Editor’s note. Short takes on the twists and turns in my spiritual life since I was diagnosed with bladder cancer Oct. 25. I had pretty much expected the diagnosis since the tumor was removed Oct. 17, but it still threw me for a loop. So in a month that began with reading up on Jesuit and Trappist spirituality, I wound up drawing sustenance from a young adult novel by a secular Jewish author who is routinely banned from middle school libraries and a punk-rocker-turned-Orthodox-rabbi.
Oct. 18. [I wrote:] One of the nice things about recuperating from surgery (it may be just about the only nice thing, as far as I’m concerned): You get to schlepp around in bed with a cat and a pile of books. Given my state of mind lately, they tend to be theology books. And books about spiritual practice. Especially a simplified Zen-like practice called centering prayer.
Centering prayer was developed in the 1970s by Fr. Thomas Keating and other Trappist or Cistercian monks who wished to appeal to younger seekers who had sampled Buddhist meditation and wished to apply its principles in a Christian setting. Based on Christian practices dating back to the third- and fourth-century Desert Fathers and Mothers, it offers a simplified form of prayer and mediation that I’m finding accessible. (I’ve blogged about it HERE and HERE.) Fr. James Martin, who has been my go-to guy for all matters spiritual since I first read his Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything several years ago, suggests it’s compatible with Ignatian spirituality. So I read with interest his description of what St. Ignatius called the “Third Method of Praying.” Says Martin, quoting Ignatius:
You take a single word (he suggests words from the Our Father) and concentrate on the word while breathing in and out. “This is done in such a manner that one word of the prayer is said between one breath and another,” he writes. This Ignatian practice is remarkably similar to Zen practice as well as to the contemporary practice of centering prayer.
For a self-proclaimed “Zen Lutheran,” this rang a bell. But there’s more to it than that. When thoughts intrude — and they will — you simply make note of them and repeat the prayer word. “The prayer word gently recalls you to the presence of God.” It’s like a mantra, says Martin, and it helps you focus. “Don’t concentrate on the meaning of the word. Rather, let the word anchor you in the presence of God.”
Oct. 25 (or thereabouts). Well, let’s just say the thoughts have been intruding lately. The surgery was to remove a tumor, and the tumor turned out to be malignant when the biopsy came back. So I have plenty to think about, and centering prayer is helping me focus those thoughts and channel them into prayer.
Something I found especially helpful is a note that Esther Yff-Prins of Dominican Center Marywood at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., appended back in January to the registration page for a weekly online centering prayer service:
Throughout our lives, but especially in this time of Covid, we often find ourselves in a place of fragility and tentativeness. Threats of illness and loss loom large, and we may feel isolated and uncertain, wondering where God is in all of this turmoil. It is here that the practice of Centering Prayer offers a healing balm where we can refine our awareness and steady our faith, where we see anew that all of life — even life with Covid — is wrapped in God’s love. This prayer practice is not about petition or intercession; rather, it is silent, still, with one intent: to simply be with God, to rest in Divine Presence. Whether we center individually or communally on Zoom, this spiritual discipline connects us to the divine within ourselves and with the world around us. […]
Apparently Yff-Prins wrote that in January, when the omicron variant was spiking, and now Covid seems to be settling into more of a long-term, lingering threat. But more immediate threats of illness and loss loom large in my life at the moment, and if there’s anything I need to do, it’s to find “where God is in all of this turmoil.” Centering prayer seems to be helping.
I’m not sure that I’m doing this the way it’s intended, though. I’m repeating a mantra — mine is “trust God” — to quiet my mind. But most of my prayer, under the circumstances, is intercessory.
(Nov. 2 or 3). Speaking of intercessory prayer …
My headline, at the risk of explaining the obvious, is a play on the title of Judy Blume’s young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (I blogged about it HERE, earlier this year.) Prayer isn’t something that comes easily to me, and I found Blume’s novel about an 11-year-old Jewish girl raised in a secular household was pitched right about on my level of spiritual sophistication. Blume, herself a secular Jew, once told an interviewer:
I grew up Jewish in suburban New Jersey in the fifties. My own religious education was minimal. I went to Sunday school when I was young. Though my Judaism was a part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion. Like Margaret, God was my confidante, my everyday friend.
Maybe that’s what I’m looking for now.
At the moment I’m drawn to one of the techniques of centering prayer because the technique — returning to a prayer word when my thoughts are racing — helps quiet my mind.
My prayer word, trust, is turning into a mantra. And, since I read about St. Ignatius’ “Third Method” with its breath control, it goes something like this: TRUST (inhale) / in the (exhale) / LORD (inhale) / with all (exhale) / your HEART (inhale). I’m quite sure it’s nothing like what the Trappists, Fr. Martin or St. Ignatius had in mind, but it seems to be working for me.
Nov, 4 (pulling it all together). Another one of my go-to guys is Tzvi Gluckin, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from the East Coast who played punk rock, jazz, metal and blues before he moved to Israel and studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. (I blogged about him HERE, in 2019, and have returned to his insights several times when I needed them.) Several years ago I picked up a copy of his book Knee Deep in the Funk for its thoughts on music. But I’ve found Gluckin’s riffs on foxhole spirituality especially speak to me when I need them most:
Of course you would pray. You can’t do anything else. You can only turn to God. In a situation like that you don’t think. You don’t rationalize. You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray. And you beg God to save you.
In times of trouble, crisis, fear, or desperation you naturally turn to prayer. You don’t make a pragmatic decision. You don’t think, “Well, just in case — you know on the off chance — that God really exists, I might as well pray. Just in case.” You don’t think like that in the heat of the moment. You don’t wax philosophical. You are too busy, distracted, devastated, upset, or out of your head to meditate on the possible existence of God. You cry out in prayer.
To which I can only say: Amen.
“Centering Prayer, Every Tuesday (Online),” Dominican Center Marywood at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Mich. https://dominicancenter.com/programs-and-retreats/centering-prayer/.
James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 163-64, 166-67.
Wikipedia pages on apophatic theology and Desert Fathers.
[Revised and uplinked — finally! — Nov. 4, 2022]
2 thoughts on “How a young adult novelist and a punk rocker-turned Orthodox rabbi guide my prayer life lately: ‘Are you there God, it’s me … (and help me get out of this foxhole)!’”
Very nice! And I’m just resurrecting nice photos of Jerusalem’s Old City as a way of distracting myself …
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I look forward to seeing them! That was a life-changing trip to the Holy Land …
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