Saturday, May 23, 2009

prayer practice

The more I write, the more I shall have to write, and, consequently, the more your Worships read, the more your Worships shall have to read. Will this be good for your Worships’ eyes?

-- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy


As I presented a case that had gotten too close for comfort, somebody asked if I have a prayer life. I first said no. I don’t regularly sit, or stand, or kneel someplace, eyes closed, hands folded, and petition the Lord. That’s what I imagined she meant, and my answer to that question could only be no.

My father, a liberal Protestant minister, did not model prayer. I never saw him on his knees, or with his hands folded. I never heard him give a hard problem to God. He fixed his eyes on a salvation that would come among us, in the world outside the parsonage. If we could save the world from its institutional sin, the personal sins would wash. That’s classic liberal soteriology.

I’m a Unitarian now, and Unitarians are a stiff-necked people. We’ve seen too much bowing to idols, most of whom have human faces and sing cantatas to their own good grace. Idols are worshipped at many altars, and it puts us off our prayer. Then we forget the reason why idolatry is foul; it’s foul because it’s an imposture, the unworthy taking place of what is worthy. We only learn what’s phony when the real breaks in against it; we cannot recognize idolatry until we know that something has been idolized. The something worthy of our lives, not to be commodified, is what our necks should bend to. We join hands and sing that we shall not be fooled, but there’s a folly in suspicion, a special danger in that stiffness of the neck: when the real shows up, you’re out of practice. Marian Anderson used to sing “Little children, get on board!” If you wait too long, the train will leave without you.

So no, I don’t have what some would call a prayer life, and my colleagues thought that I should get one. The case had come too close to me. I should have given it to God. And then I said, But wait! I write!

Some years before this project, my teachers taught me to reflect each week. Two pages tops. So I would write someone’s epigram at the top of the page like scripture (or a burning bush), and start to argue with it (as Moses did). The voices would come from somewhere, and I would write them down.

I didn’t know, when I opened the closet door, what would come out. Or what commotion it would make. Or what furniture it would knock over. Or how, in the end, it would adhere to the page. What I did know (after six decades of perfectionism) was that I must give it a long leash, because it was a holy terror, and if I tried to hold it close one of us would die.

No no, said my colleagues, a practice of writing is not a practice of prayer, that’s not what we’re talking about. Sitting at your keyboard and inputting words is not the act of reverence that you need. You need a discipline of surrender and submission.

I didn’t think that they were right. And I didn’t think that I was wrong. Now I know why they so mistook me, why they thought I was holding on exactly when I was letting go.

There are some experiences that can’t be explained to those who haven’t had them. I can’t explain to someone who is not a performer (and I can’t explain it even to some performers) that the act of standing on a stage is not about myself but about everything else. A writer can’t explain to those who are not writers that writing is leaping off a cliff.

Everyone in my social location knows how to write things, but writing feels differently according to whether it is its own purpose or a means to something else. If you use writing for some other purpose, then writing is a struggle to master language and make it mean something; but if your writing is its own purpose, then writing is submission to powers that, when they declare themselves, cannot be understood.

I found that when I opened the closet door, the beast would come out. Sometimes purring, sometimes ravening, for what, I could not tell – not until I had transcribed the notes. I knew the pitches and the phrasing, the tempo and dynamics, how many words there were before the comma, what consonants and vowel sounds were in the words, before the words appeared. And so, by the light of his eyes, the beast would teach me what I meant to say.

This paper – note the metaphor! though you see my words in a technological conceit that looks a bit like parchment – was trodden by my visitor and bears his prints. I’ve filled in the blanks, turned on a lamp or two, but not too much I hope, for Blake knew the Tyger burns brightest in the dark.

If you can still see the Tyger, I don’t care if some of the furniture got ruined. Writing ain’t for sissies.

The visitor helps me to stay sane. If that’s what I am. He’s still behind the door. I can hear him.

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