The BEMA (βῆμα, בּימה ): Chiefly on Prayer
In the Cave of the Heart: This is the title of John Michael Talbot’s song written for Christians who pray and meditate, or better, meditate as prayer. This week one newspaper management columnist advised readers to make a “cave” for reflection and rest. His advice was to turn off all electronic devices. Not bad, I thought, for a start.
In the Bible, God takes people to some pretty isolated places. Elijah finds himself in a wilderness cave after deadly threats from King Ahab’s pagan Queen, Jezebel. Jonah sets a new standard for solitariness in the belly of a sea monster (the Hebrew, by the way, does not say “whale”). Jesus suggests a tiny, dark or dimly lit closet for us, his everyday pray-ers. We close our eyes, as our parents and elders taught us. Then what?
Jesus urges us to make our petitions, straight from the heart, along the channels set forth in His Prayer. Then what? In the Presence of God, we wait for Him – we wait on Him.
This is not easy for me. I am, as most of you know a busy and fast-paced thinker and sometimes even faster talker. My inner mind is a chatterbox, a gossip, a madman rushing through a hundred thoughts in a minute: a flood of faces, names, needs, frustrations, disappointments, urgencies. Somehow, I needed, and I still need, the teaching of a senior Christian I received back in my graduate student days. George Hay introduced me to praying meditation.
The Greeks had a word for it, of course. It can be paraphrased as something like “prayer at the heart of life”. About 1300 years ago, they had it worked out: make your cave. Calm your mind, sit or kneel, and place your palms upwards, on your knees. Stop talking to God, inwardly and outwardly. Listen. Oh, and this is best done, my child, by yourself.
This practice nearly drove me crazy. My mental chatterbox could not handle the silence. I became consumed with guilt and frustration over my inability to – mentally – shut up! A week later I stopped by George’s office and told him I was quitting. He smiled, and said one thing: “try praying this one prayer, slowly, over and over again, to put your chatterbox under discipline, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner”, and don’t beat yourself up for lapsing into your own thoughts. Forgive yourself, and use the Jesus Prayer (for that is what the Greeks called this prayer) to calm your spirit and mind”.
It took a few weeks, but slowly the silences became longer, and the Jesus Prayer became a way to put my inner chatterbox back into listening mode. I waited until Carol and the kids were out of the house. Sat on our rocking chair, palms up (when I asked George he said that was a message to God that we were willing to receive anything He put in our hands, our life, our spirit, our mind). My breathing calmed, my mind and my spirit became (more or less) like an ocean of calm. I could manage this, at first, about five minutes at a time. It was enough to change my life.
When a pebble drops into a pool, it makes a sound, and then the ripples move across the face of the water,
from the centre to the edges. Can a thought from God be like that? In life, we can tune out a dump truck, but a dripping faucet can keep us up all night. Can a prepared heart, even for a nanosecond, receive God’s peace and direction as a tiny whisper? So it was for Elijah, so it was for Jonah, so it is for me.
I stopped praying this way when I entered my career. I thought it was for just that phase of my life. God is calling me back to it now. Like a pebble dropping, the Divine invitation comes in my insomnia, my wakefulness, my mindfulness that its time has come again. I am forgiving myself and going back to the cave. “There is a birth of God before the ages. And one has to hear it in silence” – Cyril of Jerusalem