Unknowing: Week 1
Prayer Beyond Words
Friday, October 5, 2018
The two paths of knowing and not-knowing are primarily taught through prayer itself! No wonder all spiritual teachers emphasize prayer so much.
In Jesus’ teaching and example, we may first notice the prayer of words in the Our Father and his encouragement to “ask” and “knock” (Matthew 7:7). From these and Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, Christians have developed various forms of social, public, and liturgical prayer, often centering around intercession, gratitude, and worship.
But Jesus also taught prayer beyond words: “praying in secret” (Matthew 6:5-6), “not babbling on as the Gentiles do” (Matthew 6:7), or his predawn, lonely prayer (Mark 1:35), because “your Father knows what you need even before you ask” (Matthew 6:8). These all point toward what many today call contemplation—openness to and union with God’s presence; resting in God more than actively seeking to fully know or understand.
Given Jesus’ clear model and instruction, it seems strange that wordy prayer took over in the monastic Office, in the Eucharistic liturgy, and in formulaic prayer like the Catholic rosary and Protestant memorizations. It’s all the more important that these be balanced by prayer beyond words.
Much of Buddhism’s attraction for so many people today is that Buddhism is absolutely honest about the theology of darkness—about our inability to know. It is much more humble than the monotheistic religions are about the possibilities of words and formulas. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam took a great risk in relying on words.
In the Christian tradition this “Word became flesh” (John 1:14), but we didn’t want flesh. We didn’t want an embodied relationship with God. Instead we wanted words with which we could proclaim certainties and answers. The price the three “religions of the book” have paid for a certain idolatry of words is that they became the least tolerant of the world’s religions. Both Buddhism and Hinduism tend to be much more accepting of others than we are.
At their lower levels, the three monotheistic religions insist on absolute truth claims in forms of words, whereas Jesus’ truth claim was his person (John 14:6), his presence (John 6:35), his ability to participate in God’s perfect love (John 17:21-22). Emphasizing perfect agreement on words and forms (which is never going to happen anyway!), instead of inviting people into an experience of the Formless Presence, has caused much of the violence of human history. Jesus gives us his risen presence as “the way, the truth, and the life.” At that level, there is not much to fight about, and in fact fighting becomes uninteresting and counter-productive to the message. Presence is known by presence from the other side. It is always subject to subject knowing, never subject to object.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 121-124.