Listening for God
In May two local churchesneither my local parishat polar opposites of my liturgical denomination sponsored prayer events. They looked similar in intent: listening to God. Similar in their physical, relational dynamic: something like "parallel play," in which individuals share a room but don't directly interact. On other counts, the two offerings looked very different. A charismatic congregation, worshipping in a windowless warehouse sanctuary, opened its doors and cleared its floor for an evening of "soaking prayer." Four days later the buttressed cathedral offered a labyrinth prayer walk north of the limestone pulpit, beneath a rose window.
I knew people who'd been profoundly touched by both forms of prayer. What was I missing? Aware of the liturgical season, the expectant void between Ascension Day and Pentecost, I decided to experiment.
The charismatic church is a place where people repeat praise songs, speak prophecies, and make intercessions, occasionally in unknown languages. They're talkers and doers. Their church time is participatory. If they're listening, it's to Bible readings, sermons, or the Eucharistic Prayer.
But not this nightthe one "open" session of a two-day event requiring registration. Yes, the evening started with congregational singing and a lengthy teaching, about intimacy with God. But then the lights dimmed and the format changed. We in the audience weren't expected to join in as the musicians played or sang soothing music meant to "soak" us with the love of God. "This is Mary time," a handout said, referring to the woman Jesus commended for sitting at his feet rather than scurrying about, like her sister Martha. "Focus on the Lord's presence within you." We weren't even expected to sit on the chairs, set up in only half the room. We were encouraged to stretch out on the carpet, to "rest in the Lord" (Psalm 37:7), to "be still" and "meditate within your heart" (Psalm 4:4), to "lie down" as if "in green pastures" and let the Holy Spirit spiritually "restore" us (Psalm 23:2-3).
Many two-day participants were lying on blankets. I had brought only a small pillow, on which I lay my head, having claimed a coffin-sized spot on the floor near the PA control panels. In The Luminous Dusk, Dale Allison commends a physicality of prayer. "When prayer is rightly made, matter is joined to spirit, and together the two seek the divine grace." He's discussing bowed heads, closed eyes, pressed palms, bent knees. Supine soaking? It wasn't part of his vocabulary.
For an hour I stretched out on my back. I listened.
There's nothing new about the power of music. In The Psychology of the Saints, Henri Joly noted that music so dramatically "ravished" Ignatius of Loyola that he became "unconscious of pain." As a child I'd found Jesus through song-driven altar calls: "come home, come home." As a young-adult parishioner I'd let praise music draw out a river of spirit-cleansing tears. Alone, in my car or on my couch, I've let recorded hymns and spiritual songs sweep me into the joy of the Lord. But I'd never listened to meditative Jesus-loves-me music in communal recumbency. Much of the music was instrumentalkeyboard, violin, guitar. If there were lyrics, they mirrored biblical imagery: Come to the wedding feast, not as a guest but as the bride. Come to the water, not just a fountain but a river.
I went home refreshed and at peace but a little disappointed. This wasn't a deeper at-wellness than I'd experienced before, listening at length to Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" or Gavin Bryans's "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" in the privacy of my own living room.
Unlike supine soaking prayer, with origins seemingly in turn-of-the-millennium Toronto, labyrinth walking has an ancient history. The walls of a fourth-century Algerian basilica hold the oldest Christian labyrinth, its center marked "Santa Eclesia"holy church. Chartres Cathedral, built about AD 1200, has a labyrinth inlaid in the stone floor. Maybe pilgrims unable to go to Jerusalem made this journey.
In Walking a Sacred Path, Lauren Artress proposes physiological underpinnings that seem diametrically opposed to the premise of soaking prayer (to quiet the mind, one quiets the body). Artress says, "The labyrinth can be a tremendous help in quieting the mind, because the body is moving."
In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says one prays a labyrinth "to make a quiet, listening pilgrimage to God." Calhoun's scriptural base also rests on Psalm 23, but she quotes later lines: "He guides me in paths of righteousness. Though I walk through the valley" he is with me. And she cites Psalm 84: "Blessed are those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. They go from strength to strength."
Like "soaking," labyrinth prayer can be a solitary experience. But this evening event, a few days before Pentecost, was clearly corporate. In the north transept, outside the Holy Spirit Chapel, cathedral volunteers had set down a large painted labyrinth made of canvas cloths joined by long zippers. Replacing my sandals with clean white socks, I stepped onto the path among about fifteen would-be pilgrims, including a few friends from my church.
Again, there were handouts: a Thomas Merton "Prayer for Guidance" and an orientation for first-timers. The labyrinth isn't a maze; there are no dead ends. When you get to the center, you return, along the same circuitous but purposeful course, back to the starting point. "Walking In: A time of release, emptying and quiet. In the Center: A time of receiving and union. Walking Out: A time to return, renewal and action."
A three-part journey: Heading toward the centerthough sometimes in the opposite directionI imagined the sojourn of my life so far, not specific places and scenes, but vague seasons: "I have decided to follow Jesus"; "kum ba ya"; "in the bleak midwinter"; "nearer my God to thee. "
In soaking prayer, I could close my eyes, disregard the physical setting. Not here. Briefly I stared at a high-up stained-glass window depicting warrior Deborah eye-to-eye with back-up Barak. Thirty seconds later I was face to face with a church friend who had been walking behind me. This could only mean that one of us had misstepped. "Not my brother, nor my sister, but it's me, O Lord." I realized I'd crossed a line, into a "wrong" lane, while trying to force myself into the victory story.
I turned around, followed my friend, and continued my march to Zion, soon entering the inside chamberthe city of God, the eternal now. In this classic Chartres layout, the center circle with six outer petals is sometimes called a rosette. I claimed a spot in one of the petal-coves, backing in, kneeling, forehead to my knees. I relaxed. In the silence I listened. What did I hear? Lyrics I'd memorized in childhood: "Peace, peace, wonderful peace, / Sweep over my spirit / In fathomless billows of love." This old gospel song had more forcefully overwhelmed me once before, twenty-five years ago, when I was confirmed, back in that warehouse congregation. Then it seemed like an Ascension Day promise: Wait; you will receive. Now, a near fulfillment.
I didn't stay in the alcove as long as I wanted. Suddenly the rosette had more pilgrims than petals. The holy room was full. To accommodate the community, I moved along. I left the santa eclesia as I leave my small, brown-stone, red-door church every Sunday morning, hearing the echo of the dismissal: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
On my walk back out, into the future by my schema, I stopped twice: first, to look at the Deborah window and place myself in the victory; second, to salute a fellow traveler. Approaching a U-turn, I saw a young woman, deep in contemplation, standing at the end of a complementary circuit, in an adjacent quadrant. Her age and race, both different from mine, prompted me to raise my hands and invite interaction. For a second we pressed palms.
About dusk I left the cathedral at peace with God, myself, my neighbor, but again I hadn't been blown away by the program. I rode back to my neighborhood in someone else's car. If I'd been driving, I would have gone a different way.
For more than two weeks, past Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, I tried to analyze the experiences. What had I wanted that I didn't get? An Ignatian ecstasy? Probably not, the context being communal. A divine directive? Probably not, fearing a burden of compliance. A breakthrough spiritual insight, or many? Maybe. In a collection of essays, The Heart of the Family, British humorist Adrian Plass tells of taking "a six-month break from public speaking. to present my mind to God as a sort of blank sheet of paper. [God's] task, as I envisaged it, was to cover this sheet with a multitude of fascinating spiritual insights." But at the end of the experiment, Plass counted his new insights: "precisely 'one,' " an admittedly "poor crop." Plass names the flaw in his experiment: "God was less impressed by it than I was." Even so, Plass highly values what he received.
Ditto for me, though I didn't put it together until a Sunday morning early in June. I was neither reclining nor meditatively walking; I was alone, putting on make-up and getting dressed, half-listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir radio broadcast, this week recapping its historical journey on the occasion of a milestonefour thousand Sunday programs since 1929.
The first words that captured my attention were from the last verse of an 18th-century hymn. It's God talking, whispering Mary-time assurances: "The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose / I will not, I will not desert to [her] foes."
I let that soak in until the narrator introduced a pipe organ rendition of Wagner's "The Pilgrims' Chorus." I didn't need words to get the message here: Psalm 84, Blessed are the pilgrim-walkers, "they go from strength to strength" until they enter Zion's gates.
There were other songs I didn't note. But then, as a finale, the choir sang its signature march, "Come, come, ye saints." By the closing "all is well, all is well," I was crying, overwhelmed by a grace surely set in motion by the prayer experiment. Luke's Ascension Day story"It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set" (Acts 1:7)took me further into Psalm 23, the Shepherd's last mercy paraphrased by poet Richard Gwyn:
Oh, how much goodness!
You pursue me with kindness
into Ordinary Time.
Evelyn Bence, an editor and writer, lives in Arlington, Virginia. She is the author of Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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