Prayer as Listening, Listening as Prayer

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, February 24, 2019.

Last Sunday I talked about paying attention, about the importance of being awake to this present moment. I truly believe that if you want to have a better and more fulfilling life, if you want a more robust spiritual life, the way to do this to practice paying attention. This doesn’t necessarily make it an easier life; sometimes it would easier to check out, to look the other way, because life necessarily includes pain and suffering. But the invitation is to be awake to it all, as best you can.

We live in a noisy world. And I don’t know about you, but it can be kind of noisy living inside my own head. So many voices! So many thoughts and feelings!

When I stop to pray or meditate, I need some time to let those voices quiet down, and only then can a deeper time of quiet and connection come. We just heard Mary Oliver’s little poem about praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Anne Lamott says that prayer can be summed up in only just three words: Help! Thanks! Wow! In my own prayer life, it’s becoming less and less about words. There are certainly times that I form words in my mind; I’ll name people I am praying for: “Please be with Mark in his suffering, be with Susan in her grief, help me to be strong and to be of use…” But mostly I try to listen. When my own thoughts rise up, I try to let them float away. Because I sense and I hope that there is a deeper voice that is there, waiting to be heard, if I can get quiet enough, if I wait and watch and am still. 

Do you know how, when you walk into the woods, the animals go into hiding? The birds stop singing and flitting around, the squirrels disappear? But if you sit quietly and wait, eventually they come back out. In my experience, the inner life is like that. Your soul is like a wild animal that is prone to hiding; particularly when you’re hurrying, or when you’re searching for it. But if you settle down and wait, then eventually it will come out and visit.

The Spirit, or God, or whatever you may call that Presence, is elusive like a wild animal. But I try to trust it is always with us, and we do catch glimpses of it from time to time. “Where can I go from your Spirit?” the psalmist wrote. “Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).

I know that some of us have negative associations with that word God, because of what we were taught as children, or because of the terrible things that people have done in God’s name. I know that the word God can off-putting or scary, and some of you would be happy for me to stop using that name. 

But what about the mystery? What about the light that shines in the darkness? What about the darkness, the deep and pregnant space that is so full of possibility? What about the silence, in which we can rest and be restored, in which might hear a loving and liberating voice speak?

Sometimes I get discouraged about this human enterprise we call church. But what keeps me going is the Spirit I sense moving here, in our midst. The Sufi mystic Rumi was talking about this when he wrote about “a community of the spirit,” a community that invites you to let go of what is holding you back. He asks,

Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.

This is what I am talking about when I use those words Spirit and Mystery and God; I’m trying to describe that liminal space in which we are open to a wider and deeper ways of being. Where we can know, at least for a moment, that life is good, that there is reason for hope, even with all the pain and struggle of our lives and in our world.

We heard this in Christine Robinson’s version of Psalm 42:

Deep calls to deep in the heart of the world.
The creative energy of the universe
  throbs to those who listen. 
Put your trust there. You will not be forsaken.

The whole point of prayer and meditation, of any kind of spiritual practice, is to put yourself in touch with that creative energy of the universe. I know for myself that I need this grounding, and this companionship.

There are many ways to be in touch with these depths, and it’s important to find a way that works for you. We offer the Tuesday night meditation group and Vespers and different practices on Third Wednesdays. And we are offering new ways, like yesterday’s silent retreat. 

For me, those almost six hours of silence here felt like such a gift and a relief. To not have to talk, to just be quiet for that long, was so good. Not that it was easy—the silence forces you to hear the voices within, some of them voices that you might rather push away. And when you settle down, when you get past those surface voices, you can sense something deep within the silence. A quiet calm that is always there, waiting for us to notice. A peace that is beyond our ability to name or describe. A presence that we don’t need to name or understand in order to touch and be blessed by.

I wish I could offer you a sermon without words. Because all these words about trying to be quiet, is kind of a contradiction, right? All I can do is point toward that mystery which is so near to us, and remind you that is it there. That it is here. If we will but wait and watch and listen. If we will dare to stop and just be still for a change. If we will care for ourselves enough, and for our world enough, that we will make the time for practices that feed our own souls, then we will have the grounding and the grace to go out and help others by spreading kindness and bringing peace and offering these gifts which we have been given.

The UU minister Jack Mendelsohn was a big personality, an activist with a large and influential public ministry. And he knew something about the power of prayer. He wrote that prayer is not a way of asking for things, of getting what you want, but rather, he said,

“It is an effort to reach deep and to reach out and to become what we would like to be, and need to be, and ought to be. Proper prayer is not a petition to escape realities. It is an effort to face up to realities, to understand them, to deal with them. It is an expression of the desire to grow in spiritual stature, in courage, in strength, and in faith. The purpose of prayer is to transform those doing the praying, to lift them out of fear and selfishness into serenity, patience, determination, belonging.”

A Quaker elder was once asked, “How long should I pray?” And the response was, “Long enough that God starts praying you.” In other words, put yourself in that place of deep listening, and stay there long enough that the voices in your head have their say and finally quiet down, long enough that something shifts, long enough that you can listen to the silence and know that it is not the same as emptiness, that there is a Presence in that absence, there is a peace and a goodness that we are meant to be aware of and to partake in, a depth that we come from, and that we belong to.

Listen! Just listen.

Who knows what you will hear, and how you will be blessed, and how you will be changed.