Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Prayer Is Being Unbusy With God

                                                      Our Grandson Levi (Photo by Josh P.)

In 1981 God called me to a deeper praying life. I needed it so badly. I was doing, doing, doing, and the inner fire was leaving, leaving, leaving. God told me to take Tuesday afternoons and pray. I needed that much time to tend the fire within. 

This was a new beginning for me, a time when my doing began to emerge from my being in God. This was important, since in the spiritual life being precedes doing. 

That first Tuesday afternoon was spent sitting on a rusty tractor in a field in a forest preserve north of Lansing, Michigan. I remember being there, trying to pray, while my mind kept asking "Just what the heck am I doing here, anyway? What am I accomplishing?" The answer seemed to be: "nothing." I wasn't xeroxing anything. I was producing (I mistakenly thought) nothing. No empirical "product" was coming forth from my being on this old tractor.

That was one of the most important days of my life. I was getting reattached to the Vine!

The writings of Henri Nouwen helped me during this time. Nouwen has influenced me as much as anyone has. I can only handle a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, of Nouwen at a time. In every Nouwen-sentence there is wisdom from on high. If leadership is influence (which it is), then Henri Nouwen is a great leader.

How did Nouwen become a great leader? The answer is: he "wasted" a lot of time praying. "Prayer," wrote Nouwen, "is wasting time with God." (In Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, pp. 19-20) "The world says, “If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.” Jesus says: “Come spend some useless time with me.”"

Nouwen writes: "If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us—what prayer will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel—God cannot easily speak to us. But if we can detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to “waste” a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our “useless” time will transform us, and everything around us will be different."

This is why I assign my Spiritual Formation students to pray. A lot. Prayer is active engagement in the mutual love relationship between the self and God. Praying is the perfect way to abide in Christ and "just be" with God. We were made for this. This is why it feels so fulfilling and is so influential. 

Nouwen writes: "Prayer is being unbusy with God instead of being busy with other things. Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God. To not be useful is to remind myself that if anything important or fruitful happens through prayer, it is God who achieves the result. So when I go into the day, I go with the conviction that God is the one who brings forth fruit in my work, and I do not have to act as though I am in control of things. I have to work hard; I have to do my task; I have to offer my best. But I can let go of the illusion of control and be detached from the result. At the end of each day I can prayerfully say that if something good has happened, God be praised." (Ib.)

This is real prayer. Real prayer mono-tasks the God-relationship. It has no agenda other than to be with our Creator. To the world this looks like "doing nothing." To us it provides the reason for all we are called to do. Our "doing" gets relevant as it emerges out of our unbusy being-with God.