By Kathy Berken
I grew up thinking that prayer was a ritual that I added to my routines, much like brushing my teeth. I only really thought about prayer as an agent of change when I expected an outcome. In last month’s column, I offered a caveat to placing expectations on petitionary prayer especially because that can give us a false image of God as a magician or a being to be controlled.
Over the years, I’ve changed the way I see prayer. In all its forms, prayer is an agent of change in and of itself as a way to communicate with and experience God. It’s not a vehicle to get somewhere. It’s more like a rainstorm that we step into just to experience the exhilaration of the moment, having the power right then to change our feelings or attitudes.
Everything in the universe is in a constant state of transformation, of growth and decay. Ice melts into water, acorns grow into oak trees, our bodies and minds become more fragile.
“Change is the very nature of life. Welcome it. No glass ever became sand again. No bread ever became wheat. No ripened fruit ever became a flower” (unknown).
Once we’ve prayed, we can’t go back to the way we were. So, how do things change? One, we can directly influence an outcome when we act. I mix flour, water, yeast, salt and oil with time and heat, and transform those ingredients into bread. Two, an outside force indirectly changes us. You run into an old friend and share memories from your childhood, leaving you feeling connected. Three, change happens without our involvement. “In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state” (Wikipedia). In 1905, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna twice rejected Hitler’s application, which changed his career goals, and the rest is history.
Prayer changes us primarily, essentially and directly by the very act of praying. We pray. We are transformed immediately by that action, which reminds me of an old Zen proverb: “Chop wood, carry water.” Prayer is chopping wood and carrying water, not to build a fire to eat or keep warm, or to drink or wash, but to experience chopping wood and carrying water. In the Zen world, to adopt that attitude is enlightenment.
When I lived and worked at The Arch in Clinton, my prayer each morning was, “God, help me see your face today.” As a result, I became much more aware of God’s presence in my life with the core members I lived with. If I had not said that prayer, I wonder if I would have seen Bertie’s Christmas breakfast-making as anything but her way of helping. Instead, I saw it as a beautiful example of the Eucharist.
If I had not said that prayer, I wonder if I would have seen Mary Pat’s handful of soapy water placed on my head (bald from cancer treatment) as anything but playfulness when I bathed her one day. Instead, I saw it as a sign of baptism and anointing.
As life-changing as those events were, I appreciate prayer now as something even more powerful. Prayer itself is primary, rather than being a key to a secondary result. So, saying “God, help me see your face today” is per se the experience of God and the substantive agent of transformation. Having absolutely no expectations that my prayer will do anything (such as seeing God’s face in the core members, as great as that was), simplifies and purifies my prayer.
Where prayer was once an activity I believed was a ritual to cause something to happen in the future, I now believe that my prayers alone — like chopping wood and carrying water —give me the immediate experience of singular moments to be in God’s presence.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)