Tag Archives: Prayer

A Gentle, Ordinary Season

Memorial Garden Bench

There is not much drama in my faith life these days. It is a quiet-moment, bench-sitting, tea-sipping kind of spiritual season for me.

Some seasons are like that — gentle, ordinary.

My spiritual director reminds me often of Martin Luther’s teaching that prayer can be interwoven into the mundane of our daily personal and work lives. When Luther’s dear friend Peter Beskendorf, a barber, asked Luther how he could compose himself for prayer, Luther wrote him a treatise of advice on praying through times of struggle.

One piece of wisdom he gave the barber? You’re already praying, just by living your life and doing your work.

Real prayer, Luther wrote, is done attentively as “a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting.” If the barber isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing, he might slip and cut his client.

So it is with prayer, says Luther:

Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires one’s full attention…
How much more does prayer call for the concentration of the whole heart
if it is actually to be a good prayer!

Orange Leaves

So that’s it then. No mystery, no magic.

Sometimes our best prayers are just our simplest moments — our captured hearts, our full attention. Sometimes our spiritual disciplines are composed of nothing more than being here fully, in our work, our play, or our rest.

(Note: You can find Luther’s treatise on prayer easily on the web. It is also published in Luther’s Prayers, edited by Herbert Bokering and Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton Oswald, and Helmut Lehmann.)



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The God who is already here

Neighborhood Cat

Why do we rush about looking for God
who is here, at home with us,
if all we want to do is be with God?
(Augustine, On the Trinity VIII)

“Ah, you again…”

I’ve always had a favorite neighborhood cat, everywhere I’ve lived. In central Berkeley, it was this tiny, round, soft-furred little delight with the sweetest little ears. Her name, according to her collar, was Donut. In my current neighborhood, my favorite cat is Matches, whose coat is the perfect mixture of tawny, brown, and white, and whose friendly demeanor charms me every time I encounter him.

I never know exactly which house the neighborhood cat lives in, or who owns it. I just know that, again and again, often when I’ve forgotten to expect it, I run into this familiar feature of my street.

The most staying spiritual lessons of my faith journey are often like those neighborhood cats. They’re special to me, and I like them, and they seem to have this nagging ability to keep showing up. I can’t say I completely understand where they come from, but I’m well acquainted with their repeat appearances: “Ah, you again…”

Don’t look for it outside yourself

Lately, I have been running into this particular cat quite frequently: God is already present with me, closer than my own breath.

I encounter this lesson when I sit in silence at the end of the day and notice a gnawing feeling of separation from God. My soul can get hurried — “Where are you?! Where are you?!” — and then I remember that God’s presence is immovable: it is only my perception of it that waxes and wanes.

I encounter this lesson when I am surprised by the beauty of creation and realize I have somehow forgotten that “every common bush is afire with God,” that every moment is ripe with invitations to come home.

I encounter this lesson when I listen to others speak about their faith journeys: it is a gift to sit on the outside and see the weaving threads of divinity moving in and out of another’s life, even when they’re not able to see it themselves.

The mystic poet Rumi writes:

Wait for the illuminating openness,
as though your chest were filling with Light,
as when God said, Did we not expand you?
Don’t look for it outside yourself…
Beg for that love expansion. Meditate only on that.
(from “A Basket of Fresh Bread”)

Don’t look for the illuminating openness outside yourself. Don’t rush heedlessly through life looking for the God who is already here.

For me, for now, this cat just won’t stop following me home. And thank goodness for that.

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Images & Shadows

I’m the one who’s been asking you —
it hurts to ask — Who are you?
I am orphaned
each time the sun goes down.
I can feel cast out from everything
and even churches look like prisons

That’s when I want you —
you knower of my emptiness,
you, unspeaking partner to my sorrow —
that’s when I need you, God like food.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Book of Hours, trans. Barrows & Macy)

Images that Draw You

I have always been drawn more to certain images of God than others.

I love the shepherd God, providing for his flock. I love the mother God, nestling her chicks under her wing, or weaning her children into maturity. I love the strong God of justice who frees prisoners and bends the moral arc of the universe.

But I can barely bring myself to speak the words “Alpha and Omega,” not to mention the “Sovereign,” “Propitiation,” or “Potentate.”

Everyone is like this, connecting more deeply with particular names or images of God than others. I love to listen to people talk about their connection to images of God that don’t resonate with me because it feels so expansive for my spiritual life. It re-connects me with the wide mystery of God.

Shadow Images

I think it is important to pay attention to the images that draw you, not only to explore what they reveal about your desires and beliefs, but also to explore what is hidden in them. When you call God by a particular name, or hold God as a particular image, there are necessarily ways that you are not perceiving God at that time. If I’m connected to God as shepherd, for instance, I might be missing God as creator, or God as refining fire, or God as judge.

One of my teachers calls this the “shadow image” — what is missing or hidden by a particular image of God. I often find myself asking: What happens when I encounter those “shadow images” for God in worship or prayer? How do I feel? What does that say about my soul?

Different Landscapes, Shifting Images

I’ve noticed that, although there are some images that stick with me always, as my spiritual journey moves through different landscapes, the images that speak to me most shift. The last few months have been a time of darkness and quiet in my soul and difficult circumstances in my life. Images of God that weren’t especially important before are resonating with me now.

One in particular comes from Rilke’s words in the poem above: God as the knower of my emptiness and the unspeaking partner to my sorrow. How grateful I am to Rilke for naming the tension of a God who is intimately near but painfully silent. Sometimes it can ache to reach toward God.

Another image that is strong for me comes from the Sufi mystic Rumi, who writes: “Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me.” I love this image of God because it speaks to the devastation that grief and pain can bring in our lives. How does it feel to be dissolved, even if that is the path your transformation is supposed to take? Rumi asks to be dissolved “gently… at dawn” or “suddenly, like an execution.” “How else can I get ready for death?” the poet asks.

God to me is these things right now: a knower of my emptiness, an unspeaking partner to my sorrow, a gentle or sudden dissolver. I continue to be curious about what that means for me and how my experience of God will continue to change as my life journey moves forward.

It’s clear that poetry is a central source of spiritual imagery for me, but I know lots of people who connect most with images they find in scripture or hymns. One of the reasons I love diversifying worship sources and methods is because it opens us up to so many different ways of experiencing God.

So, what do you find when you explore your preferred images of God? What do they say about the landscape of your spiritual life? What “shadow images” that may be less familiar to you are you interested in exploring?

**You can read the full Rilke poem here and the full Rumi poem here.

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