prayer is the art of presence

Homily for July 24, 2016

My brothers and sisters, will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

You have a few minutes to think about your answer. I won’t ask you to respond until later when we prepare to baptize Margaret, though I should probably remind you that this is a part of the covenant you made or was made on your behalf when you were baptized.  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? That means studying the Word of God, that means gathering not in cliques and cohorts but with a profound sense of the apostolic fellowship that binds us. That means that our prayers are ultimately about being fully present in our world. It is this gift and obligation of prayer that I want to consider today.

It is so easy, so tempting, to get lost in this world. Every age is overwhelmed with things that dull the sense of one’s alive-ness, that diminish the sense of wonder in the daily miracles of our lives.

How fortunate we are to have the gift of prayer, to re-connect, to enliven our souls, to re-anchor ourselves in the real. How fortunate that Margaret will be raised in a home and in churches that will teach her how to pray. My wife and I as a clergy couple have learned new things from each church we’ve served about prayer.

Though the disciples this morning are looking for the one-right-way, there are indeed many ways to pray. There is liturgy and praise, meditation, the daily office, lectio divinia, praying the hours, hymn singing and liturgical dance. There is healing prayer, charismatic prayer, chant. The prayers that welcome Sabbath, the prayers of sitting shiva. The lovely Muslim practice of the prayer-rug, the spinning song of the whirling dervishes. We might be tempted to see any one of these as escapist, as stepping away from the real world for a moment. On the contrary, these are each about connecting with mind, body and soul to the breath of God, to the real world of the eternal.

The great spiritual folks will say that there is no one way to pray.  But the same great spirits might also warn us not to get lost at the global buffet. Discipleship includes discipline, and a prayer life rooted in depth and discipline will be far more rewarding than one of sampling and novelty.

I think that one key ingredient to prayer is time. That’s certainly the insight of the monastics, who choose to give almost all their time to prayer. But while most of us can’t quite pull that off, the question of what kind of time we give to prayer matters. The amount of time is certainly important, though the reality is that much of our time is not really our own. But the quality of time matters: we might ask ourselves, is prayer an intention or an afterthought? And knowing that time is precious, what things in my life that have nothing to do with job, family, and the like get far more airtime than prayer:  resentment? complaining? judgment or labelling? Consumptions in all its forms?  I don’t have a pat answer here. I simply think that any words about prayer must include something about time.

John O’Donahue wrote that prayer is “the art of presence, and the sister of wonder.”[i] Prayer is the sister of wonder in that it gives us over to a sense of openness and even playfulness with the world that God has created. He contrasts this sense of wonder with what happens to our souls when our lives, our relationships, become purely rote, reactive, and ego-focused. Prayer connects us to wonder.

Prayer is ultimately the art of presence. That may makes perfect sense when we think of meditation, or dance, or the spinning of the whirling dervishes. But the problem is that most of us never do that stuff!  The point of seeing all prayer as the art of presence is that it is equally true when we say prayers over meals, when we sing each Sunday of the resurrection of Jesus, and when we pray the familiar words of the Lord’s prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is all about summoning us, on a daily and perhaps even hourly basis, out of the false flashing world of the unreal and the ego, and into the warm and loving embrace of the eternal.

Just look at the words of the prayer. Hallowed be your name. Our lives are enriched by reverence and awe, and we begin in a position of humility, love and praise. To praise honestly, to celebrate the very name of God, is to claim the great dignity that God gives to all of us.  To praise the name of God is to remember also the limitations of the names that we give to everything. We take God’s name in vain when we reduce God’s creatures to the labels that suit our own ego-needs.  To hallow God’s name is to honor something that is ultimately mysterious and un-knowable, and to reckon with the reality that most of what happens in our world and in our souls is also mysterious and un-knowable.  Humility is good for our souls.

Your Kingdom come. The Kingdom is the real presence of God in a world struggling to return to wholeness. As W. B. Yeats says, “there is another world, but it is this one.”  The kingdom of God is all about the eternal, and we believe that the eternal is constantly unfolding before us and around us.

Give us this day our daily bread. I read this as, What will God teach me today? How will God surprise me today if I am not enveloped with fear and worry? There is of course no promise of more than our daily bread. This is a call to be present to the abundant blessings of our lives, present in a way that can only happen today. When we pray for daily bread, and trust that tomorrow’s bread will come as well, we are free to savor the bread we eat today and the companionship we experience – companionship meaning “with bread” in Latin.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. We all know that forgiveness is hard, but it frees us from the prisons that we inhabit. Forgiveness liberates us from anger, so that we can be free to live our lives. In some ways I prefer the way that this phrase appears in Luke’s gospel to how we usually pray it: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” There is in this a radical statement about who we are as followers of Jesus. We forgive. There’s no ambiguity here. No churchspeak wishy-washiness about discerning correct paths and struggling to do something complicated and hard. We are followers of Jesus. We forgive. That’s what we do.

When we are so vividly present to God, the world begins to look a lot different. When we feel lost, when we see only closed doors that must be battered open or abandoned as hopelessly locked, it’s a safe bet that paying attention to our prayers is the right place to start. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples was not just about praise and trust and forgiveness; this prayer, this regular invitation into the presence of God, is about seeing and opening doors we thought were forever sealed.

“Ask, and it shall be given you, knock and the door will be opened for you.” What an incredible promise! When we knock the doors will open. What hope! What joy! But also, what responsibility. What doors will we now open? What questions will we ask? What shall we seek?

These are the questions, this is the life into which today we welcome Margaret, for these doors, faithfully opened, will lead us to the ground of our being. These doors lead to Christ. Knock, and the doors will open.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, July 24 2016

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC

Year C, Proper 12

[i] This was taken from John O’Donohue’s audiobook The invisible World (Wisdom from the Celtic World). Sounds True, Incorporated, 1997


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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