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📖(21 min. read) Watchful in Prayer

A wide-ranging talk on prayer, given by Fr Tom Cullinan at a day retreat for religious in Liverpool in 1991, beginning with stalking muskrats along a creek with Annie Dillard, then struggling with the silence of God, before knowing we are the image of God, and thus able to become truly ourselves; needing to name our human needs and emotional drives and allowing God to sort out their dis-orders – until we can ‘fly’, living our commitments in prayerful freedom. 5627 words

When Father Fred wrote and asked me to share some thoughts with you, he added nicely in his letter that the workshops would probably be on praying with the scriptures, praying with Mary, charismatic prayer, contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer – so that if I could keep off those, it would be helpful! Now he didn’t, luckily, ask me not to talk to you about muskrats, and I’m going to take the easy way out to start with, and listen with you to some thoughts about muskrats by an American author called Annie Dillard. And I highly recommend her book – not really on prayer as such – called ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’. It’s a very precious book to me, and I think it’s wonderful. Let me just say to you before we listen (I hope you’re sitting comfortably; then I’ll begin!) let me just say that muskrats are not rats. They would be very insulted at the suggestion. In fact they are like small beavers, with slight technical differences, and their tails are sort of flat upwards instead of flat sideways, if you see what I mean. So if you meet one of an evening you can tell the difference between a beaver and a muskrat – just in case you needed to…

“One hot evening three years ago. I was standing more or less in a bush. I was stock-still, looking deep into Tinker Creek from a spot on the bank… I was focused for depth. I had long since lost myself, lost the creek, the day, lost everything but still amber depth. All at once I couldn’t see. And then I could: a young muskrat had appeared on top of the water, floating on its back. Its forelegs were folded languorously across its chest; the sun shone on its upturned belly. Its youthfulness and rodent grin, coupled with its ridiculous method of locomotion, which consisted of a lazy wag of the tail assisted by an occasional dabble of a webbed hind foot, made it an enchanting picture of decadence, dissipation and summer sloth…

But in my surprise at having the light come on so suddenly, and having my consciousness returned to me all at once and bearing an inverted muskrat, I must have moved and betrayed myself. The kit – for I now know it was just a young kit – righted itself so that only its head was visible above water, and swam downstream, away from me. I extricated myself from the bush and foolishly pursued it. It dove sleekly, reemerged … again it dove, under a floating mat of brush lodged in the bank, and disappeared. I never saw it again…

I waited, panting, and watched the shadowed bank. Now I know that I cannot outwait a muskrat who knows I am there. The most I can do get ‘there’ quietly, while it is still in its hole, so that it never knows and wait there until it emerges. But then all I knew was that I wanted to see more muskrats… that summer I haunted the bridges, I walked up creeks and down, but no muskrats ever appeared. You must just have to be there I thought... it was a once-in-a life-time thing, and you’ve had your once.

Then one night I saw another, and my life changed… I looked up into the channel for a muskrat, and there it came, swimming right toward me. Knock; seek; ask…

…That innocence of mine is mostly gone now, although I felt almost the same pure rush last night. I have seen many muskrats since I learned to look for them in that part of the creek. But still I seek them out in the cool of the evening, and still I hold my breath when rising ripples surge from under the creek’s bank. The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing them… They show me by their very wariness what a prize it is simply to open my eyes and behold.”

Then a bit further on she says,

“What happened last night was not just the ultimate in muskrat dimness, it was also the ultimate human intrusion, the limit beyond which I am certain I cannot go. I would never have imagined I could go that far, actually sit beside a feeding muskrat as beside a dinner partner at a crowded table.”

You may wonder what she is talking about. I think she does too a bit… but she continues:

“I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it is second nature to me now. And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking moment saying hello to ourselves…

…I have tried to show muskrats to other people, but it rarely works… the other people invariably suffer from a self-consciousness that prevents their stalking well. It used to bother me, too: I just could not bear to lose so much dignity that I would completely alter my whole way of being for a muskrat. So I would move around or scratch my nose, and no muskrats would show, leaving me alone with my dignity for days on end, until I decided that it was worth my while to learn – from the muskrats themselves - how to stalk.

The old, classic rule for stalking is, ‘Stop often ’n’ set frequent.’ The rule cannot be improved on, but … can I stay still? How still? It is astonishing how many people cannot, or will not, hold still. I could not, or would not, hold still for thirty minutes inside, but at the creek I slow down, center down, empty. I am not excited; my breathing is slow and regular. In my brain I am not saying Muskrat! Muskrat! There! I am saying nothing… Instead of going rigid I go calm. I center down wherever I am; I find a balance and repose. I retreat – not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone…

…Moses said to God, ‘I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.’ And God said, ‘Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.’ But he added ‘There is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.’ So Moses went up on Mount Sinai, waited still in a clift of the rock, and saw the back parts of God…

…Just a glimpse Moses: a clift in the rock here, a mountaintop there, and the rest is denial and longing. You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere, for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear before he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh… I am both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out! I know you’re there!

And then occasionally the mountains part… Now we rejoice. The news after all is not that muskrats are wary, but that they can be seen… I wait on the bridges and stalk along banks for those moments I cannot predict… ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’ The fleeing shreds I see, the back parts, are a gift, an abundance. When Moses came down from the clift in Mount Sinai, the people were afraid of him: the very skin of his face shone.”

Those of you who are teachers know how precious it is really when you are terrified of the class you’ve got, to have a long quote to read to them.

And I remember when I was even younger than I am now, people used to tell me that prayer was a conversation with God, or a raising of the mind and heart to God. And people used to very wisely take me aside and tell me that, when trying to pray, I ought to be very quiet so that God could speak. But my actual experience was that the conversation was, as often as not, extremely one-sided. And one might try and raise one’s mind and heart, but it didn’t seem to get to God necessarily. And however quiet one was, there didn’t seem to be some great voice speaking in the quietness. So because my experience in prayer wasn’t what people told me prayer was about, I presumed, and I suspect that 99% of us here presume the same thing, that other people can pray, but somehow I can’t. I’m a sort of also-ran Christian who must muddle through and leave the real praying to other people who can converse with God. And it’s only a good deal later that I’ve plucked up enough courage to admit that my experience might be the same as other people’s, namely that understanding the silence of God is quite as important for us, both in prayer and in the whole of our Christian language, as trying to understand the words and revelation of God; that trying to understand the absence of God is as much part of our understanding of prayer as talking about his presence.

But when we look on God’s creation it is certainly true that all creation is a sacrament of God’s presence, but it is also true that that is not self-evident, and creation hides God. And I suggest that my faltering experience in prayer is really much more like everybody else’s than I had grown up thinking it must be: namely that we struggle with the silence of God as much as with a God who obviously converses. Certainly the indications are that that was true in the prayer-life of Jesus. So that when we come to pray and find that the muskrats don’t come out, if you see what I mean, it isn’t because we’re praying badly, or that we haven’t learned the latest techniques (which we may not have done), or that we’ve brought all yesterday’s and today’s baggage with us, and loaded on top of it all tomorrow’s too (which we may have done), but those things really may not be the real reasons why our prayer is into a void and a silence. It may be that God, being God, is known in a cloud of unknowing. God would not be God if he could be summoned to our beck and call whenever we choose to put ourselves to prayer. It doesn’t mean he is not present, but that he’s not felt to be present, and that is because God is God. It may be made slightly worse by the fact that we aren’t perfectly attentive in prayer, but that’s not the primary reason.

Now one way of understanding this – a way that I find a bit helpful – is really to try to take in to our deepest understanding our thinking and feeling about ourselves; not just a head-knowledge, but a real felt knowledge, that we , as human beings, are the image of God. Namely that the most ultimate thing I can say about myself, or can say about anybody else, is that they are a self-expression of God’s own self, own being.

I hope it will become a little clearer, in a moment, why I feel this is so important. There are many little phrases from scripture that have entered down through the history of the Church’s life and meditations, especially some phrases from St John’s Gospel. But I think that, of all the phrases that have been dwelt on, and prayed and meditated on and developed theologically and in other ways, it is the primary sense that human beings are created in the image of God. It is saying so much more than simply there is something of the divine in each of us.

In the first place, if we are the image of another, then we become more truly ourselves in becoming the one in whose image we are. Shall I say that again? Because when I first heard that, it was such a beautiful and simple sentence. In fact it was drawn, I think, from the early Cistercian writings of St Bernard, St Aelred et al, who dwelt on these things constantly. If you are the image of another, you become more really yourself in becoming the one in whose image you are.

Any authentic journey in holiness is therefore natural to us. It is what being human is all about: being divinised by God is what human nature is for and about.

Secondly, as human beings, we are essentially open-ended. Indeed, if our future is to be incorporated into the life of God by becoming one with the risen life of Christ, then we cannot know, now, what that is. And therefore we don’t know even what it is to be human, and that is good news, not bad news. And this is very important today, because the whole of our present society rests upon the fact that human beings are individuals, autonomous, with two feet to stand on, over against everyone else – independent selves. That is an idea of human nature which has grown up in the West over the last few centuries, and is especially the understanding of human nature that informed Adam Smith and Margaret Thatcher. But it pervades our whole understanding of what we must do, quite different from how an African or an Indian or somebody from the Far East sees it.

If we are the image of God, we are open-ended, and since God’s community, we actually, in his image, belong to one another. I won’t dwell on it now because we must have coffee sooner or later. But it means that our prayer is an opening into a reality which is both what we are designed for but is also beyond anything we can expect or imagine. There is a sort of blank cheque quality to God’s life which is held out to us. And I say this with some feeling today because there is a great deal of spirituality, as it is called, or methods of prayer, which, although they may be in the name of Christian prayer and Christian spirituality, in fact treat us as though we are closed individuals, looking for happiness within our own definition; as though the point of prayer is to make us happy, or at least make us nice, and possibly to make God nice too, and also to try to get the sisters and brothers of our community to be nice as well, so that if all are being nice together, then somehow we’ve arrived at what the Kingdom is about!

Well, as Richard Rohr says, “Niceness is not a virtue very high on the Gospel agenda; it doesn’t appear in the New Testament.” We’re not about prayer in order to become nice people, and all the evidence is that if we really open ourselves to what God has in mind for us, it becomes troublesome, rather than nice-making.

We’re not into this thing for ourselves! We’re not into this thing as a programme for my happiness. God will make me happy and full of joy and so on, but if I make that an end of my quest, then it won’t happen and I will have a phoney joy and happiness. So, being open-ended, in the image of God, I have to have that act of faith that God will work his way, rather than me using prayer and God as a technique for my own being nice.

Now, of course our journey into prayer is not going to be experienced as a wonderful growth into who we really are in the first place. If we are created in God’s image, then our journey is becoming who we potentially are in the first place, but in a way that is full of surprise beyond our expectations.

Why is it all so problematic? Why is it that we can’t just do this journey under God’s guidance and grace and sort of ‘all will be well’? I’ll share with you one approach to why it is problematic, and I find it valuable. There is no reason why any of you should, but I do find it valuable, and I heard it first from Thomas Keating, a Cistercian whom some of you may have met. I gather that it’s an approach that’s not just his but is more widespread; namely that we begin as babies, and when we’re children and when we’re teenagers we grow up and develop in ourselves very basic needs and drives in order to exist as human beings and grow as human beings. We have very deep needs and therefore develop very deep emotional drives for survival and security.

Let’s start with basic human existence: food, clothing, house and home, all things in themselves wholesome and good, and therefore part of our journey into God. We have equally deep needs, and therefore develop drives, for affection and esteem. Namely we need not only to receive affection but to be able to give affection: to give and receive affection, a part of our emotional maturity that religious life has not always been very good at enabling people in. We also have a deep need, and a wholesome need, for esteem, for being somebody. And one of the tragedies, as many of you know who work in the city areas today, is that our society is somehow full of so many people who have no self-love, no self-esteem, and they cannot believe that they are of value to anybody.

Another area where we have deep needs, and therefore develop deep emotional drives, is in the area of power and control. In order to be a wholesome human being, I must have sufficient freedom to be able to really make my contribution to life and not be simply a play-thing of other people’s schemes.

Now all these things in themselves are thoroughly wholesome. But we also know that each of them can over-ride itself, and what is potentially of God becomes demonic. So, for instance, we in our own lives or a society can do it in the whole way it approaches people – security can become a sort of idol. National security in the last 20 or 30 years has become such a demonic thing in so many countries in our world. It is bad enough in our own country. And so these things that in themselves are good, when they become dis-ordered and become ends in themselves, instead of means to life, they turn and become destructive instead of creative; they become demonic instead of divine.

Certainly that is true in the realms of affection and esteem, and people who haven’t come to terms with those things in themselves in a healthy way in fact become destructive of other people and abuse them. And that is not totally foreign in religious life, as you know.

We learn to manipulate other people to our own advantage. We play a wonderful game that goes on in lot of communities and is called PLUM, which I first heard a Jesuit explaining to the L’Arche community in Liverpool. And most of the learning-disabled members there understood what he was talking about before the assistants did. He kept talking about PLUM, and eventually he said “Well PLUM stand for Poor Little Unloved Me, you see?” and PLUM is the game we play because nobody in the community actually recognises what a precious gift they’ve got in Thomas, or in whoever it may be, and one always gets the worst helping at the meal, or whatever…

Well that’s self-pity I think, and can go on in people’s lives into late years and can become so destructive of what the Gospel’s about. We had the Superior of the Medical Mission Sisters (the American lot rather than the Irish lot…) staying a couple of years ago, and we were talking about their sister in various parts of the world, some of whom had been killed in Central America and in other countries, and she was saying, “Well I think” - (she’d a lovely Belgian accent that I can’t reproduce) – “ I think, Thomas, that we have to come to the point in all our spirituality of being able to stand before anybody and say ‘You can’t kill me because I have died already’.” And I thought goodness, there’s something so authentically gospel about somebody who has learnt not to play the games that are deep in us about needing recognition, needing esteem, needing survival and security and so on, but has that extraordinary transcendent freedom in which needing other people’s recognition is totally irrelevant. And you feel that in Jesus during the week leading to his death. The free person in the story of the Passion is in fact the victim, which is a strange inversion of human thinking.

The third emotional drive is about power to control. And here men and women do different things, by and large, don’t they? I mean that women can be more manipulative, cunning, in their methods of gaining or holding power and control. Men do it in a more… well I won’t say how we do it, but we do! And when that happens in the name of obedience, well, obedience can be so mis-used, because people need a certain space and a certain freedom. Obedience should mature people into that, but if it is used to crush them, then it de-humanises and damages.

Now there are these emotional drives in us, and some of us have very deep seated defence mechanisms associated with them, in the way we are all terribly nice together - until somebody treads on my little area in community life, and then the whole place goes up in smoke - and we all have to go on holiday to recover… ‘Because Sister So-and-So or Brother Such-and-Such has never coped with … whatever it is’.

Emotions connected with the need for esteem, and for recognition bother me: ‘somebody’s trod on my thing!’ - well, so what? Sometimes I think we men get into such an extraordinary community way of living that if anything happens out of the ordinary we think the entire world is going to come to an end. We never behave like that in family life – it doesn’t matter a hang – but somehow in religious life we can develop these attachments.

Well, these basic drives in us are not sinful, and it’s very important that we take them on board. You find them in Jesus, as you find them in any person who is growing up as a human being. Remember when Jesus struggled with those temptations in the desert at the beginning of Lent? He struggles with bread, or the word of God: survival. He has in himself a deep human need for survival, and he has to struggle, putting that need in the context of a higher word, the word of God – rather than allowing the need to become predominant and all-consuming.

Jesus has a natural human need for esteem and recognition, and so the temptation plays on that: “Why not go up onto the pinnacle of the temple, and you could achieve in one great dramatic show what you’re going to fail to achieve in this stupid, hidden, incarnate way that you seem to think to be the alternative?” Esteem will answer all your problems! And of course, it never does, because once you have one bit of esteem, you have to find a pinnacle a bit higher, because people start forgetting about you… Our world is full of pathetic men in high places – and a few women – for whom no esteem has ever been enough.

And power. The third temptation, when Jesus is taken to see all the nations of the world – that great ‘control’ temptation: “You see, that if you’re the Son of God, these things should be easy for you, and you’ve got it in you,” (and he did, in a way). Our struggle with these things is one with his. It’s not helpful to name everything as sin. There’s a lot of basic temptations and struggles we have because we’re human beings.

We can’t sort the disordered elements of these things out on our own, but we can name them, if we truly believe that we are made in the image of God. In the light of the New Testament we know that that means that the Holy Spirit is at home in us. God is at home in us, closer to us than we can even be to ourselves. Then we can have total confidence that if we name these disorders, if we recognise them for what they are, then the power of God within us sooner or later will sort the thing out.

Now, a lot of us – I hope you won’t consider this rude – but looking round the room I suspect that a few of us have already seen Abraham and nearly all of us have seen Sarah? So it’s reasonable to talk as though most of us are fiftyish?... There are different stages of these things, and in the early years we do have to struggle with particular disorders. We can go to confession, and to counselling, and name what is going on. But I think there comes a point in most people’s lives, around 40 or 50, when a terrible dread comes upon us, that we can mess around, poking at this or that problem, sorting out this bit of sin if we can, while God is looking on anxiously to see if we can catch all that needs to be put right. Then it starts to dawn on us, at a very deep level, that however much we try at that game, there’s something much deeper in us that is the problem. And that can lead to despair unless we are totally confident that as human beings, created in God’s image, however much these things may make up our lives that’s not what we truly are. I may be extremely aware that I play out in my life great programmes for gaining and hanging on to affection and esteem, and I may become increasingly aware of how very subtle I am at doing it. Now, if I think that’s all I am, or if I think that all I am is a sort of programme for having my own security and survival, come what may, then when I realise that I can’t manage, I can’t sort it all out for God (which is a terrible approach to spirituality anyhow), then I spiral down into a sort of despair. But if I really become used to actually believing that the true Thomas is an image of God, that there is something in me that is of eternal life, that is of infinite origin, and infinite future, then these things get put into context… they get relativized. They don’t become the great thing that’s the problem, and I learn the art of naming the problem, but not thinking that I have to sort it all out. And that is one of the great things that we can do in prayer: to struggle, to name the problems, but not to undertake being doctor. Our role is not to be doctor; our role is to be a good honest, humble patient!

Now, of course, we have the extraordinary privilege of having committed ourselves to allowing God to do this in us. The God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves… We have committed ourselves, with blank cheques, to poverty, to allow God to set us free from false programmes to do with security and survival. We have committed ourselves, with a blank cheque, in chastity and celibacy, to allow God to set us free from false programmes of affection and esteem, and to unify our love in that wonderful, single pursuit… And we have committed ourselves, with a blank cheque of obedience, of listening, to allow God, sometime between now and when we die, to set us free from false programmes of power and control in our lives.

We don’t take vows because we know what the journey is all about, and God is very lucky to have us coming forward to be poor, to be chaste, and to be obedient. That’s such a phoney understanding of vows. We take vows because we think we understand just enough of what life is about for it to be a reasonably human act to commit ourselves to the very risky journey of asking God to make me poor, and sometime between now and when I die, to make me more or less chaste, and sometime between now and when I die, to make me reasonably obedient. We commit ourselves to a journey, and it is in prayer that the struggle and the engagement on that journey are on-going.

I think if we can stop acting as though we were our own doctors and learn to be at home with the God who is already within us and who will reveal us to ourselves, if we are happy to name where the problems lie, but allow the patience needed for the Holy Spirit to work in us, then… then, that becomes such a much more wholesome and peaceful and demanding journey than the one that many of us grew up with. The one where God watches as a spectator while we sort out all the vices and virtues, and then we’ve got it all hunky-dory and nice, and he will reward us… (and that is Pelagian – from Pelagius, a good Welsh monk who’s been with us ever since! This country has had only one real heresy and has never needed another, since Pelagius).

Let us let God be God, and I suggest to you that a lot of what Annie Dillard was talking about at the beginning is really about learning how to stalk and give God time. She has a lovely understanding that, in order to be present to the surprise of what we have no right to demand, we must learn the art of self-forgetfulness; stop worrying about ourselves and abandonment and loss of dignity, and all those games we play. Just to be present to the One will work it for us.

Now, we’re going to finish. John of the Cross on one occasion was written to be somebody- a brother or sister in religious life – who was very faithful and very devout, in prayer life and in religious life, and said all his or her prayers… and John felt “if s/he goes on like that s/he’s going to get more and more pokey and nit-picking in religious life”. You know what I mean! I think he must have penned this with a good deal of a sort of excitement; what he’s really saying is “OK, you’ve worked away at all these things. Now, for goodness’ sake, TAKE OFF! For goodness’ sake, as the Buddhists say, when you’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, FLY!”

There’s a lovely story from one of the Desert Fathers about a brother coming to him and saying “Abba, I’ve got all my fasts organised, and I’ve got all my spiritual reading organised, and I’m making mats, according to the rules, it’s all fixed up.” And the Abba says “Well, for crying out loud, that’s not God!”. And the story says that he raised his hands to God and there was fire from his finger-tips, and he said, “Now become fire! Take off!” He saw that God was not interested in all this nit-picking religious nonsense.

Anyhow, John of the Cross replied thus: “Why do you delay, when from this very moment you can love God in your heart? Mine are the heavens and mine the earth; mine are the nations; the just are mine and the sinners are mine; the angels are mine and the Mother of God; and all things are mine, and God himself is mine and all for me. What then do you ask for and seek, oh my soul? Yours is all this and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less. Do not settle merely for the crumbs that fall from your Father’s table. Go forth, and exalt in your glory. Find yourself in it and rejoice, and you will obtain the yearnings of your heart”


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