*The exact date of this speech is unknown.
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Good evening to all of you. It is a great honor to be speaking to each of you. Before I begin perhaps I should give you some idea of why I was asked to talk about prayer. Mind you, no one has real credentials for talking about prayer since prayer is a gift given by grace, not merely a learned thing. But at the same time there is such a thing as experience. My experience with prayer has been that of holding a meditation and study group in my home since 1974 on a weekly basis and that of being the leader of Calvary’s Intercessory Prayer Group since its beginning in 1983.
I’m not going to talk about prayer right away because when one talks about prayer or one talks about one’s self—that is, the prayer—one is moving in murky waters. Who are we, that we can pray? How do we pray? Is there anyone here that knows that she is completely without sin or blemish of any kind and, therefore, able to pray perfectly? I thought not. We are all sinners; not that we ravage, pillage, slay, or mutilate but only that we generally do the best we can under adverse circumstances in an often unfriendly world with mixed results.
However, there is part of us with which we simply have to get in touch, and this is the part that has room for the gift of prayer as well as all the other gifts that have been given to us. It is our very birthright as Christians, and it begins with doubt.
Let me share a little of myself with you, for it was only recently that I discovered the real nature of doubt, faith, and spiritual growth. I cannot remember a time when I was so young that I did not believe in Jesus. It didn’t seem to be a function of my parents’ guidance or any teaching whatsoever. It was an instinct with me. I saw the world as a holy place. I hugged trees and talked to animals. I was, in general, a pretty strange kid. My religious feelings became more and more intense as I approached high school, and I almost felt that I had to leave the church because I had run into my first doubt, and that was the doubt as to whether or not the Virgin Birth actually took place. I bought the birth, but I didn’t buy the Virgin Birth. Technically, I had been a heathen for about two months, but then, at the age of two months, I was christened and I have been in the Episcopal Church ever since. When I was 14, however, in a particularly fervid phase of religious feeling I thought that perhaps I should leave the church because I couldn’t say the creed in total faith.
It was very fortunate for me that a man named Bishop Marmion was having an inquirer’s class at a church camp to which I went as a youth. Often I was the only one who showed up, and we would have far-ranging and inspiring talks. One evening I asked him if he thought I should leave the church because one of the main articles of faith in my religion was subject to my doubt, and that was the Virgin Birth. He twinkled his eyes at me and said, “You know, I have trouble with that one too.”
I was really astonished because here was a bishop that had the same doubt that I did. I asked him how he could say the creed himself while doubting and he said to me that he did this in hope. Hope, as you know from your Bible reading, is defined as a faith in things unseen. I cannot tell you how much that simple answer helped me and has continued to help me through the years because I have been a believing doubter ever since. I still don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, but I can say the creed in hope.
However, there was in my life for many years a serious misconception in my mind about the way other people believed and doubted. I thought that everyone had the same feeling that I did, that they could feel Jesus’ hand in their own and that they walked every step with the Counselor, the Comforter, the Nurturer; that is, the Holy Spirit. It was in that context that I doubted.
Something happened to me these last couple of years that has caused me to join the human race, really. A very difficult thing happened to me last year. My best friend for the last 16 years, who had aided me by giving me an apartment in his home so that my Social Security check would stretch a little further, killed himself, and all of the sudden, as I reached out madly and wildly, Jesus’ hand was no longer to be found. I had shut myself away from Him by the severe trauma of this happening. I could not find God in that situation, and I am still slowly and painfully regaining the gift of faith. I don’t know how much longer it will take for me to be with Jesus all the time. I expect it will be quite some time. However, I have found immense satisfaction in knowing that even though I cannot always feel God’s presence I still can serve Him, and this has kept me going through thick and thin.
I think it’s safe to say that we all doubt many things about our Christian belief. Again, is there anyone here who has absolutely no doubt about portions of the Creator, the catechism, or tenets of our church? Whether it is the Virgin Birth or transubstantiation, or simply questioning the rightness of one’s being under the authority of a priest rather than being free to talk to Jesus alone, we all have some doubts about the church.
Let’s talk about doubt for a while. If you can remember, back in junior high where the teacher of geometry drew one plane horizontally and then another dissecting it vertically. One was the “x plane”—that was the horizontal plane—and the “y plane” was the vertical plane. Many doubts in our lives have to do with things that mean absolutely nothing, spiritually speaking. When one says, “I wonder if the Cubs are going to win the pennant this year?” and the answer is, “I doubt it,” one has not become better or worse by that statement. One is only offering an opinion. When you run very low on peanut butter and your child asks you for a sandwich and you say, “I doubt that I can make you one because we don’t have enough peanut butter,” again there is really no emotional emphasis on that “I doubt.” We all doubt constantly and logically. We go through our lives doubting because we see around us, as we get older, that many dreams do not come true, that the world is a rather impersonal place, and that some things just don’t seem to be do-able. OK. That is the horizontal plane of living, and the work on that plane has no effect whatsoever on your spiritual life, unless you are saying “I doubt it” when you should be saying, “I hope so.”
The way that you can tell you are saying “I doubt it” when you should be saying “I hope so” is by the feeling that you have after you have said “I doubt it.” If you feel an inner unease about what you have just said it is more likely you have taken a seemingly harmless earthly doubt that has its roots in a lack of faith, and allowed the doubt to reign over that hope that is the beginning of faith, and that is a kind of doubt that I would like to talk about. That is the kind of doubt that is best expressed by the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” When one comes to a point in one’s life when the choice is between doubt and, therefore, inaction, or hope and, therefore, an action well-thought out and carefully taken, that point is the point at which we either move downwards or upwards on the “y-scale”, or the spiritual scale.
Let me talk a little bit about the “y-scale”, the up and down scale. We have all heard of magic and mostly we think of it as prestidigitation, pulling bunnies out of a hat. Although magic is one of the things that we doubt, there is a real magic in our lives. We have all experienced it. Some people call it “a mountaintop experience.” Whatever it is called, there are magic moments in everyone’s life: first love, that sort of thing, times when joy is so transcendent that absolutely nothing could bring you down. At those few moments you are very, very close to Christ and I believe that the object of the study or practice of prayer is to seat one’s consciousness further and further up on the “y-axis” or the spiritual scale of service to God, to Christ, and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to other people. Most of us have trouble wrenching ourselves away from dead zero. The problem is very simple: doing a good thing and then turning around to do a lesser good thing, and then doing another good thing, and then doing a very bad thing, and so forth. We are rocking back and forth, up and down on that axis. We go through our lives plodding along on the “x-axis” of experience, up and down hill.
A good example of this was given by a visiting priest whose charismatic sermons were most inspiring. He told the story of a woman who came to him after a service of Morning Prayer. If you will recall before the 1928 Prayer Books were revised, there was a point in the service where we described ourselves as “wretches.” She was beautifully coiffed and well-groomed with a lovely dress and came up to him and said, “I don’t care what you say, I am not a wretch.” The minister raised an eyebrow and said, “Where is your husband? I’d like to talk to him and get a second opinion on that.”
So magic has to do with polarizing, if you will, further and further upwards on Jacob’s Ladder, on the “y-axis”, towards more and more service to others, more and more gratitude, and more and more realistic awareness of the magic of each moment. If I asked any one of you if you thought that you could do that, the answer of course, would be, “I doubt it.” This really isn’t so. Grace is often given us subjectively. It may well not be apparent to other people, but we know within ourselves when we have been given grace by something from within ourselves to feel something about a relationship or experience.
Look at the story of Doubting Thomas. He had to put his hands in the wounds. He had to see the nail marks in Jesus’s hands, and then he believed. Jesus did not belittle Thomas because he doubted and then believed. He just said, “Even more blessed are they that, having not seen, yet, still believe”.
Every once in a while we get a little glimpse of the possibilities of a living, vital, spiritual life not from week to week but from moment to moment, and this is a miracle when this occurs to us. There is nothing in our human nature which forces us to strive upward. The human nature is for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, comfort, position, security, power. We love our husbands; we love our kids; we love our grandchildren (for those two or three of you who are old enough to have grandchildren).
And most of all, we try to love ourselves. We know ourselves so well that very often we are hard on ourselves. And so spiritual doubt comes very easily to us, yet our very humanity that only doubts along the “x-axis” of day-to-day living has very deep within it an incredible yearning toward faith. Men and women instinctively realize that there is a presence greater than they are, and that that presence has some control over their lives. It cannot be manipulated because it cannot be seen. Oh, you can look up at a sky full of stars or the beautiful autumnal color in the trees, but you cannot do anything about that. That is the way things are. You didn’t do it. You didn’t have a thing to do with it. In a way it makes one feel rather dispossessed to realize that all we really can do, on God’s beautiful Earth, is pave it over, build dwelling places on it, shove it around, and make piles of bombs to use in case we get irritated enough at the other fellow. Life is full of these disquieting uncertainties. But these uncertainties always bring us back to one central thought, “Why is this happening? What is the truth of what is happening? How can I be myself and be in the situation in which I am so that I can best be an apostle of Christ?”
As I said, the answer to this question comes very seldom, but when a sign does come, it is almost like a two-by-four hitting you on the forehead. I remember one instance when a man to whom I was giving meditation lessons came over for his lesson. He was most anxious about a parka that he had lent his ex-wife. He was unable to find it and was, therefore, quite chilly, it being winter at the time. He and I sat in meditation and I opened my heart to whatever the Spirit wanted me to say, I got a little talk about cocoons and butterflies and the transformative power of the Spirit. My living room at the time was about 34 feet long and about 20 feet wide. Nevertheless, when we opened our eyes from meditation we saw a wooly worm, you know, one of those little caterpillars that turns brown and black and you try to predict what kind of winter is coming from the amount of black on them, I had come quite far into the house, almost to where he was sitting. The wooly worm should have been wrapped up in his cocoon, but there he was. Leonard sighted the wooly worm and exclaimed about it since the message of the meditation had been about the stages from larva to pupa to butterfly in that transformation of the Spirit. As he sighted along the path that the wooly worm had obviously taken, his eye fell upon his winter coat, all neatly wrapped up in its carrying case. I don’t know how it got there. Perhaps it had been dropped off when I wasn’t home—I don’t know. It was not my message. It was Leonard’s message. But things like that happen to people who are seeking to know the truth about themselves and their relation to God.
Okay, we have established that we are all sinners, that we all doubt, and that doubting is okay. And I would like to emphasize that. Doubt is more than okay. Doubt is creative. Show me a person who has gone through life without ever having his faith tested and I will show you an innocent, perhaps a lovely and charming innocent, but an innocent who does not know what it is to suffer or to grow. Everything that we do along the “x-axis” is part of our humanity to begin with. As humans, we are given a body, we are given a mind and intellect; we are given emotions; and we are given some spiritual craving. What we make of that has to do as much with our humanity as with our spirituality. We don’t all have the same problems. Some people have outstandingly difficult problems. Other people manage to slide through, for a while fairly easily. But, you see, those human problems, those human doubts, those human anxieties and fears are normal. They are the normal situation in this world. This world is not God’s kingdom as the Lord’s prayer says: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”. There is a very strong hint there that the Earth is far away from heaven. Now later on in that same prayer there are many hints and, indeed, firm resolve that the heaven that is so far from us in an outer way is equally within us in an inward way. What we have problems doing as human beings is getting in touch with our inner selves in such a way that we can quiet the humanity in us and begin to listen for that still, small voice that speaks in silence. In some ways, it is a difficult concept to perceive; that is, that we have an inner life that goes on sometimes independently of and always in addition to our outer life. And in that inner life we must see, one way or another, that that creative principle which feeds the inner life, which we call God, has given us everything, has given us relationships that are important to us, beauty in all the nature around us, the opportunity to express and feel joy and happiness, in short, has given us reasons to live.
The principle which we call Satan is that on Earth which tends to offer us reasons to be bitter. And, insofar as we are bitter, we have lost our liveliness and we find ourselves feeling very dead. So God’s love is not abstract but specific and personal. He doesn’t give certain rations to everyone. He is aware of our uniqueness and He gives according to our needs and our desires.
If you can buy that, then our gift to Him is on the inner plane as well as on the outer plane. In fact, it is mainly on the inner plane that we wish to give Him good gifts. And inner plane gifts of a personal nature to the Creator are those of prayer and meditation. We doubt, and yet in our doubting there is the instinctive turning, if we allow it to happen, towards that hope that there may be faith in our lives. I think “just as I am” is a very good phrase as we turn inward and still ourselves for prayer, because that is whom we are bringing for God to lift up to Himself. That is the person who is asking for grace: us, “just as we are.” I don’t think that there is a person in the room that feels that she doesn’t stand in the need of prayer, as the song goes. And as the prayer at the beginning states we know that God is ever more ready to forgive us than we are to pray.
But how long must we patiently wait and keep our prayer lamp lit, in that dark night of doubting? We all have, as time goes by, Dark Nights of the Soul, times when there doesn’t seem to be any hope. There is nothing in which we can believe when events have so shattered us that we are not, to our own feeling, whole people, but rather cast adrift in a midnight ocean surrounded by dense fog and left totally solitary.
You recall in the Bible the quotation from Paul, who says, “You show me your faith without works, and I by my works shall show you my faith.” Sometimes, when we are the farthest from feeling faith, we can, by acting as if we had faith—in other words, by acting in hope—keep ourselves on an even keel and open to the gift of grace. It is for that reason that I would encourage any of you who are here because of a feeling of duty to feel satisfied with that. There are many questions in many people’s minds not only about the church itself but about the role of women within the church. We, who are here, are still attempting to work within a framework which divides people into men and women. We are here because we have the feeling that as women we have something to give the church. It is my profound belief that we do. Our life styles are different than most men’s. Our instincts are in many ways, extremely different. Our inner lives and our imaginations tend to be more abundant and more fruitful because of the way that we have been brought up.
These gifts need an outlet and I think the Episcopal Church Women is a good outlet. I think that we should probably address the question of what goals we should target in the short run and in the long run, and I think that the only way that this will be accomplished is through the use of prayer. Because in and of ourselves, from the head, all we do is get tangled in philosophical discussion after philosophical discussion which tells us nothing new and in many ways causes far more confusion and dissension than the feeling of peace, grace, and unity which characterizes a spiritually-gained feeling or intuition. I would even spread this back into the general line of thought and say that far beyond the problems and challenges of the ECW are the challenges in general of life itself. We cannot, through analytical thinking, govern or steer ourselves through life, and expect that life to be creative, or bountiful, or fruitful, or happy. Unfortunately, our minds, left to themselves, create complications without fruit in many cases. I’m not saying that there are not many things that the analytical mind is not extremely helpful in solving. We can balance our checking accounts. We can make hard decisions and stick to them about anything from dieting to going back to school as an older woman to deep decisions about relations, all on our own analysis. But our inner joy and peace, while we are doing these things, does not come from ourselves, but comes through us, and we must ask for that help, for that comfort, for that redemption, and we must ask it from the Creator to whom we can give thanks but whom we cannot identify or analytically pin down in any way, shape, or form.
What I am trying to focus on here is who we are, and whence springs faith because it is only in faith or in hope that we can pray, and it is only in prayer that we will find our lives to be abundant. Remember that we are dealing with a mystery. God is a mystery of joyful victory. He allows us to be in the world but not of it. When we are in the world only, our hearts will be broken and our lives will be shaken over and over again. When we allow ourselves to hope in the midst of all the doubts that we have, we find that grace begins to ease our minds and our troubled hearts, to ease situations and take the sting out of personal relationships that have been troubling us.
Perhaps our pasts do the most harm to us intellectually. We look back at things that we should have done but didn’t and at things that we should not have done but did, and even though we have confessed those things and been absolved, still we hark back to the past and our minds travel, not forward, but backward in time, and we spend a lot of time feeling very bad and guilty about actions or inactions that we have taken in the past. A fellow named Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back because something might be gaining on you.” In his own way he had hold of a very profound truth.
I think it is normal for people to look back and wish they had done something differently and to think about the future with anxiety. Please always realize that I am not trying to put pressure on you to be something that you are not. Remember, in Genesis, the 18th Chapter, when Lot is pleading for the city of Sodom to be saved. He finally brings it down to pleading with the Lord. If he can just find ten honest men in the city, can the city be spared? God says yes. We have that much within ourselves. In the great city of our many thoughts and actions we have ten righteous “men,” ten righteous thoughts and actions. We have that little bit within us, even if we are behaving perfectly wretchedly for some reason, and, therefore, we have got the promise that He will come to us and not destroy us.
Again, in the fifth chapter of Mark we find the woman who has been ill for twelve years and who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. He feels healing power moving from him and asks who it is that wishes healing. The woman confesses that it is she who has asked for healing and that she is indeed healed. And Jesus says to her, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
Remember that the interplay of faith and doubt is organic. In order to have faith grow, doubt must be there. When Jesus came walking to His disciples upon the water as it is told in the eighth chapter of Matthew, the disciples were in a perfect frenzy of doubt and fear because a storm was coming up and they were in a small boat, and here comes Jesus walking across the water calming the storm. That’s enough for any Doubting Thomas, you would think, but when Peter asked if he could walk across the water with Jesus, Jesus invited him to, but Peter doubted if he could. Therefore, he sank. It is very likely that the Red Sea would never have parted if someone had not taken the first step into it. It is that great leap of faith that may seem like a small step but is always an enormous challenge for us.
In that respect, I remember something else that Bishop Marmion told me. He said, “Never, never leave the church, because only in the church can you find people to talk to about your problems within your spiritual life. People outside the church are not nearly so likely to be able to help.” I have found that to be profound, enlightening, and true.
I’d like you to pretend for a moment that you have a mustard seed in your hand. Now we have all heard the parable about faith being like a mustard seed, but let’s make it real. I have never seen a mustard tree. I don’t think that they grow in this climate. In Madagascar, perhaps. That sounds right. But then let us take the homely acorn. In and of itself it is tiny. However, if nourishment is given to it at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way it will grow and flower and give fruit and for many decades and even centuries will be a memorial to faith. Now in the case of the mustard seed or any seed the faith is implicit in the being. The seed is not thinking; it just is. So it is with us. We come into this world as seeds, but we are conscious. And that means that we are responsible for our own fruit, our own harvest. We will grow up all right. We will bloom. We will flower. But what is the fruit? We have been given free will for one simple reason and that is that we are made in the likeness and image of God and we have access because of this same formative strength and grace which is omnipresent in the concept of God. I don’t want to step on anyone’s private theology too much, but there is a secret to faith. And that is summed up in the faithful farmer that sows his seeds in good years and bad and does the best that he can or as Hymn 600 reads, “Take what He gives and praise Him still through good or ill”.
Through good or ill. If we are searching for faith, if we are hoping for it, our lives must be the caretaking and constant rekindling of the faculty of hope and behind that faculty of hope is something called the will. If we will to live, to laugh, to share, and to love there is little doubt that we will be able to do it. And it is in this atmosphere that prayer has meaning.
This may have seemed to be a ride around Robin Hood’s barn in talking about prayer. But you are the one who will pray, and if I do not define you, the prayer, as a person who quite naturally doubts and who is freely given the gift of faith if asking is done, then I do not have the ability to talk to a substantial, concrete person about something called prayer. Prayer does not come out of a void. There is the person that prays as well as the God that is prayed to. Tomorrow morning those of us who doubt, yet will to learn, who find a little faith and then more faith, and continue the cycle of doubt, faith, and growth, will talk about prayer itself, its various kinds, and the various ways that prayer groups can get together in your own parishes. Thank you. Let us stand and close with the Lord’s Prayer.