Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Column: Of prayer and pinball (with apologies to The Who)

My thanks to Inward/Outward, who in October posted the tidbit from Henri Nouwen that I quoted here -- and which has been bouncing around my head since then. The reflection by Karl Rahner, S.J. appeared in Die Presse, an Austrian newspaper, on December 22, 1962. I found in in a collection (alas out of print): Everyday Faith.

And finally, here's a link to a clip of Elton John's performance in Tommy - the real pinball wizard!

The photo was taken at Eastern Point Retreat House in an early summer's fog. The ocean is there - really!

Publish Post

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 19 January 2010.

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?
— Ps. 24:3

A few weeks ago I was multi-tasking away in the kitchen: sorting through school forms, responding to student email, organizing the week’s dinners, drilling Latin vocabulary, all while a pot of chicken stock simmered on the stove.

For a moment, I felt like Tommy, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” pulling levers and snapping flippers, while lights flashed and bells rang and glittering silver balls danced around the machine. I’m just racking up points. Four for figuring out a tough Latin cognate, two for dinners using up leftovers. How do you think she does it?

The game is seductive. How many points can I collect before a ball misses its mark and it all ends with an obnoxious honk and a flashing “Game Over?” I end up bouncing tasks off a multitude of bumpers, each item dispatches with a neat quick flick of my pen, though no lights flash or bells ring to advertise the win. It’s definitely all in the wrist.

As crazed and demanding as the ongoing pinball game of my life is at times, it’s hard to ignore the comfort that conquering a well circumscribed set of tasks and clear goals brings. It gets tempting to shortchange my prayer time in favor of getting one last task completed or catching a few extra minutes of sleep, the better to tackle the list tomorrow.

But being productive in prayer, as Father Henri Nouwen points out, requires the commitment of unproductive time: “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.” It takes more than a bit of discipline, humility and courage to spend time with God, and God alone. Without multi-tasking.

In his reflection The Answer of Silence, Karl Rahner S.J. sounds a similarly bold call to abandon what seems to be most urgent, and seek God: “Have the courage to be alone.” This is practical advice he is offering, no mere rhetorical device: seek out a quiet path or a lonely church; find a room where you can be alone; wherever you go, he says, go!

Once there, wait. Silently. Don’t talk to yourself, or even to God. Just wait. Just listen. Patiently. Without expectations. And courageously. For this takes courage beyond measure.

What might we see, alone with our God, standing in His holy places? Ourselves — and each other — as we truly are, cracked and broken and glorious and beloved of God? God, mysterium tremendum et fascinans? God within us, and without?

And most frighteningly of all, what if we hear nothing? In Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin, the monk Corrigan tells his brother that his prayer has been reduced to the point where there are no words on either part, his or God’s. He is sure only of this: “God listens back.”

I’m still learning to be unproductive in prayer, still practicing how to listen patiently in stillness and solitude. No lights blink, no buzzers sound, there are no points to be counted. Success lies only in going — faithfully, quietly and alone — to stand in His holy place. The place where God listens with me.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
— John O’Donohue, from “For One Who is Exhausted" in To Bless the Space Between Us


  1. A year ago I began to work with a new therapist. When words got hard to say she would say just sit and breathe, while she simply listened in the echoing silence. I felt often that I was wasting her time and my money. She reassured me regularly that we were not "wasting" time despite the offence given to my tidy accountants mind. Yet as the months have gone on these listening silences have transformed me, often unnoticed until afterwards.

    I find echo's of her approach in your description of prayer here and am encouraged to go out this morning and waste time with God, knowing that time spent this way is not wasted and able to trust a little that God listens back in the silence.

  2. To wait, to listen... Oh I find this maddeningly hard to do, yet I know it is so necessary.

    This was very much what I needed to see today and I am grateful that I am seeing it. I feel the anxiety jumping up in my chest like a fearful cat... and that is an invitation for me to sit back down and just... sit.

    The cat will lose interest and who knows what I may find.
    Fran (at work so not usual id)

  3. Beautifully written, and thought provoking too. Funny that I had this on my "to read" list while I tackled a massive cleaning project at my house.

    Closets, shelves, drawers and small rooms all at once, with things getting organized, thrown out, recycled, washed and donated .... I, too, felt so productive, so multi-tasking-professional.

    I hear the smallest of voices saying "don't be seduced."

    That time, too, was a prayer. Now, resting in God.

    Thanks so much, Michelle!

  4. Do you know about ABE Books - they are a wonderful source for out of print books.