Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prayer and the Facts of Life

“Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words usually seem worth reading but rarely move me to action. So why I felt as though suddenly struck by lightning upon reading these words the other night is beyond me. Truth be told, I wasn’t even reading Emerson at the time I stumbled across them. I was reading an essay about him by Mary Oliver in her book Long Life: Essays and other Writings. She went on to say “and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us.”

Why does prayer often seem like some elite mystical practice? And how can we reclaim the straightforwardness of Emerson’s definition for the benefit of absolutely everyone? It’s not as if I possess the highest point of view; surely that can’t be said. I have on occasion been known to contemplate the facts of life (and all manner of life) in their broadest manifestations, and my vision has been stretched, kneaded, shaped, baked and sometimes burnt by what I see. But I keep looking. I’ve always been frustrated by my inability to explain to people why I find praying, and especially praying for other people (intercessory prayer), to be crucial for our formation as human beings. Far too many words have been written about prayer that make it seem as though words themselves are necessary to the endeavor, but the sentence “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view” seems to sit at the edge of the cliff of words. Emerson encourages us to leap (or at least fall) into the lap of God without even a dictionary.

I think that one of the reasons this sentence struck me is its compactness— its beauty, the way it just lies there all taut and pretty, yet daring us to open an entire universe. Perhaps it is the depth of its simplicity. Maybe it’s the way it encourages us to deal with the facts from a high perch. I often deal with them from a lower vantage point, not quite sure what’s going on or what to do about it. I almost never have the whole picture or story, only my small piece of it, often accompanied by the feeling that I might be missing some fact or other that might change my mind, which is ultimately the only part of me worth changing.

The way the sentence affirms contemplation feels good to me, because I prefer prayer with as few words as possible, and it's always nice to be affirmed. However, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the facts of life have a tendency to make themselves known, ebbing and flowing according to all need and desire. Why those facts pop up as soon as I sit on my cushion I cannot tell you, but at some point I just decided that too must be a fact of life. Frequently the facts are fuzzy, accompanied by a feeling or a sense about something or someone, and I don’t know what it will ultimately be about, or what will happen in the long run. I’ve come to expect it, because I can’t possibly know everything, and life’s too short to miss. I used to let everything get to me, internalizing all manner of debris that wasn’t mine. Then one day I read a Chinese proverb:

You cannot prevent
the birds of sorrow
from flying over your head
but you can prevent them
from building nests in your hair.

I put the saying on my refrigerator immediately. Sometime later, I began to notice that every time something heartbreaking, unfair, distasteful, corrupt, or evil would rear its head, there was also, still, a breathtaking beauty surrounding us. I made a pact with God that we would deal with whatever or whoever walks through the door. It was like opening the door to opportunity, and I’ve never looked back.

Which leads me to the real reason I’m in love with Emerson’s sentence: it opens the door of prayer to absolutely everyone. It’s not fussy, you don’t need to learn any particular rituals, be on your knees, in the half lotus position, or bring two forms of ID. There’s only us and our ability to open to the highest point of view; often something barely perceptible and of crucial importance, requiring us to be still and allow life the freedom to wander by, letting it fill us with the energy to bring the best we have to offer to bear on the facts of our lives.

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