Thursday, September 5, 2013

Caring Prayer versus Curing Prayer: Slow Down When You Pray

    Our English word "prayer" is derived from the Sanskrit word "prashna" which means "to question". The Prashna Upanishad is one of the "primary" sacred teachings in Hinduism. In the Prashna Upanishad six students bring questions about things like the nature of the life force (soul), the meaning of dreams and the goal of meditation. Their teacher tells them to be patient, and to spend the next year in solitude and contemplative study before their questions can be addressed. There is a lesson here for what we call "prayer" or bringing questions to the deity, or psychologically addressing the archetypal realm of the unconscious: the surest way to find an "answer" to a prayer (prashna) is to slow down and approach the issue consciously and carefully. Sometimes I view prayer as a method to find quick answers from a higher authority--instant cures and snappy remedies.

   Caring prayer focuses on recognizing and sitting with the indispensable existence of the problematic people, emotional concerns and external situations that move one to prayer or sacred intercession. Caring prayer begins with an assumption that I am incompletely whole right now. This means that my current state of inquisitive fragmentation is wholly divine in the sense that there is no place where the numinous Presence is not active. Stephen Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching 22 captures this perspective:
"If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty."
    Caring prayer recognizes that there is something holy occurring in every life situation--even the crooked and empty experiences. Caring prayer sits with the awful experiences in prayer as a parent does with their sick child. Before I make what will likely sound like insane suggestions in the next paragraph, consider a story from the Hebrew Bible found in Numbers 21. In this story the Hebrews had just escaped Egypt and were traveling through a hot desert. There was little food and the going was rough--so they screamed at Moses and God. The story says that the LORD sent toxic snakes to bite them. Don't get caught up in the literal, pay attention to the symbols. The poisoned and dying people asked Moses to get them help. Moses asked God what to do and this is what it says:
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

     How odd is that? The very thing that was killing them contained the antidote. The solution to the life threatening problem was in looking at the thing itself--considering it, taking care of what was right in front of them. Even more fascinating is that Jesus used this illustration to describe how his toxic crucifixion would bring salvation (wholeness) to those who pondered its significance: John 3 Caring prayer realizes that the answer is in the question, just like the Hindu students who spent a year with their questions (prashna) before the answers could arrive.

     To practice caring prayer, begin by creating a five-minute prayer time each day. Make a list of the top five most problematic or toxic issues or questions (prashna) in your life. Spend five minutes with this list each day for the next month--looking up at it. Pray for each problem--yes, for the problem. Pray for the person who is ruining your life; pray for that person to find the joy and peace he/she is seeking. To pray for them is to pray for your evolving self. Pray for the money that is missing or the health issue that is assailing you--not to have it "fixed" but to see how it is "fixing" you as you pay attention to it. Ruminate on the words and ideas: the name and face of the person you despise, the emotions you are feeling, the item you don't have enough of or want more of. Write the words down. Look them up in a dictionary. Care for them as a sculptor forming clay, because these words and their images contain the solutions to your questions and the answers to your prayers. They have come to you to be attended, just like dreams. Jot down insights. Draw images. Write poems. Put it to music. Engage with the problem. Get acquainted with these profane and ordinary annoyances as "imperfectly perfect" manifestations of the numinous. Each life event is a container of soul-making activity. This does not, however, mean passive acquiescence to intolerable circumstances, nor does it mean surrendering to the will of some bully Supreme Being, but rather conscientious and contemplative engagement with those things we often hastily pray to have removed. Caring prayer requires us to set aside cures, and focus on gathering what is right in front of us for careful attention until it answers the question, and leaves when it is done. In its own time, not ours. 

It's All Good, But Some Good is Gooder

     There is a popular trend in the modern new age movement that is inclined to label some things as "spiritual", implying of course that other things are not "spiritual". Many seem to think that the word "spiritual" ought to be understood--believing that things like meditation, yoga, Depak Chopra and an assortment of trendy new age books, gurus and ancient secrets are "spiritual". I haven't really heard anyone clearly define what is not spiritual, but the general unspoken consensus seems to be that the erratic and prickly ego is not spiritual, and obviously all of those annoying and negative emotions are not "spiritual". And of course those dogmatic fundamentalists, greedy capitalists and obstructionist politicians (pick your party) are not spiritual.
 
    I want to challenge this assumption about what is and is not "spiritual". I will argue that spirituality is a matter of degree rather than an exclusive category. I get this idea from the Hebrew Bible, paying special attention to a statement found in one of Paul's epistles where he writes: "There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one degree, and the glory of the earthly is of another degree" (I Cor. 15:40). The word "glory" serves as a kind of synonym for divine or spiritual. Paul goes on to say that the visible material world and the invisible heavenly realm both have a "measure" of glory, indicating that all things material and non-material have their own style of glory or spirituality. In another place he puts it like this: And we all...beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (II Cor. 3:18). In this passage Paul is comparing the glory of the earlier Mosaic ritual law to the glory of freedom from perfunctory religion by being in Christ. Neither is bad--and each has its own "spiritual" place and function. Yet he is making a clear distinction--one has more glory than the other. Psychologically this optimistic attitude implies that we grow in consciousness, that we mature into a more solid kind of glory. I believe this is what Jung's individuation is about, as well as Hillman's notion of soul-making. Former phases of life and "less satisfying" modes of consciousness are parts of the process as we mature and deepen. In this view, the idea of a holistic approach means drawing a circle around all of life, including times of dis-ease and disintegration. The new age movement, on the other hand, often seems to suggest that wholeness arrives when I am peaceful and healthy in body and mind.
    Perhaps it is time for a "newer age" movement that sees all of life as part of a spiritualizing process rather than moments we label spiritual or unspiritual. Perhaps we ought to write books about spiritualizing rather than spirituality, or name our growth communities Centers for Spiritualizing Life, indicating that we are always moving from one kind of glory to another. That would give our much maligned ego and all of those annoying people and negative emotions that "get in the way" of my spiritual life their degree of glory for the soul-making process as we pursue the transformation "from glory to glory". Then we could change our slogan to: "It's all good, but some is gooder."