Chapter One: Prayer as Relationship
Every word we say about God has a meaning beyond the one that the word connotes. More precisely, to say “God”
is also to say not “God.” As St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) taught, whatever we say about God is more unlike God than saying nothing. If we do say something, it can only be a pointer toward the Mystery that can never be articulated in words. All that words can do is point in the direction of the Mystery. Even that can be misleading, because we do not normally point to what is already here.
To feel comfortable with the Ultimate Reality whom we call “God” in the Christian tradition is both the reassurance and the challenge that Jesus presented in his teaching. The first thing he said when he began to preach
was, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17). This word does not refer to penitential exercises or external practices but means change the direction in which you are looking for happiness. Jesus’ teaching clearly implies that our present direction does not lead to where happiness can be found, and still less to where God can be found.
The contemplative dimension of the Gospel is Christ’s program for getting acquainted with the Ultimate Reality
as it really is, which is “no thing.” “No thing” means no particular thing, whether concept, feeling or bodily experience. God just is—without any limitation. And the way to connect with this “Is-ness” is to just be, too.
The problem is that the person who we think we are—that individual full of programs for success, social status,
fame, power, affection and esteem, compulsions, addictions, etc.—is not the authentic man or woman that we
are. And not only are we not who we think we are, but other people are not who we, or they, think they are. Our judgments about our character and other people’s characters—and the reality of the world within and around us—are largely incorrect. We see everything upside down or from the perspective of downright ignorance.
The question that perplexes many people at the beginning of this century is: Who is God? If this is too abstract a way of posing the question, it can be put it another way: What is your relationship with God?
The question of our relationship with God is crucial. There are, of course, as many relationships with God as
there are people. The essential point to grasp is that God is very close to us—as open to adults as to the little child
who is only able to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” While God is pleased with every sincere prayer, God seems to hope that our relationship with him is going to develop so that our prayer is not just a matter of getting through the night, as may be the case with a child, but of living everyday life in God’s presence.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God is existence and hence is present in everything that exists. If God is present everywhere, it follows that under no circumstances can we ever be separated from him. We may feel that we are; we may think that we are. But in actual fact, there is no way that we can ever be apart from God even if we try. Indeed, God’s presence is so present that in some circumstances we may wish that he would take a vacation!
The Story of Job
Such was the case with God’s servant Job (cf. Job 1:1–12). In this well-known story, Job is presented as a very wealthy man, highly regarded by his peers, and one who keeps away from all evil. God allows Satan to destroy everything that he owns or holds dear. As his misfortunes multiply, so do his complaints. They might be summarized in these terms: “I’ve had enough! Turn your
eyes away from me and look at somebody else for a change” (cf. Job 7:19).
Job’s afflictions under Satan’s malign influence increase and he becomes enraged. No one ever accused God of
more horrendous crimes than Job. For instance, he unabashedly asserts that God is the murderer of the innocent.
We would expect God to say in response, “You miserable little clay man! Who are you to sit in judgment on me?” and then blast him to smithereens! But God doesn’t respond to Job right away. He just waits. He listens patiently to all of Job’s complaints and accusations.
Eventually Job completely loses his own patience and starts making outrageous demands that might be paraphrased
in these words, “I want my day in court! I want to bring the Almighty to justice. He is cruelly punishing me and I’ve done nothing wrong.” Job’s fair-weather
friends (Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—euphemistically called “comforters” [Job 2:11])—keep telling him that he must have committed some terrible sin or he would not have been
reduced to these dreadful straits. These cold comforters are sold on the popular theory of their time that suffering
is always a punishment for sin. But Job maintains his innocence. He knows he is innocent! He is too upright to say that he has done wrong when his conscience bears witness to the fact that he has not.
Job’s predicament represents, in a greatly magnified form, the confusion and anger that everyone experiences when trying hard to lead a good life—honoring one’s commitments, worshipping God, and showing compassion to others—but experiencing little or no help from
God. Instead of enjoying God’s favor, all Job’s possessions are stolen, his family is destroyed, his reputation is in tatters, and his body is covered with painful sores from head to foot. He is reduced externally and internally to nothing. Job’s “friends” are the paradigms of well-intentioned
people who try to console those who are going through excruciating suffering by plying them with pious platitudes.
They only succeed in making Job feel worse.
Who is this God who, to judge by human standards, treats Job so abominably?
At the end of the story, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. God turns out to be not an image or a concept, but an experiential presence. Job doesn’t get any explanation for his monumental afflictions, but he gets something far better: the direct experience of God. This causes him to withdraw all his complaints. During the course of the lengthy confrontation, God evidently moves Job to a higher state of faith and love. The experience of God as Ultimate Reality, not the pious exhortations of his would be “comforters,” heals Job’s questioning and emotional turmoil. By means of this encounter with Ultimate
Reality Job is fully reconciled with God and with himself. He adjusts his “whys” about the situation—“Why me? Why my family? Why my reputation?”—to the fact that God simply is.
God then gives Job twice as much as he had before: land, livestock, wealth, long life, friends, family and good
reputation. These are not just material rewards for enduring unimaginable hardships. They are external signs of the spiritual gifts that God pours out upon Job as their friendship moves to divine union.
The Gospel moves beyond Job’s encounter with Godand invites us not only to union, but to intimacy with God. This is the primary purpose of what Christian theology calls the Incarnation. The God of Christian faith becomes a human being in the person of Jesus and, in doing so, becomes not only one with the human family as a whole, but one with each of its members in particular. In Paul’s explanation of this relationship Jesus Christ is the head of the human family in a vastly more real and profound sense than Adam and Eve, who according to the
book of Genesis were its physical progenitors.
If Christ, the Eternal Word, became a human being, emerging from the bosom of the Father into material creation, it must mean that Jesus in his human nature knew God in a way that no one else could ever know him. The Godhead dwells in Jesus bodily (Colossians 2:9). Christianity is not so much a series of propositions about God as it is the communication of the intimate knowledge that Jesus had of Who God Is. The Christian religion is the transmission of that experience of Ultimate Reality as Abba, Jesus’ endearing Aramaic word for Father.
Jesus reveals who God is in ways that we can understand—at least to some degree. For most of Christian history these ways of knowing have not been practiced. Even
today, the recognition of the oneness of the human family, symbolized by the Creation story and manifested by the Incarnation, is rarely manifested in human affairs. To judge by history, we are basically a highly competitive, self-centered, and violent species. If we accept the research of anthropologists, Homo sapiens is barely fifty thousand years old. Give us another fifty thousand years and we
might improve. But right now, few actually identify with the human family in such a way that they feel the sufferings and joys of others as their own.
Christ’s Experience of Abba
The interconnectedness and interdependence of everything that exists is the way the scientific community is beginning to understand material reality. Most of us have
yet to be convinced of the reality of this basic structure of the universe. The most effective way to grasp this truth is to experience it. This is one of the precious gifts that the discipline of Contemplative Prayer communicates. It transmits Christ’s experience of God as Abba. The Aramaic word Abba roughly means “daddy”—an affectionate and intimate term of endearment that a child invents for a tenderly loving father. Jesus’ experience of God as Abba (cf. Mark 14:36) was revolutionary in the
cultural context of his time. Jesus’ Abba, however, is not like any father we know. He is rather the source of everything that is, from the tiniest quark to the largest galaxy.
The word “Father” was occasionally applied to God in the Old Testament by the people of Israel. The God of
Israel was worshipped as the God of infinite power, transcendence, majesty, and justice; the author of the Ten
Commandments and of innumerable religious and ritual prescriptions. He was the God of armies who had to be worshipped in a special way; a sensitive God who was easily offended; a God to whom one had to atone for failing
to observe his laws and rituals; a punishing God who had to be placated by a wide variety of sacrifices and acts
of worship, praise, and thanksgiving.
Our Experience of Abba
Jesus, on the other hand, teaches that God is closer than we are to ourselves—closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness
itself. In the saying about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:6), Jesus teaches that when we pray,
we are to pray to Abba—not to the God of armies or to the God of strict justice, but to the God who is leaning over us like the most tender of parents. The God proclaimed by Jesus is every human relationship of love that is beautiful, good, and true—all rolled into one and multiplied a trillion times over. According to Jesus’ teaching,
God’s relationship to us is characterized by immense and
continuous concern, care and tenderness, and by an allinclusive forgiveness that extends to everything in our lives, from the moment of our conception until our death.
God’s closeness is presupposed in Jesus’ wisdom saying about how to pray. The word Abba emphasizes a most intimate way of relating to God. According to St. Teresa of Avila, many people pray as if God were absent. Imagine talking to somebody about what one most wants or needs whom you think isn’t there! How stupid can you get?! “When you want to pray,” Jesus implies by using the word Abba, “speak to someone you believe is not only there but listening with loving and rapt attention.”
Jesus established this close relationship between the Father and us by taking the whole human family to himself. Through his Incarnation Jesus shared with us his own divine dignity, empowering us with the capacity to be sons and daughters of God. When the apostles ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he teaches them to say, “Our Father who art in heaven” (italics mine). St. Paul expresses this special relationship thus:
For those who are led by the Spirit are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs and joint heirs with Christ . . . (Romans 8:14–17).
To call God “our Father” implies that the experience that Jesus enjoyed has been transmitted to us.
The Nature of God’s Closeness
Centering Prayer is patterned on the formula given by Jesus in Matthew 6:6:
If you want to pray, enter your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Entering “your inner room” and “praying to your Father in secret” are obviously aimed at deepening our relationship with God. What happens in the inner room
is a process of growing in “the deep knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:11). God of course does not actually come closer; rather God’s actual closeness at all times and in every place begins to penetrate our ordinary consciousness.
To live in the presence of God on a continuous basis can become a kind of fourth dimension to our threedimensional
world, forming an invisible but real background to everything that we do or that happens in our lives.
Most people do not think of God as present all the time, let alone experience that presence. But this is our misfortune. What we take to be our everyday life is full of misconceptions. For example, we humans—all of us—are
walking upside down on the planet. It is just gravity that keeps us from wandering off into space. Although in fact we stick out into space head first, nobody feels it, so scientists have to remind us that what we take for granted is not the way things actually are. Time and space as we see them are projections of a brain that seeks order and certitude. Spending regular periods of time in our inner room is a way of recognizing levels of reality beyond the limited dimensions of ordinary awareness.
Why do we find it so hard to believe that God is present at every moment? One possible answer might be that we are not sure we want to be in God’s presence all the time. Jesus invites us, urgently, to cultivate that relationship, but we may be more interested in other preoccupations—the childish things that Paul exhorts us to grow out of (1 Corinthians 13:11). Faith is an invitation to grow out of inadequate ways of relating to God into the reality
that God actually is.
The Christian tradition is the transmission of the relationship with the living God that Jesus experienced.
Participation in his own consciousness of God as Abba is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not a geographical location, an institution, or a form of government. It is a state of consciousness and of enlightened faith. To enter it, the preconceived ideas and prepackaged values that we brought with us from early childhood have to be re-evaluated and outgrown.
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