I’m not the best at prayer. These days I rarely use complete sentences when I pray. Prayer comes out in a word or a phrase. In a stirring from my heart. I’m learning that prayer can be so much more than articulate sentences strung together to adore or make requests known to God. My favorite kind of prayer these days is the sitting, breathing kind. Just being still and letting my heart rest in God’s presence.
One of my favorite places to experience this kind of prayer is at a retreat center a little ways from home.[i] Some very key moments have happened for me at this place. Just a little while ago, I went there for a morning silent retreat.
I was ready to be refreshed: to just sit and bask in God’s presence. Sometimes, that is what contemplative practices feel like. A beautiful, peaceful experience of God, maybe catching a word or a glimpse of something holy. We walk away refreshed and at peace.
But sometimes, this time in contemplation is hard. Sometimes it is uncomfortable. Sometimes it is the realization that something deep inside of me needs to change. Sometimes something inside needs to break.
As we arrived at the retreat center, our facilitator explained a few optional exercises that she had prepared for us to try. She started describing an exercise of outward contemplation. She explained that many times when people immerse themselves in contemplative practices, we become very inward focused, forgetting to engage in the world around us. I find this true for myself sometimes.
Sometimes the needs of others will be brought to my mind. I try to pay attention to that. But sometimes, I can get lost inside of myself.
As our facilitator described the outward contemplation exercise, I knew that I needed to try it. Part of me was hesitant to do so. But I am learning to examine that hesitation and resistance. Often it signals a need to spend some extra time there.
The exercise required us to go to four different stations. At each station there was a person whom we were supposed to imagine. For each person, we were supposed to imagine their thoughts, their feelings, what they are experiencing at this time of their lives. Then we were to imagine the Creator sitting with us. The goal was to enter into a conversation with God for each person and their situation. We were to notice what God was saying, what he was asking us to notice. We were to pay attention to our response.
To be honest, I wasn’t very comfortable at any of these stations. But it was a profound experience, and I know that I needed to do it.
The first station had us imagine our best friend. I thought of my husband. I imagined how tired he must be, all of the responsibility that he carries. I heard God call him Beloved. And my prayer for him was that God would call forth Life from within him.
The second station had us imagine a neighbor. I thought of a neighbor who has faced so much hurt and disappointment. And I heard God call her Beloved. I prayed that she would wake up to her belovedness.
I stood up and walked to the next station. I started to read the instructions: We were supposed to imagine the ones who are persecuted. Specifically, those in the Middle East who are being persecuted for their faith and are fleeing terror and watching their children die horrible deaths. Before I could picture anything in my mind, I started to sob. Deep, belly-wrenching sobs. I was a little alarmed at the lack of control I had over these cries. And I heard: “Jesus wept.” I pictured him weeping with me, with them. I pictured God weeping with them. And I heard: “Beloved.” These precious ones are Beloved by God.
All I could offer at this station was tears.
But I know that these tears are prayers. These tears join the tears of the terrified and childless mothers. These tears join the tears of all who cry out to God with tears of “Help! Oh, Help!” A river of tears, an ocean of tears, from the time of Cain and Abel, mothers have been crying. The earth has been groaning. And we pray tears. Holy tears.
But I can’t stay there–weeping for the world. I add my tears to the collection plate, still my heart, and move on. Not in a callous way, but because that is what I must do. But my heart is broken open a bit wider than it was when I arrived.
I left this station exhausted and moved to the last one. At this station we were supposed to imagine our enemy. I pictured those who are persecuting and terrorizing the ones I had just wept over. People who don’t know me, but would want me dead. Who keep killing innocents. I picture their hatred, fear, anger, and lostness. I imagine that they must be dead inside–dead to life, dead to love. But I don’t weep for them. I wonder if I should.
And I hear God say: “Beloved.”
You love them God? And I remember Jesus saying: “Have mercy on them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And that became my prayer for them: “Have mercy on them, O God. They can’t know what they are doing. Have mercy! O, have mercy God.” And then all of my prayers for the others merged with the prayer for my enemies: “Call forth Life, call forth Love in their hearts. Let them know that they are Beloved. Raise them up from the dead. O, have mercy.” Eventually, I shed a few tears for my enemies too.
And I realized that I was participating in something holy. The apostle Paul spoke about blessing those who persecute you and mourning with those who mourn.[ii] I got to experience both of those. He also wrote about the groaning of creation and how when we are at a loss for how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.[iii] I felt that.
I don’t know that my prayers alone are going to bring about world peace. I don’t fully understand how prayer works. Why some prayers appear to go unanswered even when we pray so desperately. But I know that these prayers change me. And sometimes that also is a necessary miracle.
To be honest, I’m a little nervous to engage this practice again. It was hard and exhausting. But I know that I need to do it. I trust that as I do so, my eyes will be opened to the belovedness of those around me and that I will find practical, meaningful ways of demonstrating this belovedness as I make my way through this world.
Just a few days ago, I stumbled across these words by Frederick Buechner, words that made me pause. I’ll leave you with them:
“And then there is the love for the enemy–love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”[iv]
[ii] Romans 12:14-15.
[iii] Romans 8:22, 26.
[iv] Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, p. 303.