A follow on from a few weeks back …
What can we do? We can fast and pray.
I know fasting and praying sounds like religious escapism, and of course it can be, but it can also be just the opposite. To fast and pray can be radical engagement with the world. Not least because we are part of this world. If we are attentive, we will see that what is happening outside in the street is taking place inside the corridors of our own heart. To clean the one is to make a difference to the other. Therefore, any healing and liberation within us, is healing and liberation of the world.
We heal and liberate the world from where we are. One place where we all are, is who we are. In our own life we carry more responsibility than anyone else to engage the principalities and powers within us, because these principalities and powers carry our name. “Naming, unmasking, and engaging” these powers is our lifelong liberation struggle. These principalities and powers are the stubborn patterns of self-deception and comfortable self-centeredness within us. They constantly confuse death with life and good with evil. As we come to realise that patient persistence together with fierce determination is demanded of us in the struggle within, so we realise no less is demanded of us to bring life-giving transformation to our communities, country, and world.
Through prayer and fasting we gain sharper insight into our own demons. We are moved to make the ancient confession our own, “that I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” [Rom 7:19]. In this we admit we are complicit with all that needs changing in the world. Complicit even regarding all we are opposed to in the world, and that we want to change. Knowing we are not innocent; our fierce determination is transformed by humility into a merciful determination. We therefore address the principalities and powers with love and in truth trusting that regardless of whether our ends are ever achieved, the very means we have employed make for a more beautiful, just, and peaceful world.
Fasting and praying, in the sense that I refer to here has nothing to do with trying to get God to act, change, wake up or be moved in any way. The One who loves the world with “an everlasting love” does not need changing, and nor does the One who “neither sleeps nor slumbers” need to be woken up. It is you and I that need to wake up, change and act differently, and therefore we fast and pray.
To fast is to voluntarily go with less.
It is to taste a tiny morsel of hunger.
To voluntarily feel a fraction of the hunger of the hungry.
To be moved into the slightest of solidarities with the poor and marginalised.
To have our conscience pricked as much as our stomach pinched.
To go with less to have more to share.
To carry within us an everlasting hunger and thirst for justice … that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little.
To attain the blessedness of a world where all have enough.
If we cannot bring ourselves to go without food for a day, or in the very least to intentionally miss a meal, then let even this be our teacher. Not for guilt’s sake, but for truth’s sake. What grace and truth lies buried in us not fasting? Surely if we are not willing to embrace the irritable discomfort of missing a single meal, then we can begin to understand the deepening despair and growing rage of those who miss multiple meals without choice? Therefore, let even our reluctance to fast move us to hunger for justice.
What is it to pray? I never stop asking myself this question. I wonder some days whether this question itself, is not a type of praying “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I could forward you a booklist of those who I have found wise in matters prayer, but they will not satisfy. Indeed, they are not meant to satisfy and we best fear if they do. Their insights may enlighten us, but they will not nourish us. They are gifted with words to speak of these things that lie beyond words, but when it comes to prayer, we cannot live by the words of others alone. At best their wisdom may awaken a hunger within us to prepare our own meal of prayerfulness. Their answers cannot be our answers. Yet, their answers can be where our questions are birthed and is this not the most hope-filled gift of any author or teacher?
“Prayer is being present to the presence of God.” I remember highlighting these words in a book, the name of which I have long since forgotten. Aaah that’s it, I thought. I have the answer. Yet, this answer soon spawned questions: “What does it mean to be present?” “What is God’s presence?” These questions, however, were not looking for answers as much as they were inviting me into a practice of my own. A place to discover and describe prayer for myself. Simply put: the meaning of prayer will not be decided outside of a practice of prayer.
From within the limits of my own practice I have discovered that:
To pray is to be present to the presence of Love and Truth.
This Love and Truth is the Real Reality of all that is.
This presence of Love and Truth is within me and beyond me.
To pray is to be drawn within myself.
To pray is to be drawn out of myself.
To be present is to take up a posture of attentiveness.
Attentiveness as focus and openness.
Attentiveness as longing and surrender.
Attentiveness as grief and gratitude.
Attentiveness as aching desperately for transformation and of accepting myself as I am and the world as it is. With wonder.
Attentiveness is ultimately a posture of vulnerability.
To pray is to become vulnerable to Love and Truth.
This is what I hope for when I sit in silence. This is my prayer for my prayers.
In these draining days of lockdown, filled with grief and loss and change, I encourage you to deepen your own practice. Your own embodied practice of fasting and praying, even if they are known to you by a different name. A practice that you discover for yourself and can describe in your mother’s tongue. A practice that grounds you in Love and sets you free by Truth. A practice that becomes a life sustaining reservoir from which you can draw strength to remain open and vulnerable. A practice that makes you brave because it fills you with love. A love that casts out fear.
Hear the words of John Wesley. They are words that nourish a hunger within me to begin … and to begin again and again.
“Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises … whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days … Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”