December 14, 2017

Lisa Dye: Hanging Up My Magic Wand

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“The results of prayer are not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays…”

 – O. Hallesby

 My family will tell you that in my moments of extreme helplessness and frustration, I have been prone in the past to stamp my foot. Very little girlish, I know. Fortunately, the foot stamping has not been accompanied by tantrums or displays of temper. It has simply been my expression for a desire to fix something I can’t fix.

My family must have grown weary of this and wanted a more sophisticated expression for me. Two years ago at Christmas, they gave me a magic wand … specifically a replica of Professor Dumbledore’s wand from the Harry Potter story. It even lights up when I am waving it.

I can hear some of you now. “How witchy and evil. She’s gone over to the dark side. I’ll never read another thing she writes.” Fair enough. I have thought and said such things as well. For a while, Harry Potter was not welcome in my house, but at some point I realized that I grew up without any bans on books, enamored with myths of the King Arthur and Merlin legend and only loosely attached to any church. Yet, I hungered for God … perhaps in spite of those things … perhaps precisely because of those things. Good stories reflect the Divine Storyteller and moral imaginations are not formed on the one-dimensional plane of ignorance and innocence. Just think of all the murder and drunkenness and adultery and witchcraft and polygamy and gross family dysfunction depicted in Scripture. Evil juxtaposed against God’s goodness creates drama, yes, but it also creates a demand for discernment … though that is a debate for another day since I have a completely different point to my story.

It has to do with how we Christians use prayer like magic wands. I was actually in mid-wand wielding when that thought occurred to me. To provide some background, the year has been a frustrating one health-wise for my husband. Last spring, he spent my birthday in the hospital ER getting treatment for an acute, painful, non-life-threatening, though plenty expensive ailment. A few weeks later, he fell while working outside and the resulting surgery sidelined him from his normally physical job for a few months. In December, he got the flu and came close to a hospital stay during its worst. Recovery took over a month. Then, during the Midwest’s umpteenth snowstorm, he fell on the ice and broke two ribs and violently jolted other important innards, causing some serious complications. That night, I waited on him with food, medicine, hot tea, ice bags, blankets and everything I could think of to relieve his suffering. It was to no avail. He was in terrible pain and I felt completely helpless and mentally berated myself because I had cut short my praying that morning to be at the office early. Maybe he fell because I had not covered his comings and goings properly as I have a habit of doing. Maybe his year of accidents and ill health reflected spiritual slovenliness on my part.

In that moment of frustration, I grabbed Professor Dumbledore’s wand and waved it, lighted tip and all. My husband smiled a little despite his pain. He knew I was telling him I wished to make him instantly better. That moment of frustration was also a moment of growing revelation. It dawned on me that my 38 years of daily, continual, earnest … or maybe anxiety-filled intercessions for my people, was little more than incantation passing itself off as prayer.

albus-dumbledore-and-harry-potter-dumbledores-wand-by-noble-collection-galleryTo be fair, the motive behind my praying has been partially pure (though come to think of it, those two words, partially and pure, sort of negate one another.) On the upside, I love God, I love my people and Jesus himself instructs us to pray. There is no question in my mind that Christ-followers pray. It is an element of fellowship and abiding with him. On the other hand, somewhere inside my soul those motives crossed over into the murk of manipulation and desire to control the Most High. And I was giving myself credit or blame, depending on the circumstance, of either holding the lives of my people together or allowing them to fall into ruin based on the effectiveness of my prayers or my failure to do my duty.

The realization shook me. Praying is something I have done from the first day I confessed Christ. In fact, I was praying regularly before I was a believer and still trying to find my way. I prayed my way to faith and through my confession of faith. I have prayed words of Scripture asking God to teach me its truth and to continue converting me. I have prayed while on long walks, driving in the car, rocking babies, preparing taxes and working in my business. I have prayed over sick people, sick animals and for myself in struggles with depression. I have prayed out loud, with words written in ink in voluminous journals and in the quiet whisperings of my occasional prayer language. I have prayed digging in the dirt of my garden, over a hot stove and at my ironing board. I have prayed hugging hurting people and in private devastations on my face at God’s feet.

My days are not complete unless I approach the throne of grace asking for mercy and help for myself, my church, my country, this world and those I love. I come purposefully. I come with an agenda. I also come doing a lot of talking. Yes, I have made token attempts to listen, but really I have mostly talked. I don’t do that with other people. Why do I do it with God?

Contemplating this, I’ve come up with a couple of reasons … arrogance being one. I think I know best what I and everyone else needs, so I don’t hesitate to tell the Father. Fear goes along with it. I fear that I won’t like what he says is good, so by persistence I try to sell my point. Furthermore, I talk because it is an entirely different skill to listen in the spiritual realm than to listen in the natural. Although I consider myself to have a good attention span in most cases, listening in the spirit is not one. Saint Teresa of Avila referred to this in her autobiography as mental prayer. As I am discovering, it is not even a case of being able to focus a train of thought on a certain subject for the purpose of beseeching God. It is more like sitting before him without thinking at all … waiting for him to say or do something … or not say or do something. Strangely, this requires more discipline for me than praying an agenda. My mind wants to follow every rabbit down every trail, to be active and engaged and to feel that I am accomplishing something. St. Teresa wrote, “This method of prayer without intellectual meditation brings the soul either great profit or great loss – I mean by the wandering of the attention. If it benefits, it benefits greatly, since it is moved by love. But to attain this state is very costly except to those whom the Lord wishes to bring very quickly to the prayer of quiet …”

St. Teresa further states that a motive of love is what gets someone the distance. And this is one more thing with which I must come to terms. Do I love God better than myself? Do I want to be with him just in love and not for any other purpose such as getting my prayers answered? I realize I can’t really muster that love up on my own. I want to love him with all that I am, but it is not enough. If there is going to be any satisfying love within me to return to him, he will have to give it to me. So sitting before him quietly is also a time of waiting for whatever he chooses to give that he also wants to receive back from me. If it is love, then love. If it is faith, then faith. If it is silence, then silence.

I feel caught between two worlds. Father Jacques Philippe describes this as “the uneasiness of not loving God as much as He invites us to love Him, and the sadness of still not having given all things to God.” I am not yet in a place of consistent abiding so I miss a certain peace and purpose in prayer I thought I felt for a time in my noisy habit of barraging him with my list of concerns. Now, I have a sense that I am to be quiet, listen and be content. I have tried it and it is difficult. I lack the sense of accomplishment I used to have, mainly because it means ignoring my purposes and trying to discern God’s. I am not yet a good listener or discerner. In frustration I have sometimes tried to go back to praying as I used to and have found it false and shallow. I don’t yet know if I will enter completely into prayer-listening, prayer-loving as God desires.

Something else that impedes this type of praying is my damnable need for success. I don’t know if this is because I am a perfectionist, an American or just human. At any rate, I am hounded by it. How does one know if one prays rightly or wrongly except by the measuring stick of answers? This is partly my control and manipulation issue once again, but it is also a longing for assurance. I’d much rather walk by sight than faith. I want to know exactly where I stand. If I am right, “Hallelujah.” If I am wrong, I had better fix something … anything. God forbid that I am wrong. Sigh … at times it is so exhausting to be me.

In the past, uncertainty has meant spiritual failure to me, but I am ever so slowly and begrudgingly changing my opinion. Father Philippe writes, “The Lord loves him … who abandons himself with confidence to God as to the consequences …”

Prayer is not a matter of acquisition, but of trust and transformation. Julian of Norwich is famous for this quote, which she attributed to the Lord whom she claimed to see and hear in a series of visions, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” More than a quote, it is a much-repeated and well-developed theme in her writings. She applies it to our problem with sin, suffering and difficult circumstances as well as to prayer … really, to every aspect of the life of a Christian. Though this quote is in the future tense, she indicates elsewhere in her writings that wellness is also in the present. All is well now … an epiphany to me. My default has been to approach God in prayer with a sense of anxiety and lack, either vague or desperate, depending on the circumstance du jour. Yet, all is well and it is good and honoring to God to enter his presence with that understanding.

Recently, the Greek class I attend has been translating Matthew. In chapter 7, verse 11, Jesus teaches, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” Interestingly, “good gifts” in the Greek can be understood as specific requests we make, but the resulting answer of “good things” can be understood as goodness, virtue or blessings not specifically requested. We will ask what we will ask and God will give what he will give. And all things will be well.

This speaks to what Julian was trying to convey. We can come to God in prayer with an expectation of goodness because he is good. We can come with a sense of well being because in him all manner of things are well. But to come with a preconception about what is good and well is to make ourselves blind. To come with our wands and incantations, our commanding prayers and narrow expectations, is to trade the trust and faith that so please God for that fruit of Knowledge that separated us from him in the first place. To refuse to accept what God ordains as “well” now is to scorn his sometimes strange-seeming goodness … it is to believe that the One St. John calls Love has somehow lapsed his providential protection because we in our weak, forgetful, overwhelmed conditions have failed to make ourselves heard in the far reaches of his realm. No, we are sons and daughters, meant for more than frantic incursions of petition and frenzied grabs at God-power. He invites us to sit down and rest, to hang up our magic wands and abandon ourselves to his inscrutable ways. Trusting him that all shall be well and that all is well even now is the essence of prayer.

Comments

  1. Amen, Lisa.

    Some have said that in The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is teaching us to pray against ourselves.

    “They will be done”…not my will….

  2. Robert F says:

    ” Yes, I have made token attempts to listen, but really I have mostly talked. I don’t do that with other people. Why do I do it with God?”

    That’s easy to answer in my own case: because God’s primary language is what we I experience as silence. I have the frequently overpowering desire to fill up that silence with something, anything. It is almost always excruciating to let that silence be, and to make myself as present to God as I can be by simply casting my gaze in a his direction, and unexpectedly listening as he speaks his silence.

    • Lisa Dye says:

      “God’s primary language is what we I experience as silence.” I like that Robert. It describes what has been my experience of late and it has taken me a while to accept and get comfortable with it. Now, I am trying to adjust myself and be silent as well. You’re right … it is hard to just let the silence stay silent. We tend to equate it with emptiness, but silence can be full in ways that noise cannot.

  3. Robert F says:

    I believe it is okay to hold the two things in tension: praying for what we think, and feel, we and those around us need, and submitting everything to the Father’s will. That’s what Jesus did. I think all true prayer, even the prayer of silence, takes this form in any case.

  4. This hits home. Lisa. I’ve been reading a book about Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross and finding even the reading of it hard. It’s a challenge not just to be silent and vulnerable but to want to be silent and vulnerable.

    • Lisa Dye says:

      Thank you, Damaris. I want to read St. John too, but I am still with Julian of Norwich at the moment. I agree St. Teresa is difficult to read. She was pretty tortured for a while. Going deeper with God doesn’t necessarily produce the peace we are expecting.

      • I’m reading Julian of Norwich right now too, Lisa. About a third of the way through her compete Showings (or Shewynges). It’s the “Paris Manuscript,” a slightly different dialect of Middle English than her original, but close enough to our language to be understandable once you get used to the spellings.

        I’m finding that Julian’s Showings are better as a devotional than anything else peddled on the mass-market, and that includes Oswald Chambers, Spurgeon, Daily Bread, and especially any of the celebrity crud. And the forced slowness of the reading, due to the olde language (In fact, reading it aloud helps), lets it sink in better. Julian was all about God, all about Jesus, all about the Trinity, and none about herself. Loving it.

        Found out about her thanks to people here at iMonk—probably you, and Damaris and Martha among others.

        • Lisa Dye says:

          Hi Ted. I completely agree with you that Julian’s writings “are better as a devotional than anything else peddled on the mass-market.” I am reading her writings slowly and reflecting on some of her profound conclusions in my morning journaling and then entering prayer with those thoughts in mind.

          • Her visions of Christ dying on the cross are amazing. I posted some of it on my blog for Good Friday, with modernized spelling.

  5. “He invites us to sit down and rest, to hang up our magic wands and abandon ourselves to his inscrutable ways. Trusting him that all shall be well and that all is well even now is the essence of prayer.”

    Amen, Lisa. Wonderful post! I also like your, “Sigh … at times it is so exhausting to be me.” 🙂

  6. Thank you, Lisa! You are far from alone in this path, and as you are discovering, the path is not new. But I think the emphasis on it now is new, and I consider it a major move of Spirit. In general this is often referred to as Contemplative Prayer, and in particular Centering Prayer. A prominent voice today in the Catholic tradition is Thomas Keating. Within the loose folds of the Episcopal tradition, Cynthia Bourgeault is extremely helpful to me, if a bit offbeat. Eat the fish, spit out the bones.

    This is fairly new to me and coming late in life. It is not meditation, tho related. I am presently trying to get an overall intellectual grasp of all involved, but my aim is not just to understand but to do. I expect this to take up the rest of my life. But I also bless with words and by name now approaching 200 people important to me along with the land and the planet and all creatures great and small. I regard blessing other as our ultimate goal and purpose, and I believe that Centering Prayer done without thought or image in the Heart of God accomplishes just this.

    • I have found “centering prayer” very helpful.

      I was in a reading group last summer and fall that read Bourgeault’s Wisdom Jesus. Reading that helped me in my understanding of Merton, Rohr, and others who tend to have an “off-beat” way of approaching faith.

  7. Lisa Dye says:

    Charles, thank you for mentioning Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault. I want to stay with this and I agree that it will be a lifelong pursuit. I like how you describe your act of blessing as a type of mission. He has given you an expansive territory and I admire you receiving it.

    • I love Thomas Keating’s writings and practice Centering Prayer as he taught it based on The Cloud of Unknowing. I have read some of Bourgeault’s online writings, but haven’t read one of her books yet. Maybe I will do that. Years ago I read writings of St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen and Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (commonly known as Madame Guyon). More modern writers include Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster and a guy whose name I am forgetting at the moment!

  8. Prayer is more than just “getting things done”. It is not a “task” that must be accomplished, another item on out “things to do” list. The one thing I must take issue with is the “listening in the spirit”. This idea holds within it God’s implied responsibility to speak to us with a coherent answer, but I find very little, by way of example, in scripture to validate this idea. Mostly it is “we petition and God does what He wants”. His “answer” may, or may NOT, conform to what we are expecting as He is under no obligation to make His purpose plain to us. Prayer is more like US aligning ourselves with whatever it is God is accomplishing and less of God acceding to our desires.

    In other words, prayer is more meditation than it is a task, something Lisa covers well in this post.

  9. This in is a very encouraging writing of the heart. I will treasure what you wrote, Lisa. I really think that this is a universal cry of the human heart whether we understand or struggle in our incompleteness or wounds. I sense that the Spirit of God was speaking through you in what we write, in our experiences which are often we are deep in. I don’t respond often to these posts. This one is a keeper to remind me when I may be in the deep well of despair . . . it is well with my Savior, Jesus. Will it be well with me? Thank You!

  10. David Cornwell says:

    Lisa, thank you for your honesty about prayer, and all it can involve for us. We have a tendency to make it complex, and in the end confuse ourselves. But God hears us anyway.

    The psalmists teach us a lot about prayer. The total range represented scales the reaches of the human spirit, from the deepest darkness to the highest of praise and celebration. Regardless of how we pray, the Spirit sees into our hearts, and interprets our meager attempts before the throne of God.

    And the Lord’s prayer reaches into the abundance offered by the Father. Sometimes in desperation, we can simply rest on this assurance, and know that we are cared for. The plentitude of this abundance is rests in the assurance of Jesus’ follow up teaching in Matthew 6:25-34.

    Once again, thanks.

  11. What a different perspective on prayer than what you hear in a lot of charismatic/evangelical congregations nowadays. There, the emphasis is on PUSH (pray until something happens). Prayer as a magic wand, in other words. Pray hard enough and long enough– and most noteworthy in recent years, get enough people together to pray at the same time and for the same purpose– and you’ll release God’s power to change the world, to bring a great harvest, etc etc. A lot of buzz along these lines right now, in the run-up to the National Day of Prayer this Thursday. (National Day of Prayer: be there, or be square)

  12. Christiane says:

    LISA, your post so reminds me of this:

    “”I hear from within me,
    as from a spring of living water, the murmur:
    ‘Come to the Father’ ”

    (St. Ignatius of Antioch)

    seeking the Lord in the stillness and the quiet seems something that is lost to so many Christian people . . . maybe it takes suffering to bring us to the place where ‘there are no words’ . . . a phrase my niece wrote home, describing her sadness at the deaths of some of our young soldiers in her surgical unit in a field hospital in Afghanistan . . .

    I suspect when we have arrived at the place where ‘there are no words’ left, it is one of those times we are able to pray as we were meant to

    • Lisa Dye says:

      Christiane, interesting that you quote St. Ignatius as he is currently on my mind. Also, I have been thinking that my next post may well be on suffering.

      Yes, at times there are no words. My Greek teacher has said that during those times we pray Bwaw (Bo-a-o) prayers (sorry, can’t figure out how to utilize the exact Greek here). They are simply desperate cries (without words) of the heart.

      • Christiane says:

        those ‘desperate cries’ . . .

        . . . I was watching the wonderful British television series ‘Call The Midwife’,
        and on the 2012 Christmas special, something called the ‘workhouse howl’ was shown by a severely distressed older woman,
        and it was explained by the character Sister Evangelina, in this way:

        ” . . . a spine-chilling cry. . . the howl of a suffering soul
        ‘ of someone that has been at the bottom of the heap,
        I would call it a cry of protest except that it has no fight left in it,
        no hope either.’ “

        • David Cornwell says:

          I watched Sunday’s episode, which was involved with several important issues, important in the era portrayed, but also now. As we watched, both Marge and I commented on how this series illustrates many of the problems, paradoxes, and truths we face as Christians. And also the fact that it does a much better job of it than most evangelical attempts at fiction, television, or movies.

          • Lynn MacDougall says:

            David – you are sp right- this show, as well as many others , as well as literature and poetry and art and music, does an uncanny job at illustrating the Gospel. I encourage you to read the books. I wrote an article pasted here:

            http://www.mbird.com/2013/03/keep-calm-and-call-the-midwife/

            Lisa- it is so good to hear your voice again. You always speak directly to the struggle I am engaged in. I will read this again and again.

  13. I have found myself less and less able in the last year or so to continue praying in words. They just seem to mean so little in light of Sheer Presence. Ritual prayer and group prayer aside, what is there really to say and why?

  14. Thank you Lisa for sharing your experiences and insights. You have blessed me tonight.

    t

  15. From the Sacred Space (written by Irish Jesuits) today: “The Spirit of God is everywhere: let’s allow ourselves be surprised by her! She is the gift of God, and wherever we find joy, peace, compassion, justice, and anything of life, there we find her. Prayer is our opening to this Spirit at prayer time and afterwards.”

  16. Great article. We do not worship a magic wand God, a “genie in the bottle” God, nor a vending machine God. Yet clearly we are to “communicate” with Him, bringing Him praises, request, petitions, etc.

    I have my own personal prayer “irony.” I don’t understand how prayer works at all, yet I’m actively involved in two prayer ministries. Go figure.

    Here’s the thing that continues to baffle me about prayer, and baffles me about the way most people pray. Why would I ever think that MY prayer is the one that will sway God to do something different? In other words, if I know that fifty people have been and are praying for someone with an illness, why in the world would I toss up a prayer with any sort of belief that MINE will be the one to tilt the result/outcome toward healing? And yet…shouldn’t I toss a prayer up anyway…?

    Ah, I could go on and on with my lack of understanding…