Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Conversation III: Let Go Your Grasp

 Michelle and I continue our guest blogging discussion of Into the Silent Land.  One of the things Marty Laird emphasizes is the use of a "prayer word," a sort of repetitive mantra, as a means by which to diminish the distractions that inevitably fill our mind.  I asked Michelle whether we might write about that -- focus on the focus, I suppose -- and she responded with a letter:  

Dear Robin,

I find to my dismay that you are counting on me to wax eloquent on the subject of prayer words.  I will have a hard time topping your pithy summing up - “This is a lot more confusing and difficult than it sounds.” -  since I entirely agree, and wonder if I'm not going to cloud the issue more. 

So I'm going to admit right off the bat that I have never settled into a single prayer word, or even the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), all advice to the contrary notwithstanding.  I tend to wake up each morning with a snippet of a prayer or a single line of Scripture, usually from a psalm, though not exclusively, bouncing around my head.

For a long time I thought I was a failure on the prayer word front, or at the very best a mere contemplative dilettante bouncing from phrase to phrase.  It was the fortuitous discovery of Gabriel Bunge OSB's practical down to earth book on prayer [1] in the stacks at Wernersville that helped me realize that I'm not a failure, but perhaps a throwback.

Originally these prayers were "hurled quickly like spears." They were meant to be short and to the point, not dulled by hanging onto them too hard or too long, and Evagrius Pontikos advises that they be aimed directly at the distracting demon.  In much the same fashion Jesus, tempted by Satan in the desert, hit back with single, appropriate lines from the Scripture.  For Evagrius the prayer word was less the refuge some authors describe - a sort of muffling veil you pull over yourself to hide you from the distractions or the distractions from you - and more of a weapon to beat off the distractions, or better yet, pin them squirming to the wall so they can't return!  Your image of the prayer word as a shepherd's crook quite neatly captures both these senses, I think.  The crook pulls us back from the brink again and again, while it's not a bad weapon to shake at a wolf or crack over the head of a snake.

Too, I like Laird's image of the prayer word as a "vaccine" - a small dose of what ails you when you are distracted - and the advice that follows: it doesn't really matter what word you choose.  It's not about the "spiritual buzz" you get picking one or using it.  In this vein, I would think "to do list" would be far better at vaccinating me against distraction than "grace" or "Jesus"!  I think we can be too fastidious about prayer, sometimes; too high-minded for a people tied to the humility of the cross.  So no way am I going to laugh at your choice of "grass" as your prayer word!

I split the difference between the older tradition of picking an appropriate phrase to hurl at specific distractions, and sticking with a single phrase as Laird (and most others) advise.  Instead I stick with my snippets.  In part it's a way to "pray unceasingly" with this tidbit that rises again and again even when I'm not formally praying.  Of late I've begun to suspect it's also a catalyst for a kind of detachment from prayer words when I sit in prayer.  I spend so much of my day sorting through piles of words, looking for the pieces that fit just right, like pieces into a complex jigsaw puzzle, that the picking of prayer word, and the repeating of it, can be distracting.  Instead I seem to let my unconscious consult with the Holy Spirit and dispense a word or two for me, which I take up in humility and gratitude. 

Snippets may stay a day, a few hang around for a week or a month or more, but I've learned not to try to hurry their departure, no matter how repetitive or unappealing (or appealing!) I find them.  I find that it's best if I don't treat these phrases or words as koans -  puzzles to be solved -  but use them as hallway runners, quieting my footsteps as I move from door to door, or spears to puncture the particular distractions that are haunting me.  I never have to strain to recall the phrase - it's automatic; the changing nature does not cloud the discipline of always returning here.

You wrote of praying with the phrase from Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God."  and turning the word "know" around in your head as you walked.  Patient Spiritual Director once suggested I pray with this verset, paring it back word by word: Be still and know that I am. Be still and know.  Be still.  Be.    But why not strip it back to know?  Or and  for that matter? 

I prefer Robert Alter's translation of this line, "Let go, and know that I am God."  He points out that the Hebrew verb is a bit of a surprise here; it carries the connotation of relaxing your grip on something, rather than the freezing of motion.  And in the end, of course, that's what must happen with the prayer word at what Laird calls the third doorway, release your grip on it, stop wielding it as a tool, stop immersing yourself in it, just let it go and let what happens, happen.

My most potent recent experience of that release was on my visit to the old novitiate at Wernersville last week.  I was floating in the pool, seeking relief from the heat, and decided to experiment with praying in that place, rather than get out and sit for a meditation on the side of the pool. I began, then quickly realized that I was no longer paying attention to floating.  Panic surfaced, until I realized I wasn't in fact sinking.  The whole period ended up being this continual "letting go my grasp" on my need to do something to stay afloat -  in both body and spirit. 

Which perhaps brings me to my next question - at one point as we were planning this conversation, you said that you found the section on the breath to be less helpful to you.      It may be the scientist in me that is intrigued about the connections between the body and prayer;  certainly the very bodied experience in the pool continues to play out in my prayer.   What about the body in all this?

Here’s hoping for some relief from the desert heat!


[1] Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition - it's not as smoothly written or as dryly humorous as Laird's book can be, but like Into the Silent Land is deeply practical, straightforward discussion of the contemplative life and well grounded in the Church's tradition, particularly that of the desert hermits

[2] Augustine reports that the desert mystics used these phrases -  quondam modo iaculatas -  which can translate as “hurled like so many javelins” though Laird uses the translation “shot like arrows”.  I have to say I prefer the imagery of the less lady-like spear-thrusts, which may be a bit bloodthirsty for someone who claims to seek detachment!

(Image: Evagrius of Pontus, 4th century Egytian monk, as he appears on his Facebook page!)


  1. Oh my. This speaks directly into my prayer life and challenges. I have practiced for many years a form of silent prayer/meditation. I have rarely been successful using a word or phrase. This may be related to how I learned to meditate in the early 1970's and the "sound" I was given to use as a mantra instead of a word. This sound is two syllabols and is meant to be connected to the breath, one syllabol with a breath in, one syllabol with a breath out. Because its not a word it doesn't catch me up in wordiness, but keeps me engaged with breath, relaxing body and mind. Or letting go.

    The truth is I have been doing this for so long that I almost never use the sound anymore, unless I am particularly distracted getting into the quietness of prayer and can't settle in. More lately, though, in a curious fashion I find that as I am in the quiet, words from prayers or scripture float up and resonate around for awhile. I presume that these are significant since they come up from some place deep inside. Although I'm not sure I could tell you what they were when I am finished with the prayer....

    Anyway, not to go on and on...I am appreciating this "conversation"...

  2. Thanks Michelle! This was thought provoking.

    I learned about the practice of centering prayer a few years ago and occasionally spend time - not often enough - doing this form of prayer. The word aspect was problematic for me at the beginning because words carry much baggage especially in the English language where they generally have many meanings. The words I tried at the beginning just distracted me more as I followed the various paths where they would lead. For a while, I tried agape - Greek for love - but three syllables was unwieldy. For now, I use the word amen. It means many things to me - I agree, I will, I am, I believe, so be it; yes, my lack of formal knowledge of the meaning is probably quite evident in this statement. It works, for now.