Thursday, July 23, 2009

Some thoughts on Personal Prayer

In last night's post, I said how I probably need to write something on prayer and so here I go. I suppose it's going to be a bit of a brief spiritual autobiography. After last night, however, I can't say where my writing will take me. But I'm not going to be talking about what my friend Madhatter terms " the big E-experience". Not that I haven't had them, mostly years ago in my very younger days. In many respects they're pretty easy to experience but not really all that much to fuss about.

Instead I want to reflect upon the mundane processes of prayer, the daily routines. As I said last night I find myself in a pretty full on prayer routine these days all arising from love. It's not the most intense I've ever done. Many years ago I had a go at the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodox tradition. It's goal is prayer without ceasing and I got pretty close but then had a very powerful what I term insight experience and felt that I no longer needed to continue and so I stopped. I remembr a friend of mine at the time asking "what's it supposed to do" and I realised what she was asking was what sort of power or ecstasy do you get from it. I couldn't answer; well I could, the answer was you get to pray without ceasing but that's not what she wanted to hear. And it was probably not long after that I stopped.

After my appendix explosion of 1991, I had a period of time wrestling with a whole lot of demons to do with death and dying and meaninglessness. I was working at the AIDS Council at the time and had already seen a lot of deaths, being brought to the brink of my own thus forced me to confront a lot of loss and grief issues as well as ultimate questions. I don't remember actually praying at the time but I do remember the crisis breaking in yet another insight experience which I think can only be expressed in some form of painting or other art form. I couldn't do it justice with words.

I don't know that I prayed that much during the 90s. If I did it was in the form mostly of spontaneous prayers coupled with the Peace Prayer of St Francis, a prayer I still really like and pray most days. But the traditional prayers of my Catholic background I pretty much ignored. I had a bit of a rough year for deaths in '98, including my father, but I was by then a Catholic so much on the fringe I was virtually outside and over the fence. Those were the days of JP 2 and it was easy to feel on the edge of things as far as Mother Church was concerned. The one church I would go to, St Mary's was starting to lose it, to head down the path to the current situation so I was also feeling alienated there.

It was a combination of Rabbinic texts and love that brought me back to prayer. The rabbinic texts exposed me to some of the esoteric traditions in Judaism, traditions that I saw had strong resonances with aspects of Christianity, mostly in its Catholic forms. At the same time I was engaging with some nasty Protestant fundamentalist texts from the culture wars in the US primarily. If there was one thing they despised almost as much as faggots it was Catholicism and in particular, Mary. So it made me have another look at Mary and things Marian. This was around the turn of the new century. And there was a friend I was very much in love with at the time (not the person I referred to in last night's post). There was a time when he was having some kind of crisis. I can't remember what now, although I think it might have been exams. So I said a prayer for him and then moved on to saying a decade of the rosary for him and that began my adventures with the rosary. It was all very low key then but I wanted to explore it and play with it and so I did.

I jump forward now to the invasion of Iraq. I was really angry and very depressed by that and by the way the Howard gov't was a full on accomplice. And every day the horrors of that war called out for some response. I found that prayer for the people in Iraq and people elsewhere too seemed the right thing to do (amongst other things of course). I'm trying not to telescope too much. The period from 2002 onwards was a very difficult time. Personally, I had finished the PhD and was confronted with the question 'is that all there is'. There was the struggle to find work, get a job and naturally I wanted to do what I loved, teaching, research etc. I had ideas I wanted to pursue, I still want to pursue. There is nothing more demoralising than applying for jobs over and over again. And as most jobs were overseas, it led to a very serious sense of disconnection. By 2004 I was probably in a deep depression

And at the same time, people around me began having crises, including major health crises in some cases. And of course the wars and the other shit in the world ground on relentlessly. By then I was moving to a daily rosary followed by a number of intercessionary prayers for people I knew and for people suffering around the world as well as some prayers for myself. All generally as way of starting my day. I found too that I liked checking out both the RC Cathedral and its little side chapel. The latter being a separate building was a marvellous space in the heart of the CBD to experience silence in the hubbub. Just sitting, I wouldn't even necessarily pray.

The other interesting thing with the Cathedral was candles, lighting them before the Virgin and a couple of other saints. I don't remember when I first had a go at doing it and I can't remember whether I lit it for me or someone else. I probably did two, one for me and one for someone else. This would have been in 2004 I think. Over time lighting candles has become quite natural for me. Nowadays I light three candles - one for my mother, who's been having a lot of health problems too, one for the friend who I love that I wrote about last night and one for our friendship.

I can't remember when I began the practice of praying for people who die when ever I hear of their deaths. I'm not just talking about people I know but people anywhere as you hear about them in the news. It was either the Afghan or Iraq wars, I presume. Whenever I hear or read a news report of someone or some people dying, I say a prayer for them. It's a very Catholic thing to do. I prayed for Saddam Hussein when he was hung. There's not much difference between you, dear reader, myself and Saddam Hussein. We're all human, we all shit and fart and piss. As the saying goes, there but for fortune. And even if he was a monster then he needs prayers even more urgently. The same applies to John Howard, George Bush and even Dick Cheney. When they die I will pray for them too. I wrote in one of the earliest posts here

Catholics pray for the dead. We pray in part because we recognise we are part of a community that transcends time and space including the walls of death. (That is why Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches are adorned with images icons paintings statues of the saints – to acknowledge and affirm that community) We pray for the living and we pray for the dead and (the hope) the dead pray for us too. It is part of what it means to work together, to help each other, to support each other. It is part of justice making, of community making, of what in Judaism is known as tikkun olam, the spiritual repair of the world,

Praying for those who had died was something I adopted quite early on, probably on my part as a way of expressing a solidarity with them, these strangers, more often nameless, as the body counts in the various wars of empire mounted. It was important to do so and I still do.

But the prayers for the living grew too. As well as situations of crisis and conflict around the world, I have a long list of individuals that I pray for at the end of my daily rosary. They are all friends and family who've been having difficult times; some former students too. Once you end up on that list it's hard to get off it. Since Newcastle, I've added Roland Boer and his father and mother to that list too. It strikes me now as positively monkish except I'm not living as a monk. I'm out there in the world doing things. I was doing this all the time I was working as a union organiser. Riding to work on public transport gives you lots of time for prayer. I also like walking and that also gives time to pray as well.

All of my rosaries were intended for people suffering catastrophe, war. During the Israeli attack on Gaza earlier this year, my rosaries were dedicated to the people of Gaza and the end of the crisis. Other times catastrophe, such as the Aceh earthquake/tsunami, are the focus. And times when people I know have died (and there have been a few over the last few years), they become the focus of my rosary. It becomes a way of calling people to mind, of expressing solidarity and connection, as well as the hope that they may derive some benefit as well. All faith involves doubt, so it's always a hope. You don't want to fall into the trap of pious certainty because that way arrogance lies although as I'd been praying for the end of the Howard government for some time I'd like to think of that as a clear case of prayers answered (mind you I suspect it likely there were many people praying for the end of that government so it's certainly not my prayers alone).

I can't remember when I added my friend, the one that I spoke of in my post on love, to the list of people at the end of my rosary. I added him because I love him. I think love is a good motivation to pray for someone. By that stage, my rosaries were focused on my mother who as I said has been having health problems for a while. But I should backtrack a bit. A little while ago, I decided to experiment with the Angelus, in part because I wanted to test the notion that Marian prayer operated on a deification principle (I'll probably need to write about deification some time too). I knew the rosary did and I'm now pretty confident the Angelus does too.

So when my friend asked me for prayers as he was going through a crisis, it was not difficult to expand upon the existing routine. Expand I did. Somehow I still manage to find time to do all the other things as well as incorporate this expanded routine. He gets his own rosary too now. I don't know how much longer I will sustain. When I saw him a couple of days ago he was looking really good so maybe soon I can scale back.

The really intersting thing with all of this practice is that I haven't had any grand peak experiences or anything remotely "mystical" at all and neither do I seek it. At the same time when I think about myself back in 2004 and the mess I was in, I really have to say that the prayer routine played a very large part in getting me through, primarily because it gave me a sense of connection that I was in need of and an other-focus which is so important for keeping sane. Unbeleivers might say it's all in my head and yep that might well be the case. But even if it is, in my head I'm connected now. And oftentimes there are times and situations when there is nothing one can do. It can be isolating, demoralising, disempowering. To pray for the people of Iraq, the people of Gaza, the people of Darfur, to name some examples at the very least helps to resist the insidious demonisation and dismissal of them and their suffering by the dominant discourses of empire. There aren't demonstrations every day and when it comes to Burma, say, no one listens anyhow.

But as a believer, there is someone listening. Now I don't believe in the Superman god who's all powerful and does magic tricks all the time but I do believe somehow in the efficacy of prayer. To cite the prayer of the faithful in the Mass, I believe all our prayers are answered, we just cant see how sometimes. I was talking with a friend the other day and I was telling him about the UQ job tutoring I've got this semester and just how much of a coincidence it was that it was that I found out about it and was able to put up my hand for it. His response was 'this keeps happening all the time with you; you've been living by faith' It was weird because I'd never really thought of it that way. I am living by faith - it's an attitude of trust, I suppose. And perhaps that's something I've developed through prayer. Sometimes it feels very scary and sometimes all the old anxieties bubble up, all the old hurts. And sometimes if I start praying for someone else, like the friend I love, then the focus shifts. It's not the big E, not even really a little e, just a subtle reorienting that's flavoured with love.

And now it's time to off and pray.

FRIDAY UPDATE: Curiously, this morning I received a request sent to myself and others from a Buddhist friend asking for prayers for a friend of his just diagnosed with cancer. I've added them to my list. I don't know who else he sent the message to but it's a good feeling to be part of a network of prayer, an interfaith one too.

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