids grow up and move far away, and an injury prevents you from nursing. Now who are you?
Sometimes it is just such traumatic events that force the essential question: Who am I? Who did God create me to be? At the deepest and most primitive level, who is this person I call me?
Hours upon hours of unhurried contemplative prayer, deep spiritual meditation without any prespecified goal, coupled with concentrated reflective Bible reading (such as Lectio Divina), and in-depth work with a spiritual elder, combine to show us our authentic selves, who we are at our core.
When I bring that authentic self to God, prayer begins. But that’s only half the issue.
I need to bring the authentic me to the authentic God. Besides not really knowing who we genuinely are, most of us don’t really know who God is. We have images of God formed by early memories of our caregivers (especially our male caregivers because in occidental culture God is most often depicted as male). We have images of God formed by our religious heritages, by rituals, liturgies, sermons, homilies, friends, and the religiophilosophical zeitgeist. For those of us in post-modern America, the image of God is all mixed up with nationalism, militarism, extractive capitalism, and white privilege. The god most Americans worship bears little resemblance to the true and living God.
If we desire to know what God is genuinely like, we must get to know Jesus. God is exactly like Jesus. There is nothing unchristlike in God. God is not a nationalistic warlord, a punitive judge, a stern taskmaster, a celestial Santa Claus, or a distant watchmaker. Jesus said, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” He told the scholars that the Hebrew scriptures point to him.
Jesus is the full and complete revelation of who God is. God also reveals Godself in nature, in other forms of spirituality, in other religious traditions. Some of those traditions are closer to being like Jesus than the civil religion “Christian” nationalism that passes for authentic Christianity. So much evil has been done in the name of the Christian religion that I rarely define myself as such anymore. I prefer being simply a follower of Jesus. Or, better yet, I’m trying my best to follow Jesus.
The Bible is a tool to point us to Jesus. You can study the Bible and miss the point unless you are looking for Jesus in every passage. As we do, we most often discover that God is not like the image of God we thought was God. Instead, we find that God is all-loving, all-forgiving, all-caring, deeply understanding, genuinely interested in us as individuals. We discover that God is in the process of making all things new – transforming the entire cosmos with self-sacrificial, altruistic, unconditional, cruciform love. We discover that God invites us to join in making all things new. We learn that God isn’t male or female, that there is only one race (human), and that hatred, evil, sin, and death are conquered. We learn that the entire universe began a radical change on Good Friday and that death was utterly defeated on Easter morning.
As I begin to get in touch with the authentic me and the genuine Thou, real prayer begins. I at my depth begin to speak, listen to, and sit with the Eternal Divine Heart of Love that created all things. I and Thou replace persona and image. I sit in the Holiest of All; I abide in the secret place of the Most High. I become connected to God, creation, myself, others.
You remain spouse, mother, and nurse, but under that, you are Beloved.