A New Language of Prayer
"We are going to have to create a new language of prayer. And this new language of prayer has to come out of something which transcends all our traditions, and comes out of the immediacy of love."
I love the word "radical." It speaks to me of a kind of dramatic force that overcomes resistance with its sheer audacity and undeniable truth. Not surprisingly, I am attracted to the idea of radical prayer, prayer so powerful that I am fundamentally changed by it. Heaven knows that kind of radical grace is the only way real change in me is going to happen. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that true prayer is subversive, overturning our limited sense of ourselves and transforming us into partners with God's vision for the world. That kind of prayer speaks deeply to me.
What is the language of radical prayer? When Thomas Merton wrote about a new language of prayer, I do not think he meant something the world had never heard before. In fact, I think the language of prayer he points to is quite old. A clue to what Merton may have meant can be found in the words he wrote in a letter to Heschel, where he spoke about his "latent ambition to be a true Jew underneath his Catholic skin." The kind of conversion that Merton suggests was not one of religion; Merton's Catholicism was not in jeopardy. What I hear in those words is a desire for a conversion of heart such that each tradition could hear the deeper language of prayer they already share.
Our shared prayer language is the language of compassion. It is, to me, the true language of God. As Heschel wrote: "Who is God to you? There is only one answer that survives all the theories which we carry to the grave. He is full of compassion." Compassion is a dialogue of trust in our shared humanity, and in God's unifying presence.
The language of compassion is quite radical. It asks nothing less of us than a total conversion to God, to a unified vision of life. This is what I hear in Merton's words: "Love is my true identify, Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my true name." It is echoed in the words of Heschel, who called prayer "an invitation to God to intervene in our lives, to let His will prevail in our affairs; it is the opening of a window to Him in our will, an effort to make him the Lord of our soul."
We can see in the lives of Heschel and Merton how radical prayer was for them. It made them, as scholar Shaul Maggid put it, "heretics of modernity." Deeply committed to their religions, they challenged those traditions to address where adherence to tradition without heart had led to callousness, shallowness or hypocrisy. Critical of modern life and its temptations, they were also appreciative of all its potential.
The language of radical prayer moved Heschel out of his study and into the march for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. It moved Merton to speak out against war and intolerance and, as a consequence, experience the censorship of his community. Radical prayer puts us at odds with whatever is complacent in us or society. Radical prayer is radical trust in a vision of a world overturned by reverence.
Heschel and Merton taught that there is only one way to develop this radical language of prayer: in silence. As Heschel wrote: "Our awareness of God is a syntax of silence, in which our souls mingle with the divine, in which the ineffable in us communes with the ineffable beyond us." In silence we find a way to touch the wellspring of compassion, the words that God speaks in us. In silence, we find the courage to speak these words in the ways we act in the world. Silence teaches us how to speak (H Nouwen).
Today we are struggling with the challenges of pluralism. We do not all believe the same way, look the same way, live the same way. As I watch and listen to events that increasingly polarize and divide us, I hear echoes of the past. As a Jew I am well aware of the ways fear can turn the heart of a whole nation to stone so that it can no longer feel a shared humanity. More and more I am convinced that the only thing that speaks to these times is radical prayer, radical compassion.
Radical prayer, as Merton tells us, "requires not talent, not mere insight, but sorrow pouring itself out in love and trust." The challenge and possibilities of this prayer fills me with "the fear of God." It is at once too big for me to imagine and something I can not turn away from. But slowly, breath by breath in the silence, I can feel my heart softening, strengthening, learning this new language of prayer. May we all take a deep breath, quiet our fears and begin to teach our hearts to speak.
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