URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer

Mark Argent: waiting

Praying with those who wait Mark Argent: waiting

Waiting itself

I’d like to pick up the idea of waiting as something of value in itself — not waiting for something, or waiting as a form of “deferred gratification”.

I remember an article by Stephen Sykes where he referred to St John’s gospel as coming from “the community around John” and forming part of “the long history of God’s patience with God’s people”. That’s a long way from concrete certainty, but catches something of the other side — the God not understood — and holds a space for a messiness that we do well not to try to hide from.

The Fourth Lateran Council, writing against a tendency to be too certain produced a comment that “between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them”. That’s an elaborate way of saying that people might find it helpful to talk of God as “father”, but we need to not push it too far — that’s an understanding that’s helpful to us, thinking with our human limitedness, but if that tipped over into suggesting that God is “only” father, we’d be missing something. There’s always a “beyondness”, something more than the words hold.

On Tuesday, Fleur Houston quoted a phrase from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”. That document is an important part of our history, but that sentence is ambiguous because it doesn’t try to restrict what we mean by God. Fleur rightly pointed out that, in today’s world, the absence of inclusive language in that sentence grates: for all their attempt to not restrict God, our forebears still managed to fall into the trap of using language that turned out to be too restrictive.

That might offer a way of thinking about the Trinity — three different ways of thinking that hold a space for being open to a God that’s always a little more than we understand.

We also need to be able to keep God at a safe-enough distance. None of us would survive if our lives were turned upside down by profound religious experiences too often. I remember once saying to someone on retreat that one of the functions of religion is to keep God at a safe-enough distance. Surprised, he asked for an example. He was a Roman Catholic priest, used to saying Mass daily, and I pointed to the opening words “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and suggested that, if anyone took that at its full depth it would be too much — who is any of us to claim that — but somehow the familiarity tames the sentence and makes it bearable.

This week we’ve spoken quite a lot about Sarah and Elizabeth — two women described as “barren” who become miraculously pregnant, as if the thing that mattered — was being waited for — was the pregnancy. But that understates the value of what went before, as if all that mattered was pregnancy. Perhaps there’s something coded in the text about miraculous births. Perhaps there’s something about the wisdom of the one who’s waited. When Mary went to see Elizabeth, might this have been a frightened pregnant teenager going to see someone whose depth and wisdom she trusted?

To wait for something is to know it

I think of a close friend who lives in Singapore. Distance means we meet rarely. But he’s in my mind. I’m living with what people sometimes call “the presence of an absence”: the waiting says a great deal about the friendship.

There’s something to be learned from Judaism here. There’s the idea that one day the Messiah will come — there’s a presence in the waiting. Some sources frame this as the Messiah will come if the whole Israel keep just one Sabbath correctly — so what happens Sabbath by Sabbath is linked to the waiting. There’s also something outside time in the way the Law is engaged with — with the idea that the aural tradition of interpretation was given to Moses on Sinai, so they’re engaging with something present and past — like the words “My father was a wandering Aramean” at Passover, connecting each Passover with the first one. That collapsing of time gives a different light on waiting — a sense of the thing waited for being present. Some Christians tend to be dismissive of Judaism, but I suggest the religion of Jesus has a lot to teach us.

There’s a problem if things are too certain. I remember an occasion where some words about communion tripped off my tongue: “this is a table where all are guests, who is one guest to exclude another”. Someone from another tradition disagreed. In the heat of the moment his argument ended with “but this is ours”… He was rattled and it seemed indelicate to push the point — but the obvious response would have been “if it’s yours, is it also Christ’s?” From where I’m standing there has to be space for the unknown, for what’s outside what we expect, rather than putting a limit on God.

In retreat-giving I find that some people talk as if there’s a constant and profound experience of God, but others talk as if it’s much less than that. I’ve come to suspect that this is often the opposite of what it sounds like: that those talking as if it is “much less” know what a profound experience of God is like, and know when “this is not the time” where those who talk as if it’s always there might actually be in the foothills and have yet to find the mountains. I suspect that someone who has a profound experience of God once a year will find themselves described as a spiritual giant, but spend 264 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes of the year knowing “this is not the minute where it happens”.


Flipping this into a biblical context, there’s an ever-present risk of being too certain — of jumping too quickly to an “understanding”. One example is what’s said about resurrection. The actual biblical evidence that people believed in this is that we have a New Testament at all: the disciples didn’t slink away at the end of Good Friday concluding it had all been a mistake. The bit we often miss when we hear the resurrection narratives at Easter is that they are all stories of people not believing and then being surprised. Clinging to them too tightly doesn’t leave room for surprise. I could say something similar about the Psalms — there’s a richness on offer if it’s possible to hear them after the event as the words of people who’ve been through tough times.

I’m also thinking of John Bradbury’s sermon when Nigel Uden was inducted in Cambridge, in December 2010. John drew a parallel with John the Baptist — of a minister as one who points to Christ, not as one who claims to stand in his place.

Kataphatic and apophatic approaches

The words just mean “with images” and “without images” but writers on spirituality tend to broaden them a little to think about prayer that starts with images, words, texts, ideas etc and prayer that starts with emptiness. The distinction’s a little artificial — no prayer is ever entirely at one extreme — but its a helpful reminder because the apophatic is often a little out of sight. Sometimes people feel the need to stay close to things to pray with, or find the apparent emptiness of the apophatic to be unsettling. That’s been with us for a long time. One of the classic texts is the fourteenth-century Cloud of unknowing which is anonymous. A few hints in the text imply he was a priest in the English midlands, but there’s a theory that he hid his identity to avoid getting into trouble. In our own time, I wonder how many of the people who turn from Christianity to Buddhism are actually just getting in touch with the apophatic strain that’s in both. I remember a conversation with a “radical” theologian who was talking about what Christianity has to learn from Buddhism and found myself thinking that the “Buddhism” he described was sounding rather like another English mystic, Julian of Norwich.

This approach is typically to sit for a while and use something to settle the mind — perhaps a few words, repeated over and over, or observing one’s breath — and let go of thoughts that come along. It often feels like clearing a space for something. In a sense it is waiting, without knowing what one is waiting for.

This can sound like an advanced way of praying, but I remember introducing someone to the idea of a breathing meditation, who began our next conversation saying “I’ve been breathing”. Tongue in cheek, I replied “I’m glad to hear it”. As we both laughed, it struck me that this is a method of prayer available from our first breath to our last — but we don’t always notice.

But I’ve also known a surprising number of people for whom this is their default method of prayer and whose experience has been marked by sexual trauma. These are people for whom the analogy of prayer and a close personal relationship, as if with another human being, is not so straightforward, and another way has come along. That’s a reminder for all of us that there are more ways than we are used to.

The burning bush (Exodus 3) almost a Reformed emblem. It’s over the gate at Westminster College and on the Church of Scotland’s logo. It’s a story of Moses being taken by surprise — or confronted by God in a way he’d not expected. But it too is a story starting in emptiness — the emptiness of the desert. It makes sense if it’s told backwards — from the perspective of us knowing the story — but the bit what is easily missed is the surprise of Moses in a remote place of emptiness.

In retreat-giving I’ve had a surprising number of experiences of working with people from a Reformed background whose first reaction to this approach to prayer is anxiety — but who then take to it like a duck to water. It’s as if the wordless place is a complement to the wordy one, or the place of waiting is the complement of the place of achieving.

There’s a richness in praying that is about simply attending.