Why should you care how I pray? What does my inner subjectivity have to do with yours? Certainly not that my inner subjectivity is anything to emulate. I am not an example in the sense of doing it right. But I might be an example of something larger than myself. I might be a particular expression of a whole – a whole of which we are both parts – so that each of our inner subjectivities has enough in common we can learn from each other. I do not mean that you should pray the way I pray. Not at all. But the spiritual and cultural influences that shape my prayer might touch you too in some way.
Since college days I wanted to “be spiritual.” I was spiritually competitive. I wanted to be the most spiritual person in the room. If you had done a 3-day Ignatian retreat, I had done an 8-day; if you had done an 8-day, I had done the 19th Annotation. I had more degrees and certificates in spirituality than most anyone I knew because I took care not to know the people who were better credentialed than I was. In addition to Shalem and all the Christian hot spots, I had been to Esalen, Omega, Kagyu Samten Choling in New Hampshire and Karma Dzong in Colorado. I had studied vipassana with Larry Rosenberg in Cambridge and shamata with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder. Does this sound like Paul recounting his mystical flights and missionary ordeals (I was a Marine for Jesus) in 2nd Corinthians? Do you think there may have been something not quite right in my spiritual quest?
I don’t for a minute regret my prayer and meditation practices from those days. Some of them are still with me, but they are no longer the staple of my spiritual diet. These days my prayer is pretty simple. Any child can do it. I pray for people. What might that be about?
Relationships have become precious to me. It may be the loss of relationships that teaches their value. No longer having parents in this world, no longer having siblings, makes it a different place. Being an empty nester changes the home. That sounds sad; and it is sad, but also poignant. I value my marriage more. I value my ties across the miles to my children and their families.
When I was a parish priest, relationships were close and personal – especially since I stayed in the same church for 14 years and the same small city for 18. I don’t have that now. But I do know people around Nevada, and I value them more than I would have once. Driving hours and hours through miles of arid loneliness makes me look at people differently when I arrive.
So I pray differently. After the basic daily office intro including some praise, thanksgiving, and the Our Father, I pray for my ancestors, for my family, and for a list of people who are in some sort of need (for Lucy’s metabolism, Karen’s cancer, Robin’s heart). I pray for those individuals purely hoping to open a channel of grace.
I pray for the Church, especially the Episcopal Church and our PB Katharine. I pray for Joseph and the Diocese of Machakos, for Alex and the Diocese of Santiago; and then for this Diocese of Nevada, for the Standing Committee, the staff, for particular parishes and clergy who are in the midst of troubles or on the threshold of opportunities.
What is going on here? I would be quite happy to have mystical experiences again. I would like to be a tranquil, serene, soulful person both for the intrinsic value of equanimity (like lower blood pressure) as well as the status of having people say, “he’s so spiritual.” But to tell the truth, I am not nearly as interested in myself as I once was. St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.” That was my experience. Life is better now because I am no longer my own production. I am no longer a homework assignment to be turned in for a grade. The people with whom I am in relationship matter to me -- not my ego credentials.
My prayer parallels my work. Over the years I have taken on causes. I still have causes today. “A life without a cause is a life without an effect.” But through community organizing, I have come to value the relational network of public friends even more than the causes. The danger with the causes is that it is so easy invest one’s ego in them. Then we wind up using people to further our ego-infested causes. Friendships don’t make us proud. They make us human.
I am describing a shift from private heroic spirituality to relational spirituality. I don’t claim to be good at it. I wouldn’t last long in an intentional community. I tried once. Too tight for me. But whether I’m any good at it or not isn’t the point. The point is that I appreciate these people I pray for. I value them and my life is better because they are in it.
Maybe it’s just me. But maybe it isn’t. The best theology I am reading these days is relational theology. Roberto Goizueta’s book, Caminemos Con Jesus is subtitled "A Theology of Accompaniment." Marcus Borg can be summarized, “It’ about the relationships.” Same thing might be said of St. Paul.
Community organizing is on the rise as a means of both missional engagement and congregational development. Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust model is teaching us how to create safe places in which genuinely human encounters are possible. Maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe it’s us -- us at this point in our human story.
Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is about the decline of community in our culture. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort is about the division of communities into little clusters of like-minded people, what Robert Bellah calls “special interest enclaves.” No wonder we listen to Garrison Keillor’s stories of Lake Woebegone with a kind of longing. We miss human community and it isn’t just nostalgia. Human community is an incarnate expression of the unity and diversity of God, of Reality itself, represented theologically by the Trinity. To fracture into a society of scattered individuals is to lose touch with our authentic human nature, the nature of God, and the imago dei.
So for me prayer these days is about connection. It’s about caring for the well being of my “poor earthbound companions and fellow mortals.” It’s nothing to write home about. But my longing for human bonds of affection is laced with hope.