The Peace of Prayer
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
It is a scary world. Our minds and hearts were recently traumatized by the loss of seven brilliant and brave astronauts. What a sadness. But it is not to diminish their sacrifice to remind us that on the same day 20 died in a bomb explosion in Lagos, an American serviceman was shot in Qatar, an elderly couple burned to death on Chicago’s south side and there was an accident death on the Northwest Tollway.
It is a scary world. A man recounts how lying in bed one night, he finds himself saying, “It is very strange. Here I am lying in bed, and I don’t have a worry in the world. Then the thought came, “That worries me.”
Wouldn’t it be great if you and I could reach the point where worry and anxiety never kept us awake at night, or glued to the television, never left us fatigued of body or distraught of mind, did not haunt our attitudes and activities. How much misery in life is due to the fears that dog, the troubles that plague and will not go away. How many of our physical ills are rooted here? How many mistakes we make in business or relationship
because we are hounded by some apprehension, some self-absorption, some lack of clarity of mind.
And now we are entering a period in our history in which larger sources of stress come with every day’s Dow Jones, acts of terror and rumors of wars. I must honestly say that unlike many preachers and politicians I cannot speak with any confidence the mind of God on the course our nation should take this year. But I can say that the anxiety and fear endemic at all levels in our society do represent a threat to wise and prudent attitude and action. And most of it is fear beyond any measure of the risks. If the mood five years ago was irrational exuberance, today it is irrational fear.
Would it not be well if we could get to the point where we diminish anxiety enough so that we can live wisely and thoughtfully no matter the decisions we face, calm and confident whatever the challenges before us as a people, as persons.
This old faith clearly sees this as a possibility; not all at once and overnight, but really and truly over time. The Old Testament echoes with calls, “Do not be afraid,” “Whom shall I fear.” “I will fear no evil.” These are the most characteristic words of Jesus. “Fear not.” “Have no anxiety.” “Let not your heart be troubled.” And the Apostle Paul is no different. “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
But it is not simply a bromide. He does not stop there. He offers as the antidote to anxiety, what? “In nothing be anxious… pray.” The discipline of prayer, he insists, is the answer to worry, the way to clarity of mind and heart. “Do not be anxious about anything; but tell God all your needs and concerns in prayer and petition, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and your thoughts.”
Does it do it for you? Over ninety percent of all Americans say they pray and regularly. I doubt very much that ninety percent of us are therefore relatively free of anxiety, unburdened by fear. Have we missed something? Are we doing it wrong? Need another book on technique? Linus kneels by his bed to say his prayers. Suddenly he says, “I think I’ve made a new theological discovery. If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.”
In the first place we need to recognize that the prayer Paul urges upon us is a real discipline, a discipline many of us have never taken seriously, a discipline most of us still struggle with, a discipline as vital as any we can engage in life. I have trouble with it. You have trouble with it.
Does it surprise us to learn that carefree life, existence without anxiety, comes only as the result of real exercise? We take this reality for granted in most other realms. Most of us have learned by now that there is no easy way to weight loss and physical well-being. The pounds come off, the blood pressure comes down, the muscles tone up only with real effort and exercise.
And when it comes to mental alertness and competency, very few of us buy the advertisements suggesting that in thirty days we may learn French, and master medieval history. But we know that learning, growth of mind calls for strenuous discipline, time, effort of the will.
Now if we know this is true of body and mind, why would we ever assume otherwise about the life of spirit and soul, assume that there is some quick fix for our fears, some quick road to ease of spirit. In his autobiography, historian John Lukacs tells of the summer of 1944 where as a fugitive from the Nazis, he experienced the devastation of the bombing of Budapest. He writes, “During that deadly summer I learned not only that death and life are close, but that so are happiness and unhappiness; that one can find happiness amidst the most wretched circumstances, but one must look for it. It was many years later that I learned that unhappiness almost always involves an amount of self-indulgence (and despair a large sinful dose of it). To wallow in one’s unhappiness… is easy, while happiness requires a certain effort of organization and even of planning. Happiness, like love, is a self-imposed task. It requires forethought and cultivation ,… which is why this task is not easy.”
Perhaps it is because we have never gotten beyond the childhood forms, the little verses our parents taught us, the God bless Mommy and Daddy and Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Harry. Not that the prayers of our children or grandchildren don’t have something to teach us. Madeleine L’Engle in The Irrational Season, writes, “Bedtime was my most special and privileged time with my children; we read aloud; we sang; and then we had prayers, and although I knew that the prayers were often extended to inordinate lengths in order to prolong bedtime, that was all right, too. It’s not a bad thing to extend conversation with God, no matter the reason.
This little boy’s conversations with God were spontaneous, loving, and sometimes dictatorial. Such as the prayer one rainy autumn evening when he paused in his God-blesses and said, ‘O God, I love to listen to the rain; I love to listen to you talk.’ Another evening he paused again and said severely, ‘And God: remember to be the Lord.’ This was during one of the many times when the adults had huddled by the radio during a world crisis; but it took a four-year-old to remind me in my own praying that God is the Lord who is in charge of the universe no matter what we do to mess it up.”
Perhaps we have left behind both the childhood verses and spontaneity and have been left pretty much to our own devices. Traditional Roman Catholics are encouraged to participate in specific adult disciplines. The more religious Jew will say daily prayers of rather deep and meaningful power. The Muslim adult, whatever his station or sophistication, engages in five daily acts of devotion. If, as moderns , we are typically determined to find our own way, then we must, I think, resolve to find our way to greater consistency and personal discipline.
“In nothing be anxious!” insists the Apostle. “Pray!” Prayer as antidote to anxiety demands first of all – silence. The Biblical story urges silence to the point where it seems almost synonymous with prayer. “In quiet is your strength.” “Be still and know that I am God.” Jesus in the midst of an amazingly busy routine that rivals any of ours, gets up before dawn and goes off into the hills alone. “Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee, the silence of eternity.” But we live such harried, over-scheduled lives, all of us, that we simply do not have the time to engage in real soul-healing silence. We crawl out of bed, charge into our wake-up routine, then we’re off to catch the train or point our car toward the traffic. Then into the list lying in wait, dictating the day, then home to table and tube, or some meeting or party, then fall into bed depleted and drugged. So little time to be silent, quiet, still.
Morton Kelsey, professor down at Notre Dame, describes us this way. “Most modern life is a studied attempt to avoid ever being alone, faced with the reality of the inner world. Just imagine how a line-artist like Steinberg might sketch the day of the average man, beginning with the moment a disc jockey connects with him to awake him in the morning. He may stay wrapped in gentle music while his razor whirrs, and then the news bombardment begins. He gets his breakfast in between skeins of words, headlines, box scores, Dow Jones futures, political phrases, and a running commentary from his wife. He drives to work joined to the radio again, and switching over to concentration on a job even requires the help of pipeline music. With lunch he is fed conversation and business problems like spaghetti; there is only one difference at dinner. He chops the family threads off to change over to TV or perhaps a meeting. Only when he drops into bed, too tired to even dream, do the conscious lines stop radiating, and if he cannot sleep there is the ever present sleeping pill or tranquilizer to remove the necessity of a night-time encounter with silence. The next day the routine starts over.
A pretty good image of all too many of us much of the time. Hurry, run, worry. Never silent, never quiet, never waiting, never shut down. But the prayer which is the antidote to anxiety begins with silence, time alone and quiet. Why is this? Think for a moment about what happens if you and I really take twenty minutes to be utterly still, inside and without. Sooner or later, if you are like me, your immediate concerns and sources of stress, your anxieties and worries begin to surface. We become aware of what is nagging at us, perhaps depleting our energies. Both the problem and the seductiveness of all our running is that it hides us from ourselves, what is going on inside. Paul’s language is interesting. ‘Have no anxiety, let your needs be made known to God.” As if God didn’t know what they are? But that’s not the problem. God knows, we often don’t. Don’t know what our deep needs, worries, cares, really are. What is really bugging us.
The further problem is: this does not rid us of their influence, their tendency to distort our perceptions and destroy our peace. They lay there under the surface generating bad judgment and unhelpful attitude and unstable relationships whether at home or work. And it is only as we surface and face them, speak them to God that we can begin to experience some freedom from them. And we rarely surface and face them other than in a time of disciplined silence.
Because only then in such periods of silence in which we are able to surface our needs, our worries, our cares and concerns, are we able to take the next step, surrender them to the one who is near and who rules, turn over our worries and fears, our desires and needs to the One in whose hands are finally all our tomorrows. No denial of concerns, no suppression of worries. We come quiet. We surface and voice them. Then we leave them with him. We name them and rest them in his hands. Someone has said, “When you get to your wit’s end, you’ll find that God lives there.” And to this kind of dependency comes real strength, real peace.
Then, as we are able to surface and surrender our anxieties to the one who is near and so come to terms with reality, we are able to turn our focus toward all that is yet good and positive about life, the true, the honorable, the upright and pure, everything we love and admire. Further, we are able in all things … to rejoice, give thanks. Not just in the sunny days and good fortune, but in all that life hands us. Prayer is not first of all our attempt to change God and the world. Perhaps this is the trouble with much of our prayer life. It begins as a desperate attempt to alter the landscape around us, to fix things, control others. But the prayer that leads to inner peace is first of all the quiet struggle to bring our will into alignment with that of God.
Shift of mind and heart to acceptance and gratitude. Only as we get over this hurdle does prayer truly begin to change us inside. Grateful embrace of what is our lot in life, grateful embrace. “In all things give thanks.” A call for deliberate recognition and recital of causes for gratitude. Because it is this deliberate shift of focus away from what we fear to what we have and enjoy that liberates and quiets our spirits, finally works a real peace. It is rejoicing in the gift that is our life here and now, whatever may come.
It is remarkable how the greatest gifts of this spirit often come to us from those who endure enforced isolation and silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his cell in Berlin. Alexander Solzhenitzen in his gulag. Terry Anderson in Beirutt, Lebanon. Our young still read the attic diary of Anne Frank. For me an even more remarkable document from that era is the prayer diary of Etty Hillesum in An Interrupted Life, written before her death in one of the concentration camps of World War II. “I thought at first I would give up my writing today because I’m so terribly tired and also because I thought I had nothing to say just now. You have made me so rich, Oh God… My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you… Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised towards your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer … the beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up riches within.”
One thing is certain. God is near and we are here. For tomorrow we can plan and propose. But tomorrow we cannot possess. However, we can leave it to God, be glad and rejoice in this day. Rejoice then, give thanks. The peace of God will guard your hearts and your thoughts. Do not be anxious about anything.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.