Monday, September 24, 2007
praying the hours with thomas merton
Lately I've listened as a number of people talk about the difficult time they have living with joy in their lives. The reasons for this difficulty are numerous and differ from person to person, but what seems to be a constant among them is the shear volume of bad news - even apocalyptic news - with which these people feel inundated every day. As I've reflected on these conversations and prayed for these people, I thought that it might be true that other people whom I've never met may also be feeling depressed, disempowered, and overwhelmed. I don't believe that there is an easy solution for our emotional responses to the overwhelming issues of our day. I don't believe in a religion that proffers simplicity. However, I do believe that Christianity is at its best a transformational religion that helps us not only to make it through difficult times, but to exact change upon our times. The first step along this pathway of empowerment, you may not be surprised to hear me say, is living a centered life circumscribed by prayer.
Many Christians claim to pray daily, although most Christians I've counseled struggle with the function and purpose of prayer. People, in their honest and vulnerable moments, admit that they don't know how to pray because they don't know why they pray. The people who share with me this spiritual road block don't believe that God is there at our beck and call; God isn't there just to make us feel better and fix our problems, so what are we hoping to accomplish in prayer. They wonder if all those Christians who claim daily prayer are honest, and, if so, why can't they?
I think we've made prayer too complicated and too simplistic at the same time. Because Protestants pride themselves on extemporaneous prayer, many people get caught up in distressing thoughts about their poetic ability, their creativity, and their theology. Concurrently, we tend to reduce prayer to a list of "give-me" items that we hand to God. Prayer is much easier than this. Prayer is much different from this. Prayer is set apart time for communing with the Divine. During this time, we may lash out, weep, speak casually, listen, or use no words at all. One way to remove our trepidations with crafting prayers is to return to the use of others' words. This way of praying, after all, is how most of Christianity has prayed for 2,000 years. Extemporaneous prayer didn't begin its ascent to prominence, even among Protestants, until the mid to late nineteenth century. It's okay to use the words of others; it doesn't make your prayer any less authentic or any less your own. Using the words of others can free you to rest inside the prayer, free from worrying about the next word and next thought.
One way to sink deeper into prayer is to pray the hours. It's an ancient way of prayer that requires diligence and commitment. When we pray the hours, we not only pray daily, we pray multiple times daily. There are a number of online resources that can introduce you to praying the hours, but one book that I would like to lift up is "A Book of Hours" by twentieth century contemplative Thomas Merton. The prologue includes instructions on how to pray the hours and the book is inviting and welcoming of those for whom this may be their first trip down the road of praying with regularity.
Praying the hours doesn't present God with a laundry list of items. Praying the hours is an invitation into a life lived in communion with God. This act of centering our lives is one way of opening ourselves to both the pain of the world and the joy of life. Both are all around us. Finding balance between them is part of the art of spirituality. It is only after we find a balance in life that we have the ability to move into the world as agents of God's transforming grace and love.
If you pray the hours or give it a try, I'd love to hear your feedback.
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