I was really dreading this retreat, I was anticipating boredom and slow long hours with an academic book. I wasn't looking forward to all the time meant for prayer that would inevitably feel like torturous internal dialogue. I discovered that my expectation were spot on, but only for the first half day until I got into the whole crazy lady by herself thing, and then I learned a little.
The baseline of my struggle with spending hours in prayer is essentially that I don’t believe God interacts with us that way. I think God is alive and active through things like wisdom, and nature, and what Tozer calls the ‘living mist’ on the hearts of humanity, that thing in our conscience that makes us know there is more. I do not however think that he speaks audibly, or through ‘words of wisdom’, and I surely don’t think he’s directing our life’s minutia through circumstances. A lot of my friends and colleagues would disagree with me on this point as they have their own experiences to point to. They might be right, I hope they are.
This foundational belief makes praying really difficult. Either I fake it and pretend like I believe God is listening and will speak back, or I accept what I really believe, which is that prayer is more for me than for God or change. If the latter, all I need to do is say what I need to say, I’m not a long winded person, here’s what I think, thanks for this, help with that, make me more like you, amen. Now what?
Second to that, I don’t believe our experiences are very reliable. Our minds are powerful tools for propaganda of our desires, and I think they can lead us to believe experiences that may or may not have happened. We can create a whole idea around a projection of who we want God to be based on feelings and circumstances, and then read the Bible and find that His objective existence rather contradicts our formulated God.
I do however seem to have this one exception. I was pretty committed to the belief that God doesn't engage with us and then I experienced something - change. I didn’t have a moment in prayer were I saw a picture of something in my mind which changed the course of my life, or had some miraculous closing of a door that led to a big decision, no it’s much simpler than that. God is changing my heart, He is making me be someone I’m naturally not. He is making me want things that He wants. He is compelling me to care about what He says He cares about. He started changing me before I even believed fully, when I was simply looking. I couldn’t do that on my own, it’s an experience I can only attribute to God. This has nothing to do with my intellectual pursuit, and everything to do with something, or someone outside myself.
But this didn't involve hours spent in silence waiting for the divine to speak back via an infusion of a sudden brain epiphany.
One of the books I was reading while away was The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. He writes a lot about the presence of God, and the need for humans to be thirsting after God (whatever that means). He reminds the reader that God can be known in a personal way like one might know any other person they are in relationship with, that He is not an idea but a being with which we can be intimate.
I do not relate to this idea, I generally disagree with it, at best I have just never experienced it, but boy have I seen it abused.
But alas, the thing about being isolated is you keep reading anyways, because it’s all that’s there, that and silence and silence will make you crazy. So as I read I came across the word faith. That word I’ve heard from a thousand pulpits and accepted its meaning but never understood, until recently when its essence consumed me. I learned with Rabbi Yehoshua that my questions don’t have answers, and as if I had never been explained the concept of faith, it came to me like a novelty. So it seems faith applies to this as well, we cannot know God only through our intellect, but through our spirituality, I have to trust that this true. Once again I have to believe.
There are still a lot of spiritual practices around God’s interaction with us that I disagree with, but I think I need to move a bit in that direction. Just a bit. This means I have to pray in faith like God responds, it means I’ll have to listen like He’ll answer. It means I have to do it before I believe it or understand it, and maybe it will make sense when I experience it. Right now it just feels weird, and a little disingenuous.
Tozer states, “God is everywhere.” I think that’s true, but I’m just working out what that means in practice. I will say it is much easier to believe in a place with mountains and oceans in one line of vision, it’s hard to remember at home. I wonder if that’s the point of recognizing God’s presence, no matter if/how God interacts with us, the acknowledgement of God's presence is what changes our hearts and souls, it humbles us and puts vision back into the mundane. No matter His response, perpetually remembering that God is everywhere and that He is the reason for our existence and purpose, it is bound to change us, or at least, it reminds us that we are a people with a reason.