The following is an excerpt from L. Roger Owens’s recently released book, Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living. In the book, Owens presents seven characteristics of contemplative living: longing, attention, patience, playfulness, vulnerability, nonjudgment, and freedom. He challenges readers to expand their definition of contemplative living to encompass all ways of seeking to be more open, available, and responsive to God.
As a professor of Christian spirituality and a retreat leader, I see a lot of folks, many of them young people preparing to be pastors, who focus in their lives of prayer on their own work, their own effort. After all, they are ambitious to make something happen. They are finally going to pray themselves into a life that pleases God, hoping that God will respond.
It’s hard for them to imagine it any other way. It’s difficult to conceive of a divine Agent within us, working more deeply and profoundly than we ourselves are able, a holy Love that is already pleased with us and wants to liberate us for a life that is open, available, and responsive to that Love.
It’s hard to imagine a way of praying and living that doesn’t seize the reins of initiative but instead responds to God’s initiative.
I should know. I was one of those ambitious young people, ready to change the world with my praying.
At least for a couple of weeks.
The first book I ever read on prayer was The Hour that Changes the World: A Practical Plan for Personal Prayer. I was still relatively new in my Christian convictions, my heart still warmed by the heat of my faith’s early zeal. As a first-year college student, I was ready to prove my Christian credentials. Bolstered by the attention and praise I’d received as a teenager for my newfound faith, I entered college determined to excel. All I needed was the perfect plan to give shape to my ambition. That’s when I came across The Hour that Changes the World.
The author, Dick Eastman, places the responsibility of prayer squarely in our hands. The world needs us to pray. God needs us to pray. He quotes approvingly the nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon, who said, “Prayer is the slender nerve that moveth the muscles of omnipotence.”
Eastman divides the hour of prayer into twelve different categories, ensuring that the hour covers every kind of prayer he could find in scripture, including acts of praise, confession, intercession, and singing. If the one praying would give five minutes to each kind of prayer, the power of God would be unleashed in the world. Eastman writes, “To be effective our sixty minutes with God should be carefully arranged. Systematic prayer adds health to the devotional habit. It helps us get started and keeps us going… In fact, without a systematic approach to life, many goals would remain unreached.” He continues, “The same is true with prayer. The devotional exercise needs careful planning and preparation to function properly.” It’s as if God were waiting for us to read this book and get down to business so that God could finally do something.
It’s difficult to conceive of a divine Agent within us, working deeply and profoundly, a holy Love that is already pleased with us.
It never occurred to me to question that careful planning and having a foolproof system could make my prayer “effective”; that prayer was akin to other activities in life, having a “goal” it was up to me to reach; that my “exercise” of prayer would only “function properly” if I performed it right.
I just started. I listed the twelve kinds of prayer in my journal each day while my roommate was in class, and I proceeded to change the world.
For a handful of days, that is, until I couldn’t anymore.
Maybe it was the new freedom of college that got in my way—the freedom to waste time and sleep at odd hours, the freedom to make late night trips to Perkins to drink coffee and pretend to study or to Steak-N-Shake to drink milkshakes and not even pretend to study, the freedom to order pizza at midnight as a prelude to the studying that still needed to be done, a freedom that militates against a systematic, regimented approach to prayer.
My prayer was all about me: my work, my faith, my initiative.
But it is more likely my approach to prayer itself got in the way. My prayer was all about me: my work, my faith, my initiative. And my soul simply couldn’t sustain such an exercise. Changing the world through prayer wears you out even if you don’t down a whole pizza in the middle of the night.
I still needed to learn the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, who saw that “our Lord is the foundation from which our prayers arise” and that prayer “is given to us by the grace of his love.”
I still needed to learn the wisdom of popular Quaker author Richard Foster, who writes, “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they only get us to the place where something can be done.…. [They are] the means by which we place ourselves where [God] can bless us.”
The place where something can be done.
I still needed to discover spirituality in the passive voice.
In other words, I needed to learn the lesson of the fig tree.
Jesus tells a story about a man who owned a vineyard and had a fig tree planted in it (see Luke 13:6-9). But the tree didn’t produce any fruit. Year after year he looked forward to canned figs and fig jelly and fig pie and fresh figs and figgy pudding, and year after year he found the tree barren. Tired of this annual disappointment, he told the gardener, “I’m done with it. Cut the thing down.”
But the gardener urged patience. “Give me some time,” he said. He proposed a remedy: He would loosen the soil around the base of the tree and put fertilizer on it to see if next year the tree would bear fruit.
One of the easiest ways to kill a tree is by compacting the soil. Ideal soil, according to an article I found, should be 50 percent porous space so the soil can hold water and oxygen for the roots. When the soil is compacted, the roots become suffocated and dehydrated. So it makes sense that the gardener loosened the soil from around suffocated, dehydrated roots and then applied fertilizer. Roots cut off from the sources of life—air and water—can’t nourish a tree.
Sometimes when people begin to feel drawn to prayer, when they sense a longing welling up inside of them for a life with God, they express that longing this way: I feel cut off from the source of life! My roots are starving for air and can’t breathe!
We notice a longing, a desire, a thirst, inchoate at first, to stretch out to God the source of Life, to have a deep, conscious connection with the Divine, and so we ask: How should I pray? How can I live a life with God?
If we’re good modern, success-oriented people, raised in a bias-for-action culture, we might think: What do I need to do? How do I get on with it? I must take initiative!
But the roots have no air or water. There’s nothing these roots can do to change the situation. This was clear to the vineyard owner: From the outside, the tree looked dead, of no use except for firewood come winter.
But the gardener knew better.
The gardener knew that even if the roots couldn’t take the initiative and change their own situation, he could. He could loosen the soil. He could add fertilizer. He could get things started. He could put the roots back in touch with the source of life. Christians have a name for this work of the divine Gardener on our behalf: grace.
Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite sister in England, has devoted most of the nine decades of her life to prayer, and she has learned something. “Prayer,” she writes, “is not our activity, our getting in touch with God, our coming to grips with or making ourselves desirable to God. We can do none of these things, nor do we need to, for God is there, ready to do everything for us, loving us unconditionally.”
When we notice that longing, that desire to connect with Life, that yearning to live contemplatively, and when we find ourselves wanting to grow in prayer and live fully in touch with God, the divine Gardener is digging, loosening the soil. God is already there, doing what needs to be done.
Christians have a name for this work of the divine Gardener on our behalf: grace.
Instead of seizing the initiative in our life with God (which, remember, is our whole life), the first thing to do is simply realize that Someone is sneaking into the shed and getting the shovel. Someone is loosening the soil so that our roots can breathe. Someone is already applying life-giving nutrients.
And when we hear that shovel hitting the dirt, the scratch of metal against the hard soil, it’s not we who wield the shovel, but God.