Part A. On Praying to God in Christ Jesus
We begin again with Benedictine wisdom: “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.”
How I can’t pray now: As with many Christians during this period, I have been scandalized and disgusted by some of the crimes I’ve experienced at the hands of clergy, who have often gone uncorrected, and permitted to continue their ways of operating. And many of them have neglected their primary duty: to help form Christ in the hearts of their congregants, of the people to whom they’ve been sent. I’ve also been simply “turned off” by some clergy’s shallowness and inability to proclaim Christ effectively to those present. I find attending such services a waste of time, and so I stay away.
Also at this time in my life, I am not able to concentrate for praying during church services. I often find them distracting, busy, noisy, and not congenial for quiet and real prayer—more fitting for a public show or performance. There is a cost to staying away from services, however: I miss some of the beautiful prayers, as one hears, for example, from the Book of Common Prayer. I miss prayers of the Catholic Eucharist, the anaphora, if and when these prayers are meaningfully and devoutly prayed, and not recited in an overly cultic manner, nor as if it is the priest’s private prayer, nor if they are rushed through as if the celebrant would rather be watching football. I miss hearing God praised by well-trained and humble musicians, and I miss singing some God-focused church hymns. (But as noted previously and below, listening attentively to good music while in solitude is a major part of my spiritual life.) I have missed participating in holy communion. And I have often missed hearing Christ’s word well preached “from faith to faith,” from the faith of the one preaching into the heart of the faithful. All too often, preaching in the churches has been mediocre at best, and a diversion from true living proclamation of Christ Jesus at worst. I find far more of Christ studying , for philosophy example, than I ever hear in churchy sermons or canned homilies. Finally, I do miss the fellowship of friends gathered at a liturgy.
Praying as I can now: Regarding such problems as we see in the churches, we do well to reflect St. Benedict’s wisdom in his Rule: “Of such matters it is better not even to speak.” Anyone with eyes in their head knows all-too-painfully the spiritual and human short-comings in our churches today. I find it far better for me to avoid gathering in such assemblies, and to seek God in solitude. And especially rather than hear poor preaching, I strongly prefer to meditate on Christ’s word in silence. Anyone open to the Holy Spirit and seeking God can and will hear more of Christ proclaimed to his or her heart by reading scriptures meditatively than by listening to a sermon or homily in public when the minister is not properly attuned to Christ. And this lack of spiritual attunement is blatantly obvious in many churches today. Unless and until I hear otherwise, I shall avoid such assemblies and seek Christ at home.
To this I add: what a joy and privilege it is when I am able to celebrate the Catholic Mass in the home of faithful Christians. Of course I wait until I am asked to do so, as one should not impose his will or preferences on others. What I love in a home Mass is its simplicity, quietness, lack of public show or pretense, lack of those present who wish to be seen in public as “church-attenders.” And above all, praying and preaching can be what they most truly are supposed to be: not talking to a “God out there,” and not preaching at anyone, but sharing Christ’s prayer and word together in faith-filled love. As an ordained minister in such gatherings, I am able to concentrate and share the word in prayer-proclamation, speaking heart to heart. It is what I have long enjoyed doing, when given the opportunity—apart from noisy distractions.
Thanks be to God, I am fully retired from public ministry. I feel no obligation to perform religious duties in public, all the more so as I receive no compensation from any Catholic organization (diocese or monastery), nor do I wish to receive any benefits, given what I have experienced in churches in our day. Only under certain conditions would I be willing to substitute on a part-time basis, by way of exception: If and only if the local priest for whom I would be substituting is seeking to live a good life in truth and charity. (Sadly, such is often not the case, as many of the faithful have painfully come to realize.) Furthermore, if I detect antagonism on the part of the priest for whom I would substitute, I would not fill in.
How do I pray or seek God during this time of my life?
First and foremost, I seek to be attentive to movements of divine presence (“the holy Spirit” or “the Risen Christ”) in my soul, in consciousness. Being open to divine actions either directly in one’s “heart” or from the external world and into one’s “heart” is, I suggest, the living core of praying. What good would it do to recite words at God and not keep listening for ways in which the divine speaks to one’s mind directly or from the outside (as through nature or a fellow human being)?
Second, since retiring to quiet Sheridan, Montana, I have taken far more time to write. This process for me is often done as a conscious exercise in participating in the presence of the Risen Lord in me and with me. As a vessel of the Lord, I am highly imperfect, but a sense of one’s imperfections or even spiritual poverty should not be used as an excuse not to make the hard effort of speaking, acting, thinking, or writing in and with Christ—on the contrary, “He gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud.” (Ordained ministry in public is a ready source of pride unless one takes strong steps to guard against it.) I seek to write in communion with Christ for the benefit of others, as well for myself to grow in love and knowledge of the Lord. Writing in retirement has become my foremost act of ministry, and I do it with the same passion and zeal I had while serving in parishes: With Christ, in Christ, for God’s people in Christ Jesus. Otherwise, how worldly our words, and ultimately, how empty.
Third, I still study and read, but recently have devoted more time to writing. I am seeking to crystalize my experiences and thoughts in writing; when I sense the need to deepen my insights, I return to study. Every day I do some spiritual reading—that is, seeking God as I study. I use a variety of texts for this purpose: not only the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but most especially other very high quality and enriching writings of which I am aware. Once again, Plato comes to the fore, but other philosophers as well. I’m not averse to reading works by those who shut out God—as did Nietzsche, to his ruin—because in studying them and in thinking about their teachings, I may see the folly of my own ways. Still, my preference is for studying Plato and other spiritually solid thinkers; I need to spend more time now deepening my knowledge of philosophy as Plato lived and taught it. Time here is limited and brief; I must study the best I can find.
Fourth, I am conscious that Christ is working on me in and through some “friends,” and including one who without words challenges me to “get my act together.” One may be alive on earth, or in God beyond death, and still have tremendous and profound effects on one’s life; and Socrates-Plato is not the only deceased man through whom Christ works on me.
Fifth, thanks be to God for the beauty we find in Montana. One of my first spiritual acts each morning is to stand on my deck (as the dogs are let out back, around 0230) and stare up to the heavens to behold the handiwork of the Creator. Thankfully, I do not just look up and see “things,” such as stars or planets, or clouds; I am aware that in the act of beholding, of gazing, the divine is present both in consciousness and in what I am beholding. In this awareness I feel what could be called a “cosmic unity,” or my own active participation in the mysterious Whole. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and display that glory, for those with simple faith. By child-like trust (simple faith), one experiences awe before and in the divine presence. The experience of awe (that includes wonder, love, questioning, seeking, thanksgiving) may be Christ’s foremost gift to me. Have I not been awed by God in what I called “Venus Aphrodite” (better known as the planet Venus), mentioned in some poems recently? How many “Christians” can feel awe before Venus Aphrodite? And I’ve felt awe before God’s presence in human beings.
Sixth, at times I pray in words consciously addressed to God. Sometimes I prefer silence and listening, and other times I let words spring up in me. An example of this springing-up of a word of prayer follows in Part B, “Recollecting Christ’s Presence in human beings.” Sometimes I hear a simple sentence in my heart, such as “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” For some friends, recited prayers, such as the Rosary, work best. Remember, “pray as you can,” and don’t waste time trying to pray as you can’t—do not try to be what or who you are not. Genuine prayer is an expression of one’s heart, one’s being, one’s life in Christ. And may none of us seek to impose his / her ways of praying (one’s spirituality) on others. “We are all free in Christ Jesus.”
Seventh, I would be woefully remiss if I failed to mention how often I pray listening to good music. As an example, as I am writing this morning, I am listening to the opening movement from a Bach Cantata (BWV 170): “Contented peace, beloved delight of the soul.” There is no way I can put into words the intense joy and meaning I find in good music, and especially the compositions of the Master, J. S. Bach. Some knowledge of his German language is a great help, but the music also speaks, bringing the attentive listener a profound awareness of Christ: I AM with you, right now!
Concluding reflection: What is the essence of prayer?
Mindfulness of divine Presence. What is prayer, without attentiveness? To what or to whom is one being attentive? To the divine as one understand it, yes. If one thinks of God as only or primarily “far off,” only “in heaven” (in a spatial sense), then what form could the prayer take but words addressed as arrows aimed up at God? If one conceives of the divine as present and active, one need not use words, but can attend lovingly to the presence. The prayer can take the form of resting, as if in the arms of the beloved. Let this suffice for the present.
Part B. A Prayer: Recollecting Christ’s Presence in human beings
Eternal Christ, far more than I can know, feel, or understand:
How often were you drawing me to You through a human being,
But I failed to understand what you were doing, and why,
And resisted your drawing within me? Seeing what you are doing now,
I wonder: how many opportunities were lost in years past?
It is better to render the same insight in more positive terms,
Lest one wallow in sin or failures—a waste of time and to be avoided.
Surely you, Lord God, were present to me in and through Fr. Daniel.
I knew it then, at least at times, with intense clarity and reverence.
When I would touch his hand, there was in me an awareness
That I was touching the hand of Jesus crucified and Risen.
I felt love but more than love, as I do with one who is “more than a friend.”
My inner self was humbled, but not humiliated; I was in awe, not dread;
By faith working through awe I was able to touch the hand of God.
Where else did I experience your presence to me, Risen Christ?
Although not yet in clear consciousness, I felt your hand in my mother’s,
When she would take my hand in hers, as when she clipped my nails.
I saw your hand in my father’s, even when shortly before death,
He wrote out checks to pay bills, or signed his photographs for me.
I have seen your hands break bread upon the altar, LORD,
I have seen your hand hold out the chalice to me: You embodied in another.
Have I seen or felt you, Lord, in my own hands? I do not know,
But I shall ponder that question now raised until I see or do not see.
What I know is how intensely aware of you I was in Voegelin,
How I experienced your mind through Neumeier’s mind--
You present in my mind towards him, and his mind towards me,
As you were drawing us both into communion with you
And I summarized the experience: “When two speak, three are present.”
You have been real to me not only in scriptures, nor in liturgies,
But in and through human beings in their bodily and spiritual presence.
I remember seeing Joe Condon as he lay dying, and I know what I saw:
I saw you, Jesus Christ, both crucified and Risen at once,
Radiating out of the face and head of blessed Joe in his final agony.
Do others see as I see, but not mention it, out of embarrassment, perhaps?
I was alone with Joe and praying when I saw you and Joe dying together.
How many persons have told me that they heard Christ speak through me,
Words for which I was both grateful and humbled, and gently let go?
You have spoken to me through preachers, such as Pastor Wagner;
And how often would I listen to your word proclaimed,
And feel as if wings or hands were in my chest, reaching out?
I cannot imagine my life in Christ without the Master’s witness:
You have so often spoken to me through the music of Bach.
The wonder is not how rarely, but how often you have spoken to me
In and through human voices, music, hands, actions, eyes, faces.
That I saw you looking into me though someone’s eyes, I remember:
Blue eyes penetrating into me, you searching me through those eyes.
But who the person was, or when, has not yet returned to consciousness.
Still, Lord, I have seen you gazing into me, gently, lovingly, searchingly,
And for such divine care for this little creature, I humbly thank you, Lord.
Friend more than a friend, I have asked that we pray together.
You are a long distance from me now in space-time, but in Christ
We are together, and space-time is no hindrance at all.
And so we pray: Open the eyes of our hearts and minds, Lord,
To see you in others, and to revere you in them, respect you in them,
Feed you in them, tend you in them. Keep us all from locking you up
In tabernacles or in churches—and from locking you out of our minds.
Lord, is it wrong for me to ask a special favor of you?
May this friend and I, present together in spirit now,
Find and focus our attention on you, the living Lord of all?
Increase our faith, Lord, that we may be truly mindful of you,
Love you more truly, and obey you from the depths of our hearts.
For any way you work within us and through us, we thank you, Lord.
Make us channels of your divine presence to ourselves and others.
One more thing we ask together now, Lord—together in you--
What is the sacred work you have in store for us? We have both thought
That you have a plan to put us to work together for your glory.
Help us to discern your will for us, and to carry it out effectively with you.
Praying alone but not truly alone, I take your hand in my hand, and listen:
“Love me fervently, chastely, devoutly in those whom I’ve given you to love,
And then you will see what I am doing in you, with you, and though you.”
Wm. P. McKane
01 February 2020
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