Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep…
And Other Prayers for Dark (or Light) Places
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 3, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is from the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. After Job has been stripped of his wife, his children, his livestock, his health and all of his riches, he laments::
Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer before I go—and I shall not return— to the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness.
Our second reading today is a very slightly adapted piece from the book, “The Silence of God” by James P. Carse:
The meaning of the verb, to pray, is to ask, or even to beg. The heart is a beggar. Petition and supplication are its natural modes… We live by asking; we have nothing we do not ask for. What is more, there is a kind of wisdom in begging. We know that we cannot beg pennies of the penniless, and we do not ask fools for guidance. But then neither do we ask anything of the rich or wise, if we believe ourselves sufficient in wealth or understanding. Begging comes from need. Only the poor can be beggars whether their poverty be in goods or spirit. If you know your need, if you do not shut your eyes to the truest longing of your heart, you will know where to take your petitions.
It is not theology or philosophy, but only your heart, that will lead you...
The theme that some of our Chalice Circle groups are exploring this month is prayer. I actually spend considerable time contemplating the idea of prayer, and sometime as well engaging in its practice, not necessarily in any traditional sense, but not devoid of it either. What is prayer? Why is it? What is it good for? What is it not good for? How might it be directed? How does it work? When is it authentic? When is it not so authentic?
Sometime ago, I was up in Boston for a family wedding. The day after the wedding I found myself hiking along toward the Boston waterfront with several family members. We were on our way to Quincy Market, one of my favorite stop off places in Boston. It was nice to be back in town. As we walked along, we came upon an addition to the city that hadn’t been there when I lived in Massachusetts years ago.
And so we stopped, to give witness really, at the Holocaust Memorial. By the way – the Memorial is actually rather close to where the new UUA Headquarters were relocated last year. Back then though, as we walked along, we were all immediately transported to still a different time and transformed by a very different reality.
The Boston Holocaust Memorial is very simple and yet astonishingly moving. It invites the visitor to both acknowledge and try to reconcile – the very highest and the absolute lowest – of human capacities. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s made up of a half dozen glass archways, each of which has a grated floor that gives opening to a gentle rise of steam coming up from Boston’s underworld. Each of the archways holds on its walls, etched in glass, testimonials, some very powerful testimonials, of Holocaust survivors.
I encountered prayer on that joy filled, beautiful, summer day, when I came across a quote etched in the glass of one of the archways there. It contained some very powerful, very prayerful words. Even as the mist coming up through the grating, engulfing my shoes and ankles, created a sensation of walking in clouds, the words engraved on the thick transparent glass also seemed almost to float on the breeze of that Boston afternoon. What occurred to me as I read the words there, was that prayer, offered in earnest, is absolutely real, and authentic, and essential. What occurred to me was that prayer holds in it a precarious and precious entree into possibilities of both redemption and transformation.
The words on that glass archway had been originally scrawled in a journal by a Holocaust survivor named Amie Boniface. She had been a member of the French Resistance. Her words helped me to understand the significance of prayer. Perhaps they will for you as well. She simply had written:
Some Catholics invited me to join them in prayer. Seven or eight of us gathered in the shed used as a lavatory. In prayer we laid before God our suffering, our rags, our filth, our fatigue, our exposure, our hunger, and our misery.
What is prayer? What is it good for? How might it be directed? How does it work? When is it authentic?
I don’t know how or why Amie Boniface survived the ordeal of the Nazi concentration camp so that she could make such a report. But from her brief words, I know that somehow she had been better able to endure her terror-filled experience of it because she was able to open her heart and give voice to her struggle through prayer. She articulated, communicated the wretchedness of her existence, and in doing so, somehow she transcended the weight of her load.
Very often when new folks come into one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations, one of the first questions they ask is, “Well, do Unitarian Universalists pray, and to whom do you pray?” To be sure, our stock answer is that some of us pray and some of us do not.
One form of prayer is confession, and I’ll make a confession here. While this stock answer may keep us safe from controversy, I’d be willing to bet more than a nickel that all of us here do indeed pray. But we do it in our own time and in our own way. We may not recognize our prayer as such, but that doesn’t keep us from engaging in it.
Another confession that I’ll make is that, while I am getting better at it, I’m not such a great prayer myself. Meditation sometimes, maybe. But prayer and meditation really are different. Meditation is more of a letting in, while prayer is more of a letting out, a letting go.
I take hope from the early 20th Century French author, Georges Bernanos, who said that even, “The wish to pray is a prayer in itself.” And I find so much truth in the sentiments of 13th Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who said, “If the only prayer you [ever] said was thank you – that would be enough.”
So that you know, my hope this morning is that we might explore together the idea of prayer in a way that could allow us to recognize its potential and its value in our lives, so that we might even consider becoming more intentional in its practice, and then, perhaps, even more accustomed to its benefits.
The greatest impediment to a Unitarian Universalist approach to prayer, I believe, is our common understanding, or more I think, our common misunderstanding, that prayer is always a personal communication with God. Not all UU’s find the concept of God to be a useful one. We know that communication requires at least two parties, a speaker and a listener. So, how can we agree on the efficacy of communicating with a partner we can’t even agree exists? Maybe we need an understanding of prayer that better relates to our UU sensitivities. We are the ones that get to name and define our own experience.
Let’s talk about theology for a moment. Theology is classically defined as the study of God. What I would suggest is that we don't need to be so literal; the word god can provide us with metaphorical access into realms for which we have no other language. In that way, theology is an area of thought in which we define all of our larger and smaller understandings of things. Through our theologies we attempt to make sense of our lives, of our beliefs – about the universe, about birth and death, about the passage of time. Our theologies are our intellectual attempts to make sense out of the cause of being, the cause of our being.
While the concept of God may or may not be useful to us in addressing these issues, something that Unitarian Universalists actually do agree on is that we are a part of something larger than ourselves, and that our very being rests within that larger sphere. Whether we appreciate that larger realm as society, or nature, or some larger universal sphere, we tend to recognize and agree that we are a smaller part of something that is larger than ourselves. And more, because the smaller exists within the larger, we are dependent for our being and our wellbeing upon connections, seen and unseen, within that larger sphere. Our understanding of the “interdependent web of existence” can and does take on many different meanings.
We’ve all encountered gods in our lifetimes, gods that have not been very useful or helpful. We’ve all come up against some pretty nasty gods that have provoked narrow-minded bigotry. We don’t need those gods.
If you tell me you don’t believe in god, I have to imagine that whatever god you don’t believe in, I most likely don’t believe in that god either. I would be pretty hard pressed to understand though, what you meant if you said you don’t believe that you, that we, are part of something larger than ourselves.
I’d like to offer an assumption and a clarification, here. The assumption is that, regardless of our position on the concept of God/god, if prayer is a communication between two parties, however we define or name that which is larger than ourselves, we do indeed have somewhere, some larger realm into which we can direct our concerns. The point is not that there is a god. The point is not that god or whatever, is going to be personally responsive to our pleas. The point is that there is “other;” there is both I and Thou; there is the larger sphere in which we are a part, into which, we can direct our appeals.
The point of clarification is that most of what has just been said, has been theological in character. The intellectual process of defining our largest understandings of things is a very different process than that of prayer. Theology is talking about... We all know that Unitarian Universalists are world champions at talking about things. Prayer though, is more about talking to... or maybe, more accurately it is about talking from – talking from our experience, from our hearts, from our gratitude, from our longings, from our pain.
You may not feel compelled towards ending each day by saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” But I know as a child those words gave me comfort at, what was for me, a very scary part of the day. What are the words and the practices you use now, to calm your misgivings, to sooth your woes, to express your joys, when they rise up before you in the night, or at any other time of day?
In his book, The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer, American theologian, James Carse talks about the futility of defining any god in order to provide ourselves an object for our prayers. He writes, “...to use theology to make prayer possible is getting it backward... Prayer, which depends on theology to define its proper addressee, is bound to be... discourse about something and not to someone.” To be engaged in genuine prayer, Carse suggests, depends on, “…its origin, and not on its object or its content. What is truly spoken from the heart... is prayer,” he concludes.
“We laid before God our suffering, our rags, our filth, our fatigue, our exposure, our hunger, and our misery,” those profound words on the Holocaust Memorial confessed. Honest prayer comes from the heart. We don’t have to know all the answers. We don’t have to have the best theology. We need only be honest and open as we speak from our hearts in our attempts to be held – with all our misgivings and shortcomings – held within that something which we recognize as being larger than ourselves.
Why, we might ask, would we even want to open our hearts and acknowledge the depth of pain and suffering in our lives? For the most part, Unitarian Universalists really are pretty well off. Right? Why can’t we just focus on the positive, and then strive to live up to those expectations?
I’m sure you can add your own reasons to my list, but primarily I think the reason we might want to pray is because to be human is to want. From the moment of our births, we are separated from All-That-Is. We start out wanting to be, once again in sync and in harmony with those larger spheres that we come from, that we are part of. Thank goodness we do have so much to celebrate along the way, but we live to trifles when we fail to acknowledge the painful side of our human experience. And, if we are able to acknowledge that darker side, without being consumed by it, we need to do something with what we find there, and the something we might want to do is to offer it up, to release it in earnest, longing prayer.
Lots of people think prayer provides the opportunity to restructure the universe in their own image. No matter how we might attempt to instruct the universe, though, through prayer, or otherwise, we’re not very likely to cause sunshine to occur in the midst of a storm, no matter how much we may want to avoid rain on our parade. Often people turn to prayer in an attempt to alter the natural course of things, in an effort to produce magical, yet unnatural conveniences or benefits.
Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, once commented that, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” A late UU colleague, Rev. Lon Ray Call, took that thought a step further and said, “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things.” Another reason we might want to pray then, is so that we might experience change, transformation. And then maybe, through us and our work in it, the world itself might be changed as well.
Sometimes prayer can be the expression of grandiose thinking. This sort of egocentric, selfish prayer might be used as a thinly veiled threat by those who are themselves easily threatened. Like a weapon in an arsenal, such prayer can be used as a tool of competition seeking to place the person praying in greater favor with some imagined grantor of magical requests. Such prayers might be heard in boardrooms, on battlefields, in locker rooms, or even in church sanctuaries. They might be prayers that ask for profits, or victories, or for the validation of self-righteous meanness.
And then there are the kinds of prayers that we might more want to aspire towards – prayers of the heart that could also be heard in some of those same situations. These are prayers that aren’t intended to recreate the universe in our own image or to our own liking. They are prayers that might help us to change though – so that we might be better suited to the needs of this world, a world so much in need of better servants and better stewards.
Whatever outcome of such prayer there might be, there’s one thing of which I am fairly sure. The outcome of our prayer is not likely to be a direct response by anything out there that we might construe as God. If we hear a voice in direct response to our longings, I suspect we are talking to ourselves.
James Carse put it this way, “...In all candor I must say that I have never heard God speak...What I have experienced, and experienced repeatedly, is the silence of God.” For years, Carse found this silence to be distressing and felt his life was “void of significant religious experience.” Then he came to realize that, “...silence ...is not the absence of an experience but [that it] is the very essence of religious experience.”
How often do we feel the need to disprove the existence of God by citing God’s lack of a discernible response to our prayer? "If there were a God, he would answer our prayers and prove his existence," some of us say to ourselves. "If there were a God, he would hardly grant someone else’s prayers in competition with my own. If there were a God, she would never allow praying mothers and fathers to lose the life of a young child. If there were a God, prayers for peace, and justice, and equity would be answered; the planet’s health would be restored, and its wealth would be shared by all. If there were a God, silence could never be that God’s response to our heartfelt prayers." But, in the end, what we receive truly is... silence.
The question is not whether or not there is a god. The question is, are we able to unburden our hearts when we are in pain? Are we able to give thanks when we are grateful? Are we able to articulate our smallness within the vastness of this magnificent universe in which we have our being?
We don’t need to reject our place in that something larger than ourselves just to be rid of somebody else’s notion of a patriarchal God of some sort, or just to be rid of a God that has any human attributes at all. We don’t need a God the Father, or a God the Mother, or any omnipotent being. We do need to engage in the connections that hold us in life, connections that bind us one to another and each of us to All-That-Is.
We can simply have faith that there is this something larger, that we are a part of it; that it is a part of us. Silence doesn’t do anything, silence simply is. We can trust silence, in it there are no lies. We can trust that this silence, which exists within that which is larger, is a safe repository for our greatest misgivings and deepest yearnings. We can trust that silence is a reasonable and an adequate response to our longings, because, within the bounds of silence, we have our being. We have our lives, and we have hope for the future.
Honest prayer comes from the heart. We don’t have to know all the answers. We don’t have to have the only or the best theology. We need only be honest and open as we speak from our hearts in an attempt to be held – with all our misgivings and shortcomings – within that something which is larger than ourselves.
“We laid before God our suffering, our rags, our filth, our fatigue, our exposure, our hunger, and our misery…” “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people, and people change things.”
Another reason we might want to pray then, is so that out of the silence, we might be changed; we might be healed; we might be made more whole, and so that perhaps, through us and through our doings, the world itself might be changed, healed and made more whole, along with us.
Let us pray now… by singing.