I have recently been having a conversation with a Dominican sister, Anne and she is a friend of my son James. We were talking about prayer and she told me of a quotation from J.R.R.Tolkien “not all those who wander are lost”. The conversation came about because whilst on a recent visit to Peru I said I had engaged in a long wandering prayer. This raised a question for me – is mental wandering in the presence of God, corresponding to physical wandering in the presence of God?
In my case, long wandering prayer involves leaving my normal environment for the express purpose of spending many hours alone with God. It involves walking, or at least moving, and stopping whenever I want to consider a lily for as long as I, and sometimes my travelling companions want to. There is sometimes a drive to control our minds in the presence of God, that is, to pray about one thing, or stick to a list, might this be a form of hiding from God? In ‘wandering prayer’ we might recognise the wandering mind as a precious resource for complex and startling dialogue with God…
We know the body matters in prayer, as does the physical world around us and yet many of us understand prayer as an exercise in which we should subdue, quiet or otherwise discipline the body so that it remains dormant while we engage in the spiritual exercise of prayer. There is no question about the fact that prayer is a spiritual exercise. Is it a fallacy that the body must be subdued in order for us to commune with the Spirit of God?
Why can’t we say, “I had a really noisy time with God this morning?” I think that what we have been calling quiet time should really, biblically be termed ‘time alone’.
Doesn’t Jesus tell us to pray behind closed doors? Indeed, he tells us, “but whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). How quiet would that room be? He was probably referring to the pantry or storage room of a small house. The house filled with children, animals, neigh-bours and street noise would have provided precious little quiet time. However, alone in the storage room, hearing the glorious cry of a child at play, the parent may well have prayed more fervently for that child than if they had been praying in an insulated room.
Did Jesus go to the mountain to pray? Absolutely! When did you last pray on a mountain? I prayed on one a few weeks ago. Birds whistled, the river roared, my heart thumped as I climbed higher and higher. Alone with God, it was not quiet and my body was not subdued and my prayers reflected my invigoration.
Doesn’t it say, ‘be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10)? Yes, it does, but in the context of Psalm 46 the injunction means, ‘be still’ in the presence of war’s violent destruction and mountains that are shaking and falling into the heart of the sea (I was thinking of Ecuador at this moment in my journey, whilst in the area of the world with a dangerous fault line where land masses collide). Surely, this Psalm calls us to be still in the midst of chaos. To bring God fully into the moment.
Many people report to me that they have difficulty in praying for more than ten minutes in one go. Can we do anything for more than ten minutes in this busy, busy world, yes of course we can and we do. I wonder if it’s something to do with the idea that we are to be inactive, still and quiet when at prayer. I can do many tasks for hours at a time but could I be inactive and still for many hours at a time? I have recently had an enforced time of inactivity and yes, I spent some time in prayer but I also slept a lot!
Prayer surely issues from the place where we are and is affected by the places the body moves into and out of. When we pray for our community isn’t it more powerful to walk through those communities during prayer? The prayer is usually longer because walking keeps the body alert. The prayer will be broader because moving past dwellings, churches, businesses and schools reminds us to pray for persons and community concerns that might never have entered the mind otherwise. I have found it does enhance the prayer and connects us deeper in ourselves with God. I have done this in a virtual sense too using Google Street View with a small group of people in a hospice setting and it stirred memories and visual images that heightened the experience we had of praying to a God who is in the world and of the world.
So, I would leave you with this reflection - a prayer journey: the body matters!
Lord, God lead us on our journey to places of resurrection, to dwellings of peace, to healings of wounds and to joys of discovery, amen!
Yours in Christ’s service