Absolutely Unmixed Attention

IN HIS BOOK Letters to Malcolm, Christian apologist and literary critic C.S. Lewis writes that for most people, prayer is an unpleasant duty they are often reluctant to begin but happy to finish.

Indeed, for people reared in the realm of the rational, prayer is a discomfiting experience better consigned to the innocence of childhood than to the banal awakenings of adulthood. Yet for the Christian, that is what prayer is: a dangerous thing to human pride; for honest prayer brings us to an awareness of our own finitude and to the reality that when left with ourselves, we are utterly helpless.

It is a threat to human pride because the posture of prayer is surrender to a Higher Power. The perfectly human urge is to be self-sufficient, but when we pray, we come to what one writer has described as a “holy despair” – that despair that, when we are at our wit’s end in the face of adversity, “opens us to something beyond ourselves.”

We fall down on our knees, acknowledging before God our sins and banalities, our helplessness, our fears, as well as our best hopes and brightest dreams. Yahweh spoke to the prophet Jeremiah: Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know (Jeremiah 33:3, NIV).

Call to me. Yahweh’s challenge to Jeremiah is God’s constant call for a total and unqualified dependence on Him. When we pray, we lay down all protestations human reason foists over an act of humility, or obeisance, before a Sovereign yet Loving God. The proud goes by the Nietzchean ethic of the Super-Man: I need no crutch to fight life’s cruelties.Scientific logic and commonsense experience tell me that it is a simple cause-and-effect affair; I do this and something happens, I make things happen, I will things to happen.

But in prayer, we allow God to make things happen, often, in a way that goes against our very own wishes. Most of the time, we pray with a hidden agenda. We nurture an express request that only veil our secret desires. The Spirit of God, however, knows the deep things of the inner self.

For the prophet Jeremiah, it meant 20 years of constantly struggling with the will of Yahweh: no, he didn’t want the job in the first place, and rather than bring God’s incredible message to a people steeped in unbelief, he’d even wished he were dead. Yet, each moment of confrontation with the claims of God over his own life was also a moment of personal transformation. God directed the prophet to do things that, under the circumstances, no person in his sane mind would have done. For God wanted to show to Israel that He is a God who keeps and renews the covenant with His chosen people, that over the impossibilities of human history, He stands sovereign and in control.

And Jeremiah obeyed, often, with much reluctance, but as he did so, he began to feel the beating of God’s heart, he began to see a clearer vision of God’s character. Through threats to his own life, imprisonment and physical and emotional suffering, he would live on to see most, if not all, of the dire things he had prophesied about Israel happen, though he only saw the promise of redemption from afar – and it was enough for him.

WE learn these things: how limited our understanding of who God is, and how selfish we could be, one frustrated prayer at a time.

Does prayer work? To ask that question, says C.S. Lewis, is to totally miss the point. When we ask that question, we expose our puny, immature, understanding of God’s character and His purposes. “Prayer works,” says one writer, “when God shows Himself to us and that it is not always as we expect or deserve.”

God’s promise is that when we call to Him. He will show us great and unsearchable things we do not know. The sweetest thing about prayer is that point where God ushers us into the mystery of His presence, where He reveals himself to us in a special way.

Call to me and I will show you great and unsearchable things you do not know. Our need for prayer is really a deep longing for the Holy. Our need for prayer establishes our relatedness as creatures to an awesome and loving Creator. Through prayer, we can truly relate with the God Who is There and Who is not Silent, to borrow the language of the late evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer. One of the philosopher’s original insights is that we can talk properly of personality only because we have been created by a Personal-Infinite God in His own image and likeness. God made personality possible. He is concerned with each person. As a God who communicates; He made human beings creatures with a deep yearning to communicate. And He demonstrated His concern for His wayward creation by sending His own son, Jesus Christ, to be Word Incarnate, who entered the realm of human history “in the fullness of time.”

Hence in prayer, we truly communicate with the God who created the cosmos and who delights to relate with His creation.

In prayer, we seek to bring the weight of heavenly glory down to our commonplace existence; in prayer we plead God to establish His holy presence in our hearts. Perhaps, the famed Jewish philosopher Simone Weil, who started as an atheist before she became something of a Christian mystic, caught a life-changing glimpse of this truth when she wrote of prayer as an “absolutely unmixed attention.” The psalm-writer knew of this truth intimately when he wrote, in breathless and beautiful invocation of awe and surrender:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there, If I make my bed in the depths, you are there,

If I rise on the wings of dawn, If I settle on the far side of the sea. Even there your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely, the darkness will hide me,” And the light become night around me,” Even the darkness will shine like the day, For darkness is as light to you…” Psalm 139:7-12 (NIV)

LIKE the psalm-writer, we are called to practice the presence of God in the everyday, moment by moment. And the proper spirituality behind prayer is this: not a grudging concession but a willing submission to God’s presence. As a preacher eloquently said of this existential habit:

This is what prayer is: prayer means seeking solidarity with God as we talk with Him and act with Him. Prayer is something we do together with God. Through prayer, God talks with us and walks with us, and knocks on the door of the world with us. The One who sagged in exhaustion on the cross can help us when we sag in exhaustion, and when we’re tempted to lose heart. The One whose hands bled on the cross can bind up our wounded hands. He takes them gently in His. We place them in His through prayer.”

Written by abogadototo, edited by mananalaysay and first appeared on www.peyups.com on 2nd November 2004.

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