Following up on yesterday’s post (Aug. 4) in light of new developments. When I wrote it, I felt like I’ve had some prayers answered lately, and I quoted rabbi Tzvi Gluckin, author of Knee Deep in the Funk: Understanding the Connection Between Spirituality and Music, on the power of prayer — “In times of trouble, crisis, fear, or desperation you naturally turn to prayer. … You don’t wax philosophical. … You cry out in prayer.” But I didn’t go on to quote what Gluckin says on the next page:

You can ask God for millions of dollars, a big house, fame, a new car, or a date with Mary Jane. And God can deliver. He has the money, connections, clout and ability to make things work out the way you want them to. But that doesn’t mean He will do it. The money, house, fame, car, or date could be a disaster for you. It could ruin your life.

And I guess I should have. Because that’s the other side of the coin. When I pray, sometimes a day or two passes and I realize the answer I’m getting is more like, No, not yet. Hold your horses, buddy. Go back to the drawing boards. First things first. Or … this:

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?

The monk replied, “I have eaten.”

Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

That little story, by the way, comes from a website called NoZen. It’s a ’90s-ish collection of Zen koans — one of those early webpages that techies put up in the first days of the internet, heavy on text in Times Roman and heavily nerdish in content. A lot of westernized Buddhist philosophy. Anyway, I don’t pretend to be enlightened, but that story about Joshu, the monk and the rice bowl is one of my favorite koans. It reminds me … well, I’ve usually got a bowl of my own that I need to wash first.

Back to Rabbi Gluckin and the power of prayer. What he says next, right after he says we may not always like God’s answer, is what holds the whole thing together — at least for me:

Prayer is part of an active relationship with God. Look at the answers you get — whether yes or no — and try to make sense of them. What is God telling me? Is this a test, a challenge, an opportunity, a message? Do I get it am I real? What should I do differently?

Gluckin, who plays in genres ranging from punk rock to jazz, goes on to say prayer “is like learning a musical instrument: inspiration doesn’t make you great, regular practice makes you great.”

Well, I don’t know if I want to be great. Prayer doesn’t strike me as a competitive sport. (Nor does music, for that matter.) But maybe …

Is God telling me to practice the dulcimer more?

The best musicians don’t wait for inspiration. If they did, they would never be inspired. You don’t have to pray — you can wait for a crisis — but if you wait, you will rarely be inspired. You will miss out on an amazing spiritual relationship. And that is a waste of the power of prayer.

Better wash that rice bowl first, though.

It’s beginning to be clear Debi and I have been in an ongoing state of crisis — mostly low-grade but flaring up into ER visits and other high drama at odd times — since February and March. I’ve been experimenting with lectio divina and a couple of Jesuit spiritual prayer exercises, and I think I’m starting to get comfortable with them. But when the health issues flare up, I’m back to intercessory prayer. Or, as I like to think of it, to ER prayers and foxhole spirituality.

Which in turn takes me back to the 90s, when I was reading a lot of Zen Buddhist writing — much of it in bare-bones websites like NoZen, as a matter of fact — and “working the steps” in a 12-step recovery program, going through the program literature step by step and trying to “grow along spiritual lines,” as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it. The key step here is the 11th:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. (Italics in the original.)

That I can do.

In fact, I feel like I’ve been doing it since I got into a recovery program back in the 90s. And I’m sure the part where you pray “only for the knowledge of God’s will … and the power to carry that out” has kept me, in Rabbi Gluckin’s words, from praying for dollars, fame or a date with Mary Jane.

And, since I swapped out AA meetings for services in a Lutheran congregation, praying in church has been OK — although extempore prayer was, and is, a problem. Since our latest round of health issues began, I’ve been getting us the on prayer list at church and asking for healing, discernment and acceptance on a prayer requests website maintained by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield. (They have links there to other resources, including short, practical guides to lectio divina and the Jesuit examen.) I think that’s in the spirit of the 11th Step of AA.

And, as the webpages helpfully remind me, the 11th Step Prayer isn’t about getting help with anything. It’s the prayer traditionally attributed to St. Francis that begins:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That, I think, puts the focus where it belongs. In AA, the focus is on service. Start out by washing coffeepots and — in the days when smoking at meetings was practically mandated — emptying ashtrays, and move on to the 12th Step, the one about having “a spiritual awakening” and “practicing these principles in all our affairs.”

And everywhere else … guess what? The focus is still on service. Service and keeping that rice bowl washed.

[Published Aug. 9, 11:20 a.m.]

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