Prayer and Pain

Praying in Pain

 

I had the happy circumstance of spending a whole week in Rome recently.  I like good food and beautiful churches, and there was a lot of both to be enjoyed.  I had some rigatoni with pesto that I will never forget.  I also had a prayer experience I will never forget.

 

It became clear after just a day or two of visiting Roman churches that martyrs play a major role in forming the spirituality of that city.  Peter and Paul most famously died there because of their faith, but there were so many other martyrs with churches built in their honor.  Clement, Cecelia, Sebastian, Agnes, Lawrence, Agatha, to name a few.  Their ability to withstand suffering and death rather than compromise their integrity by denying their faith stands as a witness around every corner, it seems.

 

One special house of prayer invited people who were up for it an opportunity to share a little pain of their own.  Inside the church are the “Scala Santa” or “Holy Steps,” which Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena brought back from Jerusalem with the claim that these were steps leading to the place where Jesus encountered Pontius Pilate during his trial.  The marble steps are now covered with wood to protect them from people walking on them.  However, people do not walk up these twenty-eight steps; rather, they go up them on their knees.

 

I don’t think that God wants me to feel pain, and I think that I can pray anywhere in the world and be heard just as well as any other place.  So, I was not prone to perform this act of piety.  Yet, I had two thoughts that urged me onward:  I am a pilgrim and pilgrims go to strange places and do strange things, and I remembered the cliché, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  So, down on my knees I went.

 

The pain wasn’t as bad, I’m sure, as what Sebastian felt from the arrows that pierced his side, but I have to say it hurt a lot.  My intention was to say a prayer for someone on each of the twenty-eight steps, stating the intention to God and then saying an “Our Father” or a “Hail, Mary.”  About eight steps up, I didn’t know if I could go on.  But at that point there were not only six or so people in front of me but about that number behind me as well. I took strength from their company. I also found that the pain was more tolerable if I distributed my weight across the tendon below my knee cap and not just on the top knobby part of my shin.  Finding no shortage of people to pray for also seemed to ease the pain.  A final strategy to endure was looking at the large scene of Jesus’ crucifixion at the top of the stairs. After my twenty-eighth prayer, I rose, with a cold sweat and knees a bit wobbly, affected.

 

Unpacking that experience, I wrote in my journal that night, “I almost hate to admit it, but that was an important prayer experience that I will not forget.  The pain and effort created an intensity that opened me to feel deeper compassion for the suffering of others, gratitude for having a God who suffered on the cross, and my own desire to be consoled by this crucified God.”

 

I don’t plan on making this a regular habit on my stairs at home, and I really don’t encourage anyone to inflict pain on themselves for any reason. Still, this experience leads me to the conviction that in this culture of ours that is so skilled at avoiding pain, we should also be aware of the positive role that pain and struggle can have in our lives.  I advise this: When you are hurting, pray for an end to your own pain and the pain that exists everywhere in the world.  Pray that people who have the power to end the pain of others do so.  Pray for your family, your friends, and for all who need your prayers, those you like and those you don’t, especially those who are hurting.  Pray for yourself, that you will grow in freedom to serve the world generously, even when it hurts. And, if you are Christian, pray that your pain will draw you more deeply into the life of the Crucified and Risen One.

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Road Rage v. Mysticism

One of the funniest, and cleverest, observations I ever heard was from George Carlin.  He said, “Did you ever notice when you’re driving, that everyone who is driving faster than you is a maniac and everyone who is driving slower than you is an idiot?” It was so funny to me because it is so true—and so ridiculous of anyone to think that way!  Carlin exposes the truth that we judge others from a radically isolated and self-centered perspective.

 

I think I’m a typical driver.  I get irritated fairly often by others on the road, mostly when I’m in a hurry.  I’m not proud of it, but I’ll even utter a few choice words when I lose my cool.  A couple times I did that just after calling my mom on my Bluetooth phone connection, and so instead of hearing “Hi, Mom,” she heard those few choice words.  That was embarrassing.

 

But in early August I had a long overdue revelation.  I saw that there are two basic ways of seeing myself and others on the road.  I can see myself as an individual with my own task at hand and everyone else as an obstacle to me.  Or, I can see myself in communion with everyone else trying to make my way home.  And isn’t that latter attitude a central truth that so many of the world’s great religions have tried to teach us?  Starting with the attitude that I am in communion with everyone else makes traffic seem beautiful, actually.

 

I read an article recently about the psychology of road rage.  The author said that road rage happens because we feel powerful with a gas pedal under our feet, and, more significant, we are physically cut off from other drivers by the steel of our cars.  This physical separation decreases our inhibitions that would usually prevent us from verbally assaulting someone we were standing next to, for example.  That’s where spirituality comes to the rescue.  From a spiritual perspective, even though we are physically separated, we are aware of our deeper communion and shared existence as God’s children.

 

The monk Thomas Merton expressed this insight after an experience of “people watching” in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in 1958: In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. …If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.  Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed….”

Driving can be an occasion for anger or an opportunity to be a mystic. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be a mystic. It starts with knowing that everyone behind the wheel of a car has their own story, their own limitations, and our own places to go.  Just like you, and me.

Forgiveness Coming and Going

The folk singer John Prine wrote a song with the refrain, “Father, forgive us for what we must do.  You forgive us and we’ll forgive you.  We’ll forgive each other ‘til we both turn blue, and we’ll whistle and go fishin’ up in heaven.”

As with many things, my head and my heart were initially at odds with those lyrics, mostly around the idea that we could forgive God.  My head said, “That’s the ultimate in arrogance!  Who are we to forgive God?  God sent the Son into the world to forgive us, not the other way around.  We need to focus on receiving God’s mercy and surrendering our lives to the mysterious transcendent God whose ways we do not always understand but who always has our best interests in mind.”

And yet, my heart was deeply touched, inspired, by that song’s refrain, especially the part about forgiving God.  I think that’s because the concept of us forgiving God takes us right to the places of pain in our lives.  I think of an older woman I visited as a young priest.  She had a condition where any movement of her body or anyone touching any part of her body caused sharp pain.  She said, “You know, forgive me if this sounds irreverent, but sometimes I think, “Lord Jesus, I appreciate your suffering for me and everyone, but you only were on that cross for three hours and so far for me it’s been three years.”

I think of babies born to mothers whose milk has run dry due to famine.  I think of men and women who married spouses that turned out to be abusers.  I think of the profound rejection and suffering endured by people with different forms of mental illness.  Less intense, but also real and common, I think of the human condition of never quite being the persons we want to be.

What brought this topic to mind was a documentary I watched on Memorial Day called “Almost Sunrise,” about two veterans on a quest for healing after experiencing trauma overseas.  After many months of soul searching, one of them sought the counsel of a monk named Thomas Keating.  Keating noted that many veterans come home with “moral injury,” having done their duty but also having done things their conscience would not allow under normal circumstances.  “They struggle to forgive themselves, and by implication they struggle to forgive God for allowing this to happen to them,” he said. The former soldier said these words hit him like a ton of bricks on his chest.  His breakthrough to healing came when, during deep meditation, in his words, “I literally just said, I forgive you God, this was not your fault. And that triggered something inside of me that just came out and after that I felt completely like a different person.”

That’s the truth of the lyrics “You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.”  This is why, despite my mind’s resistance, my heart joyfully sings along with John Prine.  After dipping into the waters of guilt and suffering, that song’s refrain is refreshing, even redemptive.  Granted, this is a process that can take years.  But if or when that moment of grace arrives when we accept the imperfection of the universe and hold nothing against anyone, even God, a great weight is lifted from our souls, and we are free to feast on forgiveness coming and going in both directions.   Light and free and fishing with God in heaven, who could keep from whistling?

Access to the Heart: The Wisdom of Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier died on May 6; he was ninety years old.  I’ll never approach the depth of his spirituality, but I owe a lot to him for the little I’ve progressed.  After successful careers in the military and as a professor of philosophy, Vanier dedicated the rest of his life to living with people who have intellectual disabilities.  In 1964, he established the first “L’Arche Community.”  “L’Arche” means “The Ark,” which in the Noah story is a place of safety and covenant.  These houses are places of where people who in many cases have experienced acute rejection can find a safe place where love is freely received and given, and a loving God is worshiped.

 

Vanier saw and lived out an important truth that too few in the world see: Intellectually disabled people help us as much or more than we can help them.  They do this by giving us access to our own hearts.  When you cannot talk about abstract ideas with someone, you have two choices: you either run away or you learn to communicate with your heart.  That’s the gift.  You become attentive to each other’s emotions, soothing pain and sadness, dealing with anger, encouraging laughter and helping each other feel good and important.

 

I consider my friendship with a person who has an intellectual disability to be one of the greatest gifts in my life.  There are wonderful parts of my heart that would be undisturbed and unused, even unknown, were it not for this friendship.

 

When asked about the process of forming friendships with intellectually disabled people, he once responded, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” He also spoke of his initial fears in forming these friendships. He was intimidated by their physical appearance, difficulty in speaking, and, mostly, by what he perceived as their “bottomless need and incurable loneliness.”  Rather than run away from their need, he realized it was a reflection of his own neediness, fragility, and inevitable death.   This led to one of his most important insights:  In order to best serve broken people, we need to be in touch with our own brokenness.  When we are at peace with our own fears and fragility, we can be at peace with the brokenness of others.  When we know we are loved in our own brokenness, we can love broken people.

 

As a result, Vanier rejected a form of Christian service from above, where we see ourselves as the “good strong guys” helping out those “poor weak souls.”  Rather, he invited us to see our service as walking together as friends who are in essence not that different from each other.  We all need love.  We are all blessed, all broken, and all fulfilled when we give our love away.

 

I would love to go on a retreat led by Jean Vanier.  I have miles to go in developing a heart like his.  He is no longer here to lead a retreat, however.  But any of us can do what he would advise.  Do not be afraid of people who are different from you.  Know that everyone needs love, including yourself.  Know that everyone has wounds in life, including yourself.  Trust that you are precious to God and realize that everyone else is also.

 

When we follow this advice we will learn over time some wisdom for life.  When you are in touch with your own need for mercy, you will show abundant mercy.  When you are aware of your own deep need for love and friendship, you will not ignore your lonely neighbor.  When you dare to feel the pain of your own failures and rejections, you will be kind to the failed and rejected.  Together we find salvation.

The Guardians of Sixth Avenue

I woke up last week above the very ground where I played “Kill the Guy with the Ball” during second and third grade recess time at St. Anne’s school.  Since those days in the 70’s, a priest residence was built on that ground and I was staying in one of the first floor guest rooms.  If I were to put my ear to the floor of that guest room, I bet I could hear faint echoes of young boys laughing and screaming and straining to put into play their budding masculinity.

 

But I didn’t put my ear to the floor.  Instead, I listened to the early morning rain tapping the windows and the sound of cars spraying rain water in all directions.  I guessed that these were cars of parents dropping their children off to school.  Indeed, as I peeked through the window shades, I saw that it was so.  Then, beyond the drop-off zone, I saw my heroes for the day, two of them.

 

I was so taken by their appearance that I got dressed, opened the shades, and sat down to watch these two children on opposite sides of the street.  They were standing and still.  If they had crimson jackets and tall bearskin hats I could not have distinguished them for the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace.  Each about five feet tall, they wore yellow ponchos with hoods in full use.  Instead of holding the guns of a palace guard, they each held, vertically, a six-foot pole with a foot-square plastic yellow flag lying wet against the top part of the pole.  If the pole were extended horizontally, the flag would have dropped into place with its identifying words clearly seen:  SAFETY PATROL.

 

I admired them instantly. I couldn’t tell because of their ponchos whether they were male or female.  I could tell, however, that they were virtuous.  If not standing at military attention, neither were they slouching or leaning on their poles.  Most cars noticed them and slowed respectfully, but some did not, and their spray hit the pant legs and shoes that were not protected by the yellow plastic.  Either way, they simply stood at the ready. This crosswalk spanning sixth avenue was their territory to watch.

 

As the minutes passed, my admiration grew because, to my astonishment, not a single person, adult or child, walked across the street that day.  Here were two of St. Anne’s finest, ready to shepherd to safety all who approached their path, and no one came.  I suppose the kids who usually walked to school got rides that day because of the rain.  Whatever the reason, our yellow-poncho-clad guardians of sixth avenue stayed at their post until the bell rang, wet and cold for seemingly no reason.  I wondered if they complained about that when they were inside.  Honestly, I don’t think so.  I had built up quite an image of them and was sure that their Stoic virtue would not have allowed them to whine about a little water.

 

How often in life do I stand prepared to serve the next person who comes my way?  And when no one comes and I’m left unused and unthanked, do I continue to stand at the ready? Or, do I grow bored, find something to complain about and seek my own comfort?  I watched those children with such fascination because they were being how I want to be.

 

After the school bell rang, and with nothing else to watch outside, I walked out to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of juice.  The man who was staying in the other guest room joined me shortly after.  His first words were not “Good morning,” but rather, “Did you see those kids in the yellow ponchos?”

Fifteen Seconds Can Be Long Enough

I heard rain against the window before I knew I was awake.  It was February and I thought it was too early to rain.  Then I remembered.  Jerusalem.  Olive Tree Hotel.  I was in the Holy Land, and it would be our last day.  After many sunny days in the 60’s, that day our luck ran out.    By unhappy coincidence, this was also the day we would be outside walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.

Two of our group were sick and stayed behind.  The rest of us were on board the bus and ready to go at 6:00 AM.  The idea was to walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City before the coins of the money changers and the aggressions of souvenir hawkers would distract pilgrims at prayer.

Half of the group, the smart ones, had umbrellas.  I did not.  Some were fearful of falling on the stone pavement made slippery by the rain.  They wondered if there might be some accommodation so that the group could get to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate the places of Crucifixion and Resurrection, without the walk in the rain.  For their sake, I wish there had been a way, but there was not.  It seemed fitting, though, that there was no shortcut to this place.  There is no easy way to Calvary and the Tomb, in Jerusalem or in our own lives.  We would have to watch out for one another.

Some were more wet and cold than others, but no one was warm and dry.  Two or three of the stronger ones stayed in the back to make sure the cautious walkers were not left behind.  We stopped fourteen times to hear the story of the one who made this path holy, who fell three times and got up, who was mocked by some and received encouragement from others.  All arrived safely but dripping to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the crown jewel of pilgrim destinations. If ever there was a walk that was worth the effort, it was ours that day.

We got in line to touch the rock of Calvary where the cross of Jesus was raised.  A chapel was built over the rock, and in the chapel there is an altar, under which there is a hole in the floor that allows pilgrims to reach down and touch the actual rock. One pilgrim was very in tune with the sacrificial love of Jesus as he approached the altar.  He told me that when his fingers touched the stone surface, a prayer burst from his heart: “Ask me anything, Lord, and I will do it.”

The line for the tomb (sepulcher) was much longer.  Before taking our place in line, we gathered for mass in another small chapel tucked away from other pilgrims. I had the privilege of proclaiming one of the biblical accounts of the empty tomb.  I literally lost my breath when, not sixty feet from the tomb itself, I read, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” Stronger than death and anything else that could steal hope from the human heart was that moment of faith. It was then, and can be now.

After breaking and sharing the Body and the crucified and risen one, we joined the line at the tomb of Jesus. There is room for only three or four people at a time to enter. We waited for over two hours to have our fifteen seconds inside the tomb.  I will always remember the faces of the pilgrims as they emerged from it. Tired with little sleep, worn by the cold and rain, they were also fixed with the stunned silence of holy encounter.  When it was my turn, the fifteen seconds seemed long enough.  Even in that short time, I sensed the presence of the power that raised Jesus from the dead.  I felt called to trust in the power of God at all times. I believed with certain faith that staying faithful to God is all the matters, and that all sacrifices we make for the sake of love are worth it. Then we walked back into the rain.

The next morning, I woke up and looked out the window.  There were snow banks eight feet high.  I was back in Eau Claire.  I crawled back under the covers with renewed appreciation of being dry and warm, and remembered the walk, the story, the fifteen seconds in the tomb, half a world away now and yet closer than my pillow.

Being Different Together

I never enjoyed myself so much in an orchestra hall than I did in early December when both the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra shared the stage.  In one sense they did not play together; each ensemble played their pieces separately (at least before intermission when I had to leave).  They did play together in another sense, however, because they were playful with each other.

 

The symphony orchestra would play a classical piece, and then the jazz orchestra played the same piece but with a jazz arrangement.  The conductors, Nobu Yasuda for the symphony and Bruce Hering for the jazz, teased each other throughout about the flaws in the other’s performance.  After conducting Beethoven’s Fifth, Nobu warned Bruce, “Beethoven was German.  What he wrote was very clear.  Da da da daaaa.  There is no room for swing!” Bruce noted that the symphony played Beethoven quite well, except for the part when everything just fell apart.  “Thank heaven for the oboe player who kept playing when everyone else stopped!”  Later, Nobu noted that Mozart wrote perfectly—just the right amount of notes.  Then, after the jazz orchestra played Mozart to a Latin beat full of improvisation, he came out from side stage shaking a notepad and blowing a police whistle, and proceeded to give Bruce a ticket for using “too many notes.”

 

It was a joyful and inspiring performance.  On stage were opposites.  While the jazz orchestra was playing, the players themselves and the audience with them were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet, while the symphony musicians, almost all, sat stoically still with their bows or instruments propped neatly on their thighs.  When it was the symphony’s turn to play, the jazz musicians kept bobbing their heads, tapping their feet and smiling.  The music and the personalities were clearly different.  Yet, these two ensembles enjoyed the stage together and the concert was better because of their difference.  There was, as we like to say in the Church world, “unity in diversity.”

 

I left the performance feeling light as air.  I think it was because it offered sweet relief from the tension I often feel when considering all the conflict in our society.  Questions of economic justice, immigration, sexual ethics, guns, and many other life issues seems to divide the body politic in half with increasing hostility on both sides.  After hearing that concert, something deep inside me had gained hope that people could be different and think differently and still get along.

 

I so often think of President Reagan’s practice of having his political enemies over to the White House for drinks in the evening because “There are no enemies after six o’clock.”  I would love for that spirit to increase in my heart and in our world.  People who belong to churches know that we promote moral principles with political implications.  There are lines we cannot cross, but there are also bridges to be built.  Can we find a way to fight hard for what we believe is right, while still at the end of the day be at peace with those who opposed us during the day?  It takes a mature soul to see the common precious and vulnerable humanity in people who made us angry two hours earlier, and yet it is true that we are simply people with different backgrounds, all needing love and all trying to do what is right.

 

One of the most beautiful parts of Sunday worship for me in my church is when it comes time to share Communion.  Churches, you may have heard, can be places of conflict and division.  There can be everything from intense doctrinal disputes to even more hard feelings over who left the dirty dishes in the common area. And all pastors know that any suggestions of change will make some people angry.  Monday will come and we will engage the challenges of being different, but on Sundays, at Communion time, when all come to share of the one bread and one cup, none of that matters.  What matters is that we all need God and God is reaching down to feed us. That’s why I leave church feeling light as air.