13 February 2006

what does it mean to pray?

praying is no easy matter. it demands a relationship in which you allow the other to enter into the very center of your person, to speak there, to touch the sensitive core of your being, and allow the other to see so much that you would rather leave in darkness. and when do you really want to do that? perhaps you would let the other come across the threshold to say something, to touch something, but to allow the other into that place where you life gets its form, that is dangerous and calls for defense.
    the resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. the image shows the tension, the desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. the story about an old woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies an attitude. she was wild, swinging at everything in sight and scaring everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. but there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. in fact, it took two men to pry open that squeezed hand. it was as though she would lose her very self along with that coin. if they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more, and be nothing more. that was her fear.
    when we are invited to pray we are asked to open our tightly clenched fists and to give up our last coin. but who wants to do that? a first prayer, therefore, is often a painful prayer, because you discover you dont want to let go. you hold fast to what is familiar even if you aren't proud of it. you find yourself saying, 'thats just how it is with me. i would like it to be different, but it cant be now. thats just the way it is, and thats the way ill have to leave it.' once you talk like that youve already given up the belif that your life might be otherwise, youve already let the hope for a new life float by. since you wouldnt dare to put a question mark behind a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts.
    you feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. so you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you dont want to surrender...
detachment is often understood as letting loose of what is attractive. but it cant also mean being attached to what is repulsive. you can become attached to your own hate. as long as you look for retaliation, you are riveted to your own past. sometimes it appears as though you would lose your self along with your revenge and hate- so you stand there with balled up fists, closed to the other who wants to heal...
    when you dare to let go and surrender one of those many fears, your hand relaxes and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving, you must have patience, of course, before your hands are completely open and their muscles relaxed..
you can never fully achieve such an attitude, for behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless. much has happened in your life to make all these fists... at any house of the day or night you might clench again for fear.
    someone will tell you, 'you have to be able to forgive yourself.'  but that isn't possible. what is possible is to open your hands with out fear so that other can  blow your sins away. for perhaps it isnt clammy coins, but just a light dust which a soft breeze will whirl away, leaving only a grin or a chuckle behind. then you feel a bit of new freedom, and praying becomes a joy, a spontaneous reaction to the world and the people around. praying comes effortless, inspired, and lively or peaceful and quiet. then you recognize the festive and the modest as moments of prayer. you begin to suspect that to pray is to live.

with open hands, henri nouwen

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