“Pray for Others”

Each year on my birthday, I look forward to reading the meditation for August 29th in Daily Word, the devotional magazine of Unity Church.

The message has always tended to be something I could welcome as a motto for the new year, something which affirmed my sense of self and reassured me that I was on the so-called “spiritual path.”

This year, however, I stumbled mentally. The day’s topic was “Pray for Others,” and the opening affirmation was:

I pray for you, knowing that God is blessing you now and always.

The scripture passage following the text of the meditation was this one:

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11

My disappointment was so palpable that I almost put the meditation away without finishing it.

Then I recalled that I’ve had this reaction almost every time the Daily Word message has directed my attention to others, rather than to myself.

Journaling later that day at my favorite coffeehouse, I realized that this reaction shows me how much of what I call my daily “faith and practice” is really just about me. About sustaining and reassuring and comforting me.

I may voice more generous concerns and professions in blogs or conversations or worship. Yet the baseline of my day for several years now has been my own sense of loss, anger, distress, longing, loneliness, and so on. And, hence, my pleading that somehow or other I be able to find a daily “spiritual routine” which will give me relief.

As I wrote in “On waiting and squirming,” for most of a decade I have secretly been on guard against “caring too much” about people or being “in the path of obligation” to help them.

I am lost in this.

What I’ve just described is the unvarnished version of what Quakers call experiencing the Inner Light, rather than the New Age-y version. Simon St. Laurent recently shared a relevant passage from Fox in a post to his Light and Silence: Reflections on Quakerism:

The Lord doth show unto a man his thoughts, and discovereth all the secret workings in man. A man may be brought to see all his evil thoughts and running mind and vain imagination….

Sitting in the coffeehouse with this fresh self-awareness, I picked up my other, newer devotional reading, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and read:

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.

For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false “faith” which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our “religion” is subjected to inexorable questioning.

This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas….

What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations!

The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.” (13-14)

How bizarrely comforting it is to read this!

In the Buddhist metaphor, it describes that rare moment of letting all of one’s acquired significators for experience fall away.

In the Pagan metaphor, it is what I’ve experienced when the Crone—or Kali—says, “Nothing is sacred. No thing that you have seized upon to save you is sacred. Let it all go.”

Though I will not pretend that I am suddenly better at praying for others instead of only for myself, the light is shining on that wound within me. Perhaps, if I resist turning off that light….

Meanwhile, the last part of that chapter from Merton gives me another odd sort of comfort:

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because “God is not a what,” not a “thing.”

That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.”

He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,
Michael

7 comments On “Pray for Others”

  • Hi, Michael–

    Thanks so much for directing me here from The Good Raised Up. I can see how our two posts are connected, and I pray that the Way eases for you… or maybe I should pray that by being obedient to the urges of the Spirit, we each might grow closer to God as part of the Shepherd’s faithful flock.

    Be gentle with thyself. This work is important and needs care, tending, and nurture.

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  • Martin Shell

    I went to the door of heaven and knocked.
    “Who is there?”
    “It is me, Lord.”
    I could not enter; the door would not open.

    I went to the door of heaven and knocked.
    “Who is there?”
    “It is Thou.”
    The door was open.

    … but from Rabia, “How long will you keep pounding on an open door?”

  • And I pray…”for the highest and best of all.”

    Blessings, Jim

  • That Thomas Merton quote is exactly it. As Lao Tsu said, I don’t know what it is, so I call it Great. Godde bursts the boundaries of all our attempts at definition. Every time I try to rationalise or quantify or describe the experience of the Divine, I experience some kind of diminution of the opening, expansive Presence. But it must be remembered that the Divine is both expansion and contraction, both darkness and light – the heartbeat of the universe. The rejection of the darkness of Godde diminishes the Presence. The wave and the wind are one motion: the the trough of the wave is the peak of the wind, and the trough of the wind is the peak of the wave, and each is in the heart of the other.

    I needed to pray about something, in order to rest it in the lap of Godde. But I had no idea who was in the right, or what the best outcome could be (ha! as if we ever really know that from our finite perspective), so I prayed that all involved might receive justice and peace and healing.

    Is your issue with praying for others that you are not sure if you’re entitled to impose your prayer on them? Perhaps praying for them to receive whatever they need is a suitable way of doing it.

  • Michael Austin Shell

    Liz,

    Thank you. You put your finger on a key part of Quaker practice: “Be gentle with thyself.” To some extent, the measure of the Light I am opening to now is precisely about that.

    It’s not about getting remedy to or relief from all my present inner and outer challenges.

    Rather, it’s about getting in step with the slow, sometimes invisible pace by which Spirit leads me through my day-to-day inner and outer work…and being gentle enough not to scold myself when I don’t get as much done (inner or outer) as I think I should.

    Marty, my brother,

    I like both bits. Tell us more about Rabia.

    Jim B,

    Thank you, again.

    Blesséd Be,
    Michael

  • Michael Austin Shell

    Yvonne,

    Wecome, and thank you for your new comments here and on several other posts and pages of this blog.

    This speaks my mind: “Every time I try to rationalise or quantify or describe the experience of the Divine, I experience some kind of diminution of the opening, expansive Presence.”

    I also relish your wind and wave metaphor. Beautiful!

    As to prayer, you ask: “Is your issue with praying for others that you are not sure if you’re entitled to impose your prayer on them?”

    No. My issue is with the obstacle of my own need, particularly what in this post I called that needful “baseline of my day.”

    I am starting to open to an awareness that, during the past decade, I turned away from the other-focus and ready giving which I had known throughout most of my 15 years as a clinical social worker and counselor, back in South Carolina.

    I needn’t chronical here the outer events which wounded me. My point is that, after nine years away from that work—and several blesséd years into the healing of a marriage whose weaknesses our move to Florida had exposed—I am seeing this:

    My “spiritual practice” of the past decade became increasingly focused on seeking refuge for myself. On wanting relief, release…or at least resignation…in the midst of my private pains.

    There is nothing wrong with that. See Liz’s kind words above about being gentle with oneself.

    Yet I’ve known for at least the past two years that something was missing which is outside of me.

    The most noticeable clue has been my growing discomfort, resentment and even anger when “confronted” daily by the presence of the numerous homeless folks and panhandlers in Jacksonville.

    I have actually watched myself grow into the habit of “passing by on the other side”—or at least (not much better) just giving them a pittance when I’ve just paid $3 for coffee.

    Yet these are the metaphorical cousins of those same men whom I loved and worked with in prison.

    From earlier years of my life—in fact, going back to my years with Unity Church in the 1980s—I know experimentally that God’s good flows more freely, the more we pass it on to others.

    “Praying for others,” therefore, means opening up that stopped up fountain again.

    I will welcome that opening when it happens.

    The first drops are leaking out now.

    Blesséd Be,
    Michael

  • Hi Michael

    I got the wind and wave metaphor from my good friend Ted Lumley. And the darkness and light imagery is from Taoism (or my interpretation of it).

    Reading this post again has made me realise/remember that for many years, I too didn’t want to care too deeply, because I knew it would hurt, and assumed it would render me less effective as a human being if I suffered with the whole of humanity. But actually it makes me less afraid when I experience that mystic connection. But it is hard to remove the barriers and let it all flood in (or out, or both) – it only happens sometimes, perhaps through grace, or coinherence, or something. But anyway, don’t beat yourself up about it. 🙂

    But then a few years ago, I started listening to the news on the radio instead of on TV, and that started me crying at the news (partly because the TV is voyeuristic rather than empathic). Today I shed tears for Burma. Recently I read the writings of Staretz Silouan (worth a read) who speaks about praying for others, and when I began to do so, it produced in me a deep empathy for all humanity. For some reason the doing of the practice produced the feeling, rather than the other way around.

    One thing that moves me massively is people who risk their lives for the well-being of others – like the Buddhist monks in Burma for example.

    love
    Yvonne

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