On Prayer

It’s a cliché, maybe not a very helpful, to say that looking into the sky is a profound spiritual exercise, because it impresses the seeker with our planet’s smallness over against the vastness of space. We can scarcely imagine the distance to our own moon (about 240,000 miles) or sun (93 million), let alone light years or parsecs. Only yesterday, in the twentieth century, did we learn of uncounted galaxies beyond the one that contains our sun.

All true enough, but suppose we turn the insight around, and contemplate the Psalmist’s question: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Now we are in the realm of theology not astronomy. Here we come up with a different insight—or the same insight with a different meaning. If we read back to former times, we find that our forebears confronted their smallness as clearly as we do. “What is man?” to them was a serious worry, which they carried with them to the New World. Why would the Creator God bother with such a vexatious creature; one who has disappointed him throughout their history together?

Darkness Behind Darkness

But the Owl digresses. Back to looking at the sky. Once the Owl found himself at a cocktail party to which a guest had brought his ten-inch reflecting telescope. It was a dark night miles from any city, so we could see objects in the sky very well. Yet the most beautiful part of the image was the absolutely silent, black emptiness between the objects.

What has that to do with prayer? Just this: If your eyes are like most others, when you close them they produce tiny colored scintillae of light. When my father tried to pray, he wanted these dancing lights to cohere into an image of some sort, which he thought somehow would represent God. He was furiously angry when they would not. He thought that disproved the reality of faith.

But what of the dark, the darkness behind the dancing lights, and the dark that resides in our heads? There is another darkness outside. It does not dome from inside ourselves. It is an objective reality. You have to have a telescope to see it. It stays there whether we are looking at it or not, and if you do, you need a certain skill to concentrate on it.

Silence Behind Silence

And the darkness is not only dark, it is silent. Whatever noise may come to the ears from the surrounding cocktail party, or from the ears themselves, ringing annoyingly, there is silence behind that noise. One can ignore the ambient foreground and listen for that silence.

The Owl has written elsewhere about Mother Teresa’s prayers. What does she say to God? “Nothing. I listen.” What does God say to her? “He listens too.” The silences meet. For that kind of prayer to occur, the chattering monkey has to be stopped.

Anybody who has tried to stop the intracranial chatter knows it is hard to do. Allow the Owl to offer an observation that might help. It turns out, at least for him, that the chattering is usually an imagined conversation, not with God but often with some friend or vexing person from the work day. At leisure, I make my perfect riposte and squash the other fellow flat. This can go on for hours, it’s so much fun.

Now notice: when we hold conversation, the facial muscles are active. When we listen they slow down. If one wants to be extra attentive to one’s friends, one can stop the facial movements almost completely. This works with God too. Not that he needs to be impressed by my attentive attitude, but if I listen, the monkey shuts up, or at least settles down some.

This is something anybody can try: Do your forehead and other facial muscles stops moving when you stop talking, or stop imagining talking. Now try it the other way around; if you relax those muscles carefully, isn’t the chattering monkey defeated a little more easily, maybe only for a few seconds at first.

Another bit of modern technology, probably cheaper than a telescope, is a galvanic skin response monitor. One can apply it to the forehead, and it will produce a tone or a buzz when the muscles below are tense. One can relax them, with difficulty at first, to make the noise go away. It will probably surprise the user to find out what relaxation feels like.

If this makes any sense, one may find it possible to listen for the silence behind silence; a sound more beautiful than music.

Anything to do with Prayer?

What has any of this to do with prayer? I don’t know. There are some studies of the physical effects of prayer upon people who practice meditation and prayer: reduced blood pressure, less cardiac arrhythmia, etc. The Owl has no knowledge about those things. In fact, he has doubts about the efficacy of prayer if those effects are the goal. For what has that to do with communion with God? What of the prayers of saints when their physical well-being is violently attacked? Maybe that’s something to ask God in prayer.

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