Over the decades, my prayers have seemed to be nothing more than one-sided conversations. Surely, Someone is listening (at least, that is what I tell myself) but when I pray, I find that I am doing all the talking. That no one talks back generally leaves me with an undeniable sense that I am praying to the wall or the floor or the ceiling.
God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He said, “Yes? I’m right here!” (Exodus 3:4, The Message)
Moses’ response to God’s voice carries a strong implication that all Moses could see was a burning bush. Not that I have ever seen a burning bush, but when I pray, I share Moses’ experience of seeming to be the only one present in the presence of the Unseen. Because I am so captivated by the visible, the Unseen does not seem real. Since God is not visible, He is not really present and I find myself praying, not to the Unseen, but to the wall. Why the wall? because I can see the wall.
Is it any wonder that I do not pray except when I am in trouble or have some urgent need? Prayer qualifies as the second most unsatisfying activity of my life, right after paying taxes. Who amongst us would take a friend out for coffee who merely sat across the table, never saying a word? After ten minutes, would you not wonder if your friend was interested? cared a lick about you? wished he was somewhere else? Would you not further wonder about the real nature of this relationship? If you regularly engaged this seemingly detached friend over coffee, would not the relationship naturally devolve into a selfish one? Would not such a relationship be correctly characterized as a sham?
Everything must change.
For Moses, everything changed the day he noticed the bush burning. For me, that day was my first Elder Board meeting.
Moses spent forty years in the desert. Forty years! There is no indication from the Scriptures that Moses had any contact with God during that whole time. It took forty years for Moses, raised in the midst of royal privilege in Egypt, to lose his attachment to power, position, and possessions. When he was no longer “absorbed in the world, immersed in its pleasures, and eager for its honours and distinctions,”1 he noticed a burning bush. Only when Moses “turned aside to look,” did the Lord call out. How many burning bushes had Moses blown off during his forty years in the desert? We will never know, but I wonder how many times I have not turned aside to see some “marvelous sight” over the last forty years of my life. If it were not for that first Elder Board meeting, how long would I have endured praying self-centered prayers to the Silent One?
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You will probably argue that,
“If it seems you are praying to a wall, know that we should pray in faith that God is present and listening.”
I must tell you that this argument is bumper-sticker theology. Such a line of thinking, if it qualifies for either “line” or “thinking”, trivializes both God and prayer, and dismisses any possibility that God might in reality be present when I pray. God, who created the Universe and sits on a throne at the center of that Universe can make His presence known to a creature like me. That is what He did for Moses. That is what He does for me.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)
I suppose that theologians vary on their understanding of “inner room”. Maybe this is surprising, since an initial reading of this verse seems to clearly imply that we should all have a prayer room in our residence where we can sequester ourselves for the purpose of prayer. This view, though entirely obvious, has been an enormous impediment to me for many years.
When I go into a visible room, with visible walls and a floor on which I can stand or kneel, the Invisible is not apparent. I have placed myself in a situation that is consistent with my everyday life: the visible is real and the invisible is not. Furthermore, I am central to whatever happens in that room. It is my room. I am the only entity in the room, at least so far as I can see. I set myself up to see only the visible. I see the invisible, not by faith, but by a leap of faith. All of this militates against meaningful prayer.
A more useful view, and one more consistent with other Biblical statements regarding prayer, is one embraced by St. Teresa of Avila:
I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a King so mighty, so wise, and so pure, containing in Himself all good, can delight to rest? … As far as I can understand, the gate by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation.1 (emphasis mine)
A secret room, in which God Himself delights to rest, and into which I enter through prayer.
1 Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle or The Mansions, ed. by B. Zimmerman, Grand Rapids, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.