My earliest recollection of formal prayer is this: My grandmother, rosary in hand, resting on her bed after our noonday meal, would let the beads glide through her fingers, silently moving her lips.
When I remember how large her bed loomed from my perspective, I realize I must have still been small. Yet when I asked her to teach me this mysterious game, she did. The stories behind the fifteen mysteries as my grandmother told them to me stayed in my mind and grew in my heart. Like seedlings taking root in good soil, they kept growing and sending out runners. To this day, like an old strawberry patch, they keep bearing fruit.
Some thirty years later, on a different continent, my grandmother was again resting on her bed and I was kneeling next to her; this time, she was dyng. My mother also knelt by her mother’s deathbed, and together the two of us were reciting from the English breviary the prayers for the dying. Grandmother was in a coma, but she seemed restless. She would raise her left hand a little and let it fall back on the bed, again and again. We could hear the tinkling of the silver rosary wrapped around her wrist. Finally we caught on. We stopped the psalms and started the Sorrowful Rosary. At its familiar phrases, grandmother relaxed, and when we came to the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross, she peacefully gave her life-breath back to God.
I let the silence drop like a pebble into the middle of my day and send its ripples out over its surface in ever-widening circles.
Another childhood memory of mine is connected with the Angelus prayer. All over my native Austria, the chorus of Angelus bells rises from every church steeple at dawn, at high noon, and again before dark in the evening. At school one day when I was in first grade, I stood by an open window on the top floor looking down on what you might call “the campus,” for ours was a big, beautiful school built by the Christian Brothers. It was noon. Classes had just finished, and children and teachers streamed out onto the courts and walkways. From so high up, the sight reminded me of an anthill on a hot summer day. Just then, the Angelus bell rang out from the church, and at once, all those busy feet down there stood still. “The angel of the Lord brought the message to Mary….” We had been taught to recite this prayer in silence. Then, the ringing slowed down; one last stroke of a bell and the anthill began swarming again.
Now, so many years later, I still keep that moment of silence at noon. Bells or no bells, I pray the Angelus. I let the silence drop like a pebble into the middle of my day and send its ripples out over its surface in ever-widening circles. That is the Angelus for me: the now of eternity rippling through time.
As I face a given situation and take it all in, I see this given reality as one facet of God’s ultimate gift.
I’d like to recount one more memory here, the memory of my first encounter with the Jesus Prayer, the Prayer of the Heart, as it is also called. By then, I was older but still a child; twelve maybe. I was sitting with my mother in our doctor’s waiting room, resting my right hand first on one knee, then on the other, then on the armrest of my chair, then on the sill of a window from which I could see only a high hedge and some spiderwebs. My hand was heavily bandaged, and I had come to have the doctor change those bandages. After I had examined for some time a jar full of live leeches, which country doctors at that time still kept for bloodletting, there wasn’t anything else in the bare room to keep me entertained, and I was growing fidgety.
Then my mother said something that surprised me: “Russian people know the secret of never getting bored.” The Olympic Games were my only association with Russians, but if there was a secret method for overcoming boredom, I needed to learn it as soon as possible. Only years later, when I came across The Way of a Pilgrim, did I understand my mother’s mysterious reference, for that book was a translation from the Russian. It did tell me at length about that secret of never getting bored, but my mother had managed to summarize it so simply that it made sense to a boy of twelve: “You need only repeat the name of Jesus over and over with every breath. That’s all. The name of Jesus will remind you of so many good stories that you will never find the time long.” I tried it and it works.
Boredom, as it turned out, would never be a problem in my life anyway, rather the contrary. Later, in fact, when the Jesus Prayer became my steady form of praying, I came to think of it more as an anchor that keeps me grounded when life is anything but boring. To borrow a phrase from the Roman Missal, the Jesus Prayer keeps my heart “anchored in lasting joy.”
After I read The Way of a Pilgrim, I made myself a ring of wooden beads that I move, one bead at a time, as I repeat the Jesus Prayer. This movement of my fingers has become so linked with that prayer that I can keep it going with the help of my prayer-ring, even while I am reading or talking with someone. It goes on like background music, not in the foreground of my awareness and yet heard at all times.
The wording I’ve come to find most helpful is “Lord Jesus, mercy!” The Russian pilgrim used a longer form, and I have experimented with various versions, but this one suits me best.
Most of the time it expresses my gratefulness: As I face a given situation and take it all in, I see this given reality as one facet of God’s ultimate gift, which is summed up in the name of Jesus. Then, breathing out, I say the second half of the prayer, and the sense is: “Oh, with what mercy you are showering me, moment by moment!” Sometimes, of course, “Mercy!” can also be my cry for help, say, when I am dead tired and have to go on to meet a deadline, or when I am reading about the destruction of rainforests of the tens of thousands of children who starve to death every twenty-four hours on this planet of plenty. “Mercy!” I sigh, “Mercy!”
The Jesus Prayer has become so connected with my breathing in and breathing out that it flows spontaneously much of the time. Sometimes, while I am falling asleep, the prayer goes on until it melds into the deep breathing of sleep.
The Rosary, the Angelus, the Jesus Prayer – these are some of the formal prayers I find most nourishing. They are by no means the only ones, merely the ones most easily described. How could I ever begin to tell you what the monastic Hours of Prayer mean to me? My small book about them, The Music of Silence, tries to show how not only monks but anyone in any walk of life can enter into those times of day at which time itself prays. I find the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed inexhaustible, too; I’d have to write a whole book about each of them.
Yet, here we are still in the realm of formal prayer, and formal prayer is like a little bucket from which a toddler scoops up and pours out, scoops up and pours out, time and again, water from the ocean of prayer.
In everything we experience we can hear God singing, if we listen attentively.
Informal prayerfulness is the rich, black humus in which formal prayers grow. We cannot separate (formal) prayers from (informal) prayer. We must, however, distinguish between the two and focus for a moment on prayer as an inner attitude rather than an external form of praying. When I do this, I find myself gliding in and out of three attitudes of praying so different from one another that I think of them as altogether different worlds of prayer.
My key to the first of those inner worlds I call Word. By this I don’t mean any particular word or words but rather the discovery that any thing, any person, any situation is a word addressed to me by God. Not that I always catch onto the message, but I know I will get it if I listen deeply with the ears of my heart. St. Benedict calls this deep, willing listening “obedience.” We often think of obedience as compliance with a command. But this would make God some sort of exated drill sergeant. In my experience, most of the time, God doesn’t command. Rather, God sings; and I sing back.
The singing I mean can be as jubilant as the red of God-made tomatoes; as a soaring of a kite or the splashing of children in a pool and my heart’s joyous response to this. But God’s singing can also be as heavy as the fragrance of lilies in a funeral home, heavy as the news of a friend’s grief; light as harpsichord music or a spring outing; sad as the howling of a night train, sad as the evening news; it can be cheerful, enchanting, challenging, amusing. In everything we experience we can hear God singing, if we listen attentively.
Our heart is a highly sensitive receiver; it can listen through all our senses. Whatever we hear, but also whatever we see, taste, touch, or smell, vibrates deep down with God’s song. To resonate with this song in gratefulness is what I call singing back. This attitude of prayer has given great joy to all my senses and to my heart.
A completely different inner world of prayer where I also feel at home is one to which silence opens the door – silence, not only as perceived by the ears, but also a quietness of the heart, a lucid stillness inside, like the stillness of a windless midwinter day; brilliant with sunlight on virgin snow, the kind of day I remember from my childhood in the Austrian Alps. Or it’s like the silence between a lightning flash and the thunder crash that follows, the moment in which you hold your breath. On an island in Maine I once found tidal pools on the granite shore with water so still and clear I could see the fine fibrils of sea anemones on the bottom, waving like festive streamers. Still more limpid is the inner space to which silence is the key. I don’t always find that key, but when I do, I simply enter. Just to be there is prayer.
To a third inner world, action is the key, loving action. There surely is a world of difference between the prayer of action and that of silence or word. Here it is not by listening and responding, not by diving down into silence, but by acting, by doing that I communicate with God. Whatever I can do lovingly can become prayer of action.
Nor is it necessary that I explicitly think of God while working or playing. Sometimes this would hardly be possible. While proofreading a manuscript, I better keep my mind on the text, not on God. If my mind is torn between the two, the typos will slip through like little fish through a torn net. God will be present precisely in the loving attention I give to the work entrusted to me. By giving myself fully and lovingly to that work, I give myself fully to God. This happens not only in work but also in play, say, in bird-watching or in watching a good movie. God must be enjoying it in me, when I am enjoying it in God. Is not this communion the essence of praying? One of the gifts in my life for which I am most grateful is the way I was taught about the Blessed Trinity. Others have told me that, early on, they got the message that God’s Trinity is a mystery we could never fathom, so they draw the conclusion, why bother? When I was told of this mystery, it was always in a tone that invited me to explore it – the task not of a lifetime only but of eternal life, life beyond time. My life of prayer has been just this exploration, and it continues to be so. In fact, in my seventies, I feel I’ve barely begun.
My highest goal in prayer is to enter into that dance through everything I do or think or suffer or say.
As far back as I can remember, I had learned to think of God not as far away but as nearer than near. I must have been four or five when I came racing from the garden into the kitchen, all out of breath, announcing that I had just seen the Holy Spirit writing something up in heaven. I turned out to have been an advertisement for soap powder, written by a plane so high up in the sky that it looked just like the white dove in the fresco of the Blessed Trinity painted on our church ceiling. About that same time, shortly before Christmas, when Austrian children wait not for Santa but for the Christ Child to bring them presents, I spied one morning a tiny thread of gold lame on the carpet, and nothing could have convinced me that this was not a golden hair the Christ Child had lost. The chills of awe I felt and the thrill of tender affection are still vivid in my memory.
These childish misapprehensions were nevertheless genuine religious experiences. What was essential to them remains: a sense of God’s nearness.
Not only did it remain, it kept growing wider and deeper. Nearness is too weak a word. From a sermon by our Dominican student chaplain, Father Diego, I soared, ecstatic in the realization that we can know God as triune precisely because we are drawn into the eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For students in Vienna it is not frivolous to speak of God as dancing. Dancing is serious – not dead-serious, of course, but life-serious. Much later, I learned the Shaker hymn about Christ as “Lord of the Dance.”
I also learned that St. Gregory of Nyssa, way back in the fourth century, had spoken of the Circle Dance of the Blessed Trinity; the eternal Son comes forth from the Father and leads us with all of creation in the Holy Spirit back to the Father.
We can speak of this Great Dance also in terms of Word, Silence, and Action: The Logos, the Word of God, comes forth from God’s unfathomable silence and returns to God, heavy with harvest in the Spirit that inspires loving action. This trinitarian perspective helps me understand in ever new ways the “communication with God” that we call prayers – not as a sort of heavenly long-distance call but as the gift of coming ever more alive by sharing in God’s life.
Here I come back once more to formal prayer, to the doxology that traditionally concludes the prayers we begin “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In the concluding doxology, too, we usually connect Father, Son and Spirit by and. But I prefer a more ancient version. This more dynamic version suggests our entering into God’s life as we pray to the Father (Mother and Source of all), through the Son (through whom we have communion with God), in the Holy Spirit (that Force which comes from God, is God, and leads all things back to the Source in a great dance).
My highest goal in prayer is to enter into that dance through everything I do or think or suffer or say. For that end-without-end I long, whenever I pray: “Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
From The Best Spiritual Writing 1998,
edited by Philip Zaleski
(Dimensions, Harper San Francisco, 1998)