living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Prayer

“I Don’t Wanna Pray”

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And now a break in our regularly scheduled program to bring you this excellent performance that I would like played after anyone reads my paper: “Prayer Does Not Work.” This is so good!

Thanks to Merman Dan

Written by Alex

February 27, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Life

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Published: Prayer Does Not Work

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Last February I wrote that I had submitted a proposal for a paper on prayer called, Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer. Today I just received word that it has finally been published. So without further ado, I will now tease you with the introduction before linking to the full paper that you can peruse at your leisure.

Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer

The question “Does prayer work?” is, of course, the wrong question. If one answers “yes,” endless counterexamples can be brought to mind in order to demonstrate the naiveté of such an affirmation. But if one answers “no,” the role of prayer in the lives of countless saints and geniuses is given no explanation. The question does not go deep enough, but as easy as it is to brush the question aside, it is by no means so easy to banish the mindset that gives rise to it. In fact, I take no great risk in assuming that anyone who will eventually read this lives their life characterized by the spiritual mindset behind this badly placed question. I’m right there with you, and it’s killing us.

This is an essay for those for whom prayer has become a problem. I have in mind those who may have grown up with regular times of prayer, but who have long since ceased to pray, perhaps not fully knowing why. Or maybe they do know why. Perhaps at some point it was just sensed that the whole thing just didn’t work anymore, God, prayer, the whole bit. Gray Lava Field in South West Iceland As we grow up, our everyday lives become more and more predominated with a constant attention to how well things are working. Before we go to bed at night, we might hope that the alarm clock works, thereby ensuring we make it to…well, “work” on time. We change the oil on our vehicles, exercise our bodies, work on our relationships. Why? So things keep working. Everyday life tends to be a constant attention to making sure that life in general goes on working. If things stop working, however, we either get to work on a solution, or get rid of it. “It wasn’t working.” Is a perfectly sensible answer to a whole range of questions: “You have a new car! What happened to the old one?”, or, “How come she ended the relationship?” It can even be an answer to the question of why someone might choose to give up the whole project of life itself. And with that, we can see just how deep this goes. Not only can the many particular tasks of our life either work or fail to work, our life as a whole can be viewed in the same way.

Is it any wonder, then, that our prayer life easily finds itself under the purview of this regular and necessary frame of mind? Perhaps now that we’ve looked at a few examples it’s not even quite so clear to us why our original question is so badly placed.

Lutherans in particular have always been wary of works righteousness, and rightly so. But the space between salvation by way of moral effort and the drop-out mantra of “let go and let God” has never been an easy one to chart.[1] When we get the sense that our prayer life is missing something, it’s a great deal easier to vacillate between redoubling our efforts and being more disciplined, or just—to take the other approach to something that doesn’t seem to be working properly—stop bothering with it.

As a young man attending a Baptist seminary while working on my M.A., I had tried and failed enough times at the former path that I was pretty much resigned to living in the later state. But it was at that time that a rather unexpected thing began to happen. Through the writings of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, I came to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer. Though in its contemporary form this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting path between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I hope to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how the theology of Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer subvert our usual notions of “work” and reorient the question of prayer toward a deeper question of the fullness of life. You can continue reading the full essay here.

[1] We can think, for example, of Paul’s conflicts with the “Judaizers” who felt he was being too lax on this point, as well as Augustine, who was warmly received by many cosmopolitan Roman citizens, as they felt his theology to be comfortably tolerant of persistent sin.

Written by Alex

January 5, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Adventure Become Prayer: Hiking Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls Trail

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When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford (You can view my photography from this conference here, if you’d like). Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial melt water. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here. If you’d like prints of any of these images, check out my print shop)

Water through Lava


The Fallacy of Self-Exemption

All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.

As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.

In the Icelandic Highlands

Some Help from Walter Mitty

On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.

Adventure Become Prayer

A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.

Waterfall on the Skoga

Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday

In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make. All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.


More amazing iceland waterfall art for sale here.

Written by Alex

July 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

“Prayer Doesn’t Work” A Work in Progress

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Update: This paper has now been completed and published. You can view the paper in its entirety here.

Consider a mother praying to God for the life of her desperately ill child. Or maybe it’s a son, screaming at God to help his mother, the one person in the world whose love for him was unconditional, as she slips further into dementia. An uninvolved bystander may ask—though they themselves almost certainly will not—”Will their prayers work?” Now consider the title of a paper I am preparing to write: “Prayer Doesn’t Work.

Fall Sky

I was recently invited to write an article for the journal “Word and World,” a periodical devoted to the relation of contemporary theology to the demands of ministry. Ministers are familiar with the heart-broken plea of their congregants who come to them asking, “does prayer really work?” Prayer is often proclaimed as the lifeblood of a spiritual community, but for many, such talk seems at least cheap and often deeply wounding. The following is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be working on it over the summer, but I’ll be sure to post the results once I get it wrapped up. It’s a difficult topic, and one that I can’t look at from a distance. Hopefully I can manage something that will be more than simply “provocative.”

Lutherans have historically been ever watchful of “works righteousness” in their spiritual lives, and rightly so. Yet a strange thing has happened in my own prayer life. I have come to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer through the work of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich. Though, in its contemporary form, this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting way between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I’d wish to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how Centering Prayer subverts our usual notions of “work” and “submission” by a fundamental paradox that is God’s arrival in our own release which is at once our own true arrival in God’s release.

Written by Alex

February 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Breaking God Talk

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[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]

God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.

The Possibility

It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.

The Impossibility

Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.

The Paradox

Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.

From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).

Transcending Our Subjectivity?

As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).

How Can This Be Known?

To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”

In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.


Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 2, “What Contemplation Is Not”

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Friedrich David CasperThis post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation

It is difficult in our day to understand the God that contemplative prayer encounters. When Merton says things like, “The question [of God] is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both.”, (4) it seems as though Merton is simply assuming the existence of God, then naming our reality as a divine reality. Yet what if one denies such an assumption, as many in our day do? Contemplative prayer then seems to become a sort of refined practice in wishful naval gazing.

It is impossible to escape this charge according to the prevailing categories of the modern mind. This is why Merton says “The only way to get rid of the misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his [sic] own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.” (6) The reason for this lies, at least in part, in the fact that the experience of contemplative prayer breaks open the very heart of the modern mental approach to existence.

In this meditation Merton goes straight to the cognitive heart of modernity. “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation”, he says, “than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence(!) based upon the observation that he ‘thinks.'” (8) The very same thing applies to the God that Descartes discovers. To the extent that God is for us the conclusion of an argument, God remains forever an external, ever-dubious thing.

“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I Am.” This is not the assumption of God, like a premise assumed in an argument. It is an awakening to the realization that we are are “grasped” before we even attempt to grasp God. Strangely, there is an important sense in which this realization does not bring solace to our lives. In awakening to this reality we realize that, unlike the assumptions in our old arguments, we no longer know what God is.

Here we “…may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”(13)

Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 25, 2013 at 9:19 am

Prayer and “The Quartet of The Vulnerable”

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Today on his blog  Experimental Theology, Richard Beck posted about a delightful phrase he came across in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: “The quartet of the vulnerable.” He uses it to describe the Biblical injunction to care for the poor, the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows. As Beck says, “The quartet is mentioned, in bits and pieces, all through the Old Testament. One passage where the whole quartet appears:”

“Zechariah 7:9-10a This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.”

Image“The quartet of the vulnerable.” I like that. These are the ones who lack the securities that the established of society take for granted. It’s interesting to think how the community is urged to extend compassion and support in their time of lack. In my own work I’ve been reading a great deal about the paradox of salvation (the loss of self that leads to the finding of self), and it strikes me that this movement of support being given to those who lack conventional support is formally identical to the practice of contemplative prayer.

In this form of prayer one intentionally induces the vulnerability that is described here. The usual mental securities (which are, more often than not, false securities) are released. We become the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner and the poor in prayer. And it is here, in this place of desolation, that we are encountered and supported by the God who is beyond our fathers, husbands, national structures, and financial security.

If the mental motions of prayer and the physical movements of justice are thus identical, I think here we can see that solitude and action need not be thought of as in opposition, but rather as two manifestations of the same divine movement.

Written by Alex

July 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

Posted in Theology

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