This time we're talking about prayer words (if you're reading along, we're traipsing about in Chapter 4).
With that preamble, let me turn the space over to Robin:
OK, I admit it. I've struggled a lot with what Martin Laird has to say in Into the Silent Land about using a prayer word or phrase as a method for focusing one's way into silent contemplation. My readers are going to get the better part of this posting, because Michelle is going to write something thoughtful and eloquent for my blog, while what I have to say is: This is a lot more confusing and difficult than it sounds.
The concept? Yes, all good. It's been recommended for centuries that a prayer word is a useful device for stilling the mind, and Laird puts it well when he says that our minds are so incessantly busy that in order to quiet them we need to give them something to do. He offers three doorways through which a prayer word might take us: first, it is an anchor or refuge to which we can return, again and again, as our mind wanders this way and that, despite our best hopes and efforts for stillness; second, it helps us to let go and forget ourselves, so that we can release our commentary and live into the present moment; and third, it helps our attention move from our thoughts to our awareness of our thoughts, and to move into the silence out of which the Word emerges.
I'm sure that we can all imagine the comedy of errors that ensues for most of us when we try to pray this way, as the intent and committed mind rambles from prayer word to undone dishes to whether or not Monday is a holiday or a mail day to prayer word to did I let the dog back in to prayer word to the agenda for tonight's meeting to the need to pick up some milk to the condolence note I have to write to how angry I am at the person who overlooked my very important personal needs last week to oh, yeah, the prayer word . . . you get the idea.
If nothing else, that word lets us know how distracted and inattentive we truly are!
And yet . . .
There was a winter day, many, many months ago, when the text with which I was praying happened to be the one in the title, "Be still and know that I am God." I know that it was winter because I went for a three or four mile walk in the snowy woods, meditating on that text, word by word. It was, ironically, a discursive meditation in the extreme; I recall in particular that I was very interested in the word "know" and all of its possible meanings. (Yes, including the sexual one.) My son had died only a few months earlier and knowledge of God, whether cursory or intimate, seemed a most unlikely possibility. But there I was, tromping around in the snow, mind flying at about 500 words per minute, reflecting on the apparent predicate of stillness for knowledge of God.
It seems that God calls us into that stillness in spite of ourselves.
And so, I try. Not well and not effectively, but I do try, and sometimes my word is, in fact, like a shepherd's staff, pulling me back toward that first doorway.
And the word? I have a strange one. Some writers suggest "Jesus," while others urge something lacking in connotation. For a long time, I tried the word "Holy," but it is now a word attached to much of the sadness in my life. So my new word is "Grass."
No laughing, please.
It's a word that does have connotations for me, a girl who grew up in Midwest farming country and associates grass with a leisurely summer afternoon spent looking at the sky~ a childhood form of contemplation. More recently, it has both caretaking and Eucharistic associations; one of our seminary professors was found of pointing out his conviction that the grass upon which the people sit in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospel of John is a detail intended by the writer to make a connection to the green pastures of Psalm 23. I almost got derailed a couple of weeks ago, when I happened upon a reference in which grass is a symbol of transience (Isaiah 40), but I found, in the end, that I am not disturbed by that thought. The prayer word is, after all, intended as an aid to move us toward silence; in this case the prayer word is transient while the Silent Word to which it directs our attention is not.
Yes, I sigh: as Anthony Bloom and nearly everyone else acknowledges, when it comes to prayer we are all always beginners. But a prayer word, however artificial and functional it may seem to the 21st century mind, is evidently a doorway into a silence not constrained by contemporary limitations.
Read my response to Robin here.