Praying with Jesus and Listening to the Heartbeat of God
Luke 11:1-13 (Proper 12)
LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY
7/28/13 – Sunday 8:00 & 10:15
St. James’ Episcopal Church, Warrenton, VA
Who taught you to pray?
That’s kind of a trick question, isn’t it, because we’re in church, and in church, everyone knows that the right answer to any question is, “Jesus!”
In the case of today’s question, though – Who taught you to pray? – it so happens that “Jesus” IS the correct answer! We have today’s gospel as our proof.
It’s a correct answer, but not a complete one. Each of us can think of people who taught us to pray, from the parents who tucked us in at bedtime, to the children WE tucked in, to the friends we’ve sat with in hospitals and funeral homes, to the most acclaimed spiritual authors and theologians. Asking “who taught you to pray?” conjures up a roll call of what the Celtic people would call anam chara – “soul friends.”
I can’t help turning to Celtic spirituality when I think about prayer today, because I am just back from a powerful journey to the Isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland.
There, in that “thin place” where heaven and earth seem to touch, it was easy to immerse in the treasures of Celtic spirituality, which insists on the goodness of all creation, the nearness of God, and the knotting together of sacred and secular. By its very nature, this kind of spirituality can be practiced anywhere, but its heart is on Iona where, in 593, St. Columba fled Ireland and established the church on Scottish shores. Over the centuries, as monasteries rose and fell and rose again, as spiritual movements ebbed and flowed like the waves that buffet the island, the voice of this gentle form of faith has sometimes been drowned out. Its resurgence today speaks to the need of people in a busy, noisy, chaotic world to return to the calm Center of all being – as one writer aptly puts it, “to listen for the heartbeat of God.”
* * *
Jesus might have been listening for the heartbeat of God on the day described in today’s gospel, when he was praying in a certain place. Surely, he was always at prayer, but in Luke’s gospel especially, we see Jesus frequently turning aside, seeking our those “thin places” where the Father was particularly present. Something in what he brought back from those times made his disciples crave the same connection. So they ask, “Lord, teach US to pray.”
In answer to their hunger, he gives them the sustenance that we call the Lord’s Prayer – the one that, in a more developed form, we recite each time we meet. Throughout the ages, Christians have clung to the prayer that Jesus taught us.
Who taught you to pray?
Did you even need to be taught?
In a sense, praying comes naturally to the human creature.
Some people say we are ‘wired’ to pray,
to seek connection with the one whose image we bear.
God created us to hunger for God,
and God alone can satisfy that hunger¾
as St. Augustine says,
we are born with a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.
Brain biologists in a book called Why God Won’t Go Away
describe this yearning as neurotheology.
The theologian Karl Rahner calls it “immense longing.”
And Ann and Barry Ulanov begin their book
Primary Speech with the assertion,
“Everybody prays…whether or not they call it prayer.”
You might think that something so natural doesn’t need to be taught.
But I agree with Rahner that real prayer has to be taught,
and that the first step in praying is to pray: “Lord, teach us to pray!”
I think that’s important, because without someone to teach us –
well, to teach me and keep teaching me —
my own prayers might become shallow, tending to focus on asking favors
from a God I create in my own image and therefore think I can control.
But such a small, sugar-coated god is not a god who can satisfy our hunger,
not the God of the scriptures,
and not the God Jesus invites us to know.
The prayer he teaches today connects us to the REAL God who’s beyond our control, but whose appetite for us is as fierce as our hunger for him.
But because our hunger for God is so deep, there are many ways to feed that need,
just as there are many foods to satisfy our physical hunger,
from the bread and fish and eggs in today’s gospel,
to our summer indulgences like Boardwalk Fries and Rita’s frozen treats.
As Jesus did, early Celtic Christians set aside certain places and times for prayer.
Columba’s monks kept the hours, stumbling down the night stairs
straight into the choir stalls, at midnight, and 3, and 6 a.m.,
and interrupting their daily work four more times each day
In the nearby Nunnery, faithful women kept their vigils,
and as you walk among the ruins on Iona, you can almost hear
their chants rising in praise and petition.
But equally, and perhaps more, important was the prayer of the common folk,
prayers that were nearly lost when the forces of “civilization” brought the highlands and the islands out of their isolation and into the mainstream of the institutional church.
Fortunately for us, those prayers have been recovered by dedicated seekers longing to find a new way to experience God, and finding a well-trod pathway that was there all along.
What Alexander Carmichael found in the late 1800s and what Esther deWaal and others have preserved for us today is a rich tradition of prayer imbued with deep reverence for the earth and the sacredness of all life. Even in harsh climate conditions, even under vandalism and persecution, even in poverty and pain, the early Celts kept up a constant conversation, speaking from their hearts but also listening — listening for the heartbeat of God. The most mundane tasks were offered up to the sacred Three-in-One, in close communion with all the company of heaven.
I make this bed
In the name of the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit
In the name df the night we were conceived,
In the name of the night we were born,
In the name of the day we were baptized,
In the name of each night, each day,
Each angel that is in heaven.
Prayers for laying the fire, for milking the cow, for churning the butter might not be part of our daily lives – certainly not mine, in urban Alexandria! – but I wonder: can I offer a prayer for taking out the recycling? a prayer for setting up a new printer? a prayer (God help me) for driving on the Beltway?
In a hundred small moments of each day, the Celtic people are teaching me to pray.
* * *
Who taught you to pray?
We all can name many teachers in our lives, but above all, we can thank that
Teacher with a Capital T.
Because Jesus knows our hunger for God,
he gives us his own words to feed our souls.
Whole books have been written on each phrase of his prayer
and we could spend many weeks breaking apart this feast
to savor every morsel.
Instead, I suggest a simpler exercise — considering how, in our own prayer lives, to weave two strands into one seamless fabric.
From the teachings of our Lord, the traditions of the Church, and the voices of millions of saints living and dead, take the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer in one hand.
In the other, take the earthiness of the Celtic tradition, the homegrown practice of plain language, and the quiet comfort of listening for the heartbeat of God.
Blending these two rich roads to relationship with God is something I’ll be exploring in the months ahead, and maybe you’ll want to, too.
An image from the abbey at Iona might help.
There, on a simple rock ledge near the altar, stands an ornate brass plate, leaning upright against the wall beneath a window. The plate is polished to a fine sheen, so that all of the ornamentation around the edges and the inscription in the center shine bright. It’s clearly one of the Abbey’s cherished objects.
And right next to it, equally accepted, equally valued, sits … a plastic water bottle, with the label still on, holding a handful of bright yellow wildflowers and some spiky greens that could be called weeds.
In a microcosm, this image reminds me that separation between sacred and secular is just an illusion. Common and holy are loved and treasured by the God who created all things and longs for their renewal – for our renewal. Living and praying are one, and separation from God has been repaired in Jesus Christ, human and divine, who showed us how to live and taught us how to pray.
As we pray his words together today, I hope we’ll all listen with new ears.
Listen to what the prayer says
about the God you hunger for, who feeds you with fruits of the earth and with his own self.
Listen to what it says about what God wants us to do
as we BECOME Christ’s body,
for the coming of the kingdom.
Above all, today and every day, listen FOR THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD.
 J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spiritualit ( Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).
 Newberg, Andrew, Eugene D’Aquill and Vince Rause. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001).
 Rahner, Karl. The Need and the Blessing of Prayer (Collegeville, MN: Order of St. Benedict, 1997), p. xiii.
 Ulanov, Ann and Barry. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 1.
 Rahner, p. 1.
 de Waal, Esther. The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination. New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1997.