Holy Wednesday: Because We'd Like to Find Out
it doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make the elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak
-Mary Oliver, from Thirst
In seminary I helped to lead a weekly communion service in the school’s chapel with a small group of students and four faculty members who would preach and preside at the table.
While it was very a much an ecumenical service, the liturgy had its roots in a very high church Anglican tradition. The presiding minister and student assistant would even wear long white albs at the table, which was quite an experience for this Baptist boy.
I remember one morning when as I was in the sacristy (another new word!) with the presiding minister and we were each putting on our alb. I confessed to her that I felt a little like a kid playing dress up. I was lost participating in this kind of ritual, let alone helping to lead it.
She told me what one of her mentors had told her years before when she was feeling similarly lost in the mysteries of the church.
We do these thing not because we know what we’re doing, but because we’d like to find out.
I’ve found these words to be both comforting and enlightening about many elements of the Christian faith, but especially in my understanding of prayer.
We pray not because we know what we’re doing, but because we’d like to find out.
When we think too rigidly about prayer it’s easy to get hung up on the mechanics of it all. What's going on here? How does this work? We also run the risk of working from a very narrow view of what prayer should look like and what it's supposed to do. As Mary Oliver puts it, prayer isn’t a contest, but “the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
When we pray, we’re not informing God of our inner most needs, thoughts and emotions. God is already aware of these things (it's often we who are not). Prayer is not so much about us talking to God, but us listening for God to speak to us. We worship a God who is always and everywhere present. It is we who must work to make ourselves present to God.
There’s an element of mystery in this. Prayer is like water in that resists being grasped too tightly. But it also fills whatever space it is given.
The church fathers said that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” We don’t begin by talking about God and then seeking after what we’ve decided to look for. Understanding comes from the seeking. When we leave silence for another voice to speak, we may be surprised that the voice we hear is much different from the voice we expect.
Holy Week is a testament to the fact that we serve a God who moves through the unexpected and the impossible. Our best prayers count on this being true.