Monday, February 10, 2014

Wonder and Sadness, Astonishment and Fear

Prayer is the relationship between man the visible and the invisible x. This is why I said that prayer is a search, an exploration of this invisible world of our own depths, which God alone knows and he alone can reveal to us.

And it is by prayer, gropingly at first, in the dawn of a new vision, that we seek and find God and ourselves in a co-relative way. Then later, when a clearer light has shown us what we can see of the invisible and visible transfigured in the light of its own immensity and the eternity in God, prayer becomes a state…

While we are seeking, partly blind with partly restored sight, our first steps in prayer take the form of astonishment, reverent fear, and a sense of sadness. We are astonished at the discovery of ourselves, which is also the beginnings of knowledge of God; we are astonished to see the world open out towards God’s infinity.

We are afraid, glad and terrified when we come into the presence of God’s holiness and beauty. We are also sad, both for ourselves and the world. It is sad to be blind, it is sad to be unable to live the fullness of our vocation, to be trapped again and again in our own limitations. It is sad to see our world without God, vacillating between life and death and unable to choose life once and for all or to escape once and for all from death.

Wonder and sadness are thus the two sources of our prayer. Both arise from our encounter with the world’s depths, which have begun to be revealed to us in their totality. Without this encounter, our world and the forces at work in it are incomprehensible, and often monstrous; we are bewildered and afraid.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Courage to Pray

Reflection – ‘People, look East’ – when I was pondering what to do next on the blog, this Advent carol popped into my head, and since Advent has come and gone, I took it as a word to look for a few days at some of the great Orthodox writers and their wealth of wisdom. We have a genuinely superb library at MH of Eastern Christian books, so yesterday I more or less randomly chose a few of them, and more or less randomly opened my choices and chose suitable passages. So this week on Ten Thousand Places, our places will be Russia, Greece, Egypt, and those writers coming from those traditions.

Wonder and sadness as the two sources of prayer—this is a very beautiful insight. Prayer—real prayer, that is—is not just a firing off of requests and intentions, or a vague distracted mumbling of rote prayers, or some mechanical logging in of time before the Lord in a chapel or church. All of these have their place, for sure, and all of these can be absolutely at the service of and bring us to true prayer.

True prayer is also not some complicated fussy thing that only the experts in the monasteries who have all the time in the world to attend to it can achieve, leaving the rest of us with the distracted rote prayers and firing off of requests. It is, as Metropolitan Bloom says, in its beginnings a sense of wonder, a sense of fear, and a sense of sadness.

I think all three of these are things we would do well to cultivate in ourselves. The scientific world view, reducing all of reality to its atomic components and mechanical relationships, does not leave great scope for wonder. We need to reflect on how the universe and all that is in it is a great opening towards God, how the Creator is present to His creation, and how tenderly and lovingly everything that is, including our own selves, is held is in His care. Wonder and awe flow from this, even as they might be sparked by the simple sight of sunlight on the snow or the smell of pine needles or the flight of a bird.

Fear is a good thing—reverent fear. God is big, we are small. God is very good, and we are not always quite so good. There is a radical contingency and dependency in our state of being—at any moment we could pass out of existence. And meanwhile, there is this mighty God, this great One, this awesome Being, and we are quite literally at His mercy. Faith, hope, and love come to assist us here, and it is a good thing, but truly there are few who really encounter God who are not a little bit afraid, even as we are glad to be afraid like that.

And sadness—well, I think there is a lot of sadness in the world today. People do experience discouragement, futility, despondency in varied and manifold ways. But the sadness that leads to prayer may not be quite so common. I think it is within our reach, though. The world is in a dreadful state (it always has been, mind you). I am in a dreadful state, and (dare I suggest) so are you. We live in this constant chiaroscuro of light and darkness, yes and no, refusal and acceptance, love and not-love. A sad state of affairs.

But the wonder and the fear, the astonishment of God, works in harmony with this sadness, and the result is true prayer, real prayer, beautiful prayer. Humble, contrite, sincere prayer coming from the heart. God you are so great; Lord, have mercy on me; Lord, save and deliver your people. And these are the beginnings and the deep heart of prayer for the Christian believer.

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