The ten thousand things depend upon it and it denies none of them. It accomplishes its task yet claims no reward.
-- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 34
“Pray without ceasing,” said the apostle (I Th 5:17), but this confuses me. If I prayed without ceasing, then there would be no time when I do not pray. This is not what most people understand by prayer. I wouldn’t get much else done.
Maybe the apostle thought it was okay if nothing much got done. He thought the end was coming. No kidding. Soon. Like a thief in the night. You couldn’t lay up treasures here and now, not even spiritual ones, because the here and the now would soon be gone. But the end was delayed and, to our great disappointment, time goes on. We learn that we must care how things come out. Like it or not we are stewards, because the world will outlive us and we must leave it in a tolerable state for those who follow, a few of whom at least we love. We have stuff to do.
When a family says, “Before you go, would you pray with us?” – it’s clear that up till now I haven’t prayed. But then, I didn’t mean to. Prayer is not a thing to be pushed on people. I’m only supposed to do it on request. Until that request comes, I’m supposed to be doing something else.
My life is mostly something else.
So don’t tell me I must rise at the third hour to pray, I have responsibilities. Ten thousand other things to do. And I have a problem with authority. I’m Unitarian. I don’t even recognize my own authority.
I don’t pray without ceasing. I don’t have a discipline of prayer, though I am brought to it by others. I pray if I’m asked. The people who ask for it – they discipline me. Is that good enough?
Good enough for whom?
If my colleague thinks I should have a practice, he means that I need a regular prompt, like a muezzin’s call, to halt the day’s stammer. What I give on request to others, I should give to myself.
Ten thousand things. I won’t do them all. I won’t do most of them. I choose what to do, and the other things – they just won’t be done right now. If I can choose, leaving the other things to providence, isn’t that what we’re talking about? The giving up of things. I am not equal to the ten thousand, but they call to me nevertheless. A mist of obligation rises, all the things I ought to do, in so many different ways, for so many people, from so many points of view. It’s not so much my vices as my virtues that seduce me. My passion to please. My desire to comply. I would pass all tests, meet all expectations. I’ve auditioned for the role of Great Exception.
The Tao is the pin that punctures the balloon of my grandiosity. Lord, help me choose, because I am not equal to it all, it’s far too much. There’s something here for me but only if I discern it. If it finds me.
I used to say I didn’t want to go on stage with any nice guys. The only good comrade is the one who chooses without guilt, plays without mercy, and does with killer instinct what is to be done. Making the invisible visible is rough business. To think of what you ought to do is a mystification and a temporizing betrayal. The world doesn’t watch temporizers. Holding one’s moistened finger to the wind is not the way of faith. The mountain never moves by dithering. Only if we do the work and nothing else can we help each other.
Lord, it’s too much for me. Help me own my inadequacy. Close the doors of fantasy. Open the eyes of my eyes. Mark me for discernment. The thing that is for me to do, if I do it, is my glory.
Discernment is a via negativa. There’s cruelty in it. To know what you are doing is to know the things you are not doing. All nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine of them.
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