on how catholicism taught me to pray

catholic

Last weekend I had the tremendous privilege to pilgrimage to the holiest place I’ve ever been: the-middle-of-nowhere-Nebraska.  I don’t kid about such things.  A keen sense of the Holy is exactly what one feels when entering this Benedictine monastery, where so many saints have come to pour out their prayers & their love to God.  And it was in this beautiful, Benedictine monastery, where I too learned how to pray again.

It has been some time.  Three years has passed since I first landed from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  And it has been three years of nothing but divine silence.  Me not hearing from God.  Me not praying to God, because truthfully it was just too painful.  As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Praying,” my best and brightest attempts truly felt like “weeds in a vacant lot.”  These scrawny weeds germinated out of the deep, desolate place of believing that I’d seen the worst humanity had to offer, and I had no words for God after that.  I could not fathom to pair the words “good” and “God” after I had walked through Killing Fields where untold millions of families and children and infants were murdered, and thrown into piles, one on top of the other.  I couldn’t bear the agony of holding tiny hands of 5-year olds whose little bodies had already been exploited for sex.  Interacting with the largest population of amputees in the world was equally as devastating.  One unexpected, undetected landmine exploded their legs and their lives forever.  And in very different ways, I’ve been limping since.

It was not until this weekend that I finally learned there is a prayer without words.  That it is okay that I haven’t been able to pray out loud, because God knows my intention.  This form is in fact a very ancient practice called “Centering Prayer.”  The purpose of this prayer simply or tragically is to consent to the presence and action of God in this world.  This can feel tragic to people who like to think they’re Jesus or who need the everyday reminders that God is God and I am not (totally me!).  In the words of one of my new favorite people, Phileena Heuertz, centering prayer is how we “reconnect with an unhurried God.”  Part of this prayer practice requires that we choose a sacred word or symbol in order to consent to God’s presence and action within us.  And anytime a thought, feeling, or distraction is noticed, we return ever so gently to our sacred word, like the lightest leaf fluttering down a still stream.

The word I chose to consent to the presence of God this weekend is abide.  Abide in the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within me.  Abide in the here-and-now, instead of the somewhere else.  Abide in my createdness rather than my comparisons.  Abide because I and the Lord are one.  This was new information entirely.  I’ve been exposed to almost every kind of evangelical there is, and a part from Scripture, no one has ever told me that Christ and I are one.  Or maybe I just wasn’t listening.  I grew up believing that God is other, out there, who knows where, and when you initiate a prayer, then God will respond.  This prayer practice teaches us however what grace means: that God is pursuing a beloved humanity that is never separate, never divided, always one.  Christ in you.  Christ in me.  Centering prayer makes room for our anger, for darkness, for shame, for tears falling, but also for love, joy, peace, so much light baptizing our frantic hearts.

This ancient, Catholic prayer taught me how to gently re-connect the words God and good again.  Because God was in the Killing Fields.  God is in the brothels.  God is with every person whose only choice is to beg for mercy.  And God is in every last crevice of our dark and wandering hearts.  Holding.  Protecting.  Welcoming.  Rejoicing.  And that makes God very, very good.

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