Praying The Great Dance

Image source and accompanying article here

In this extract from an article titled "Praying The Great Dance" at the excellent site Gratefulness .org, Benedictine Brother David Steindl Rast distinguishes formal from informal prayer and identifies three attitudes of praying informally.

 "Informal prayerfulness is the rich, black humus in which formal prayers 
  grow. We cannot separate (formal) prayers from (informal) prayer. 

We must, however, distinguish between the two and focus for a moment on prayer as an inner attitude rather than an external form of praying. 

When I do this, I find myself gliding in and out of three attitudes of praying so different from one another that I think of them as altogether different worlds of prayer.

The First Inner World - Word

My key to the first of those inner worlds I call Word. By this I don’t mean any particular word or words but rather the discovery that any thing, any person, any situation is a word addressed to me by God. 

Not that I always catch onto the message, but I know I will get it if I listen deeply with the ears of my heart. St. Benedict calls this deep, willing listening “obedience.” We often think of obedience as compliance with a command. But this would make God some sort of exalted drill sergeant. In my experience, most of the time, God doesn’t command. Rather, God sings; and I sing back.

The singing I mean can be as jubilant as the red of God-made tomatoes; as a soaring of a kite or the splashing of children in a pool and my heart’s joyous response to this. 
But God’s singing can also be as heavy as the fragrance of lilies in a funeral home, heavy as the news of a friend’s grief; light as harpsichord music or a spring outing; sad as the howling of a night train, sad as the evening news; it can be cheerful, enchanting, challenging, amusing. In everything we experience we can hear God singing, if we listen attentively.

Our heart is a highly sensitive receiver; it can listen through all our senses. Whatever we hear, but also whatever we see, taste, touch, or smell, vibrates deep down with God’s song. To resonate with this song in gratefulness is what I call singing back. This attitude of prayer has given great joy to all my senses and to my heart.

The Second Inner World - Silence

A completely different inner world of prayer where I also feel at home is one to which silence opens the door – silence, not only as perceived by the ears, but also a quietness of the heart, a lucid stillness inside, like the stillness of a windless midwinter day; brilliant with sunlight on virgin snow, the kind of day I remember from my childhood in the Austrian Alps. 

Or it’s like the silence between a lightning flash and the thunder crash that follows, the moment in which you hold your breath. 
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On an island in Maine I once found tidal pools on the granite shore with water so still and clear I could see the fine fibrils of sea anemones on the bottom, waving like festive streamers.  Still more limpid is the inner space to which silence is the key.  I don’t always find that key, but when I do, I simply enter. Just to be there is prayer.

The Third Inner World- Loving Action

To a third inner world, action is the key, loving action. There surely is a world of difference between the prayer of action and that of silence or word.  Here it is not by listening and responding, not by diving down into silence, but by acting, by doing that I communicate with God. Whatever I can do lovingly can become prayer of action.

Nor is it necessary that I explicitly think of God while working or playing. Sometimes this would hardly be possible. While proofreading a manuscript, I better keep my mind on the text, not on God. If my mind is torn between the two, the typos will slip through like little fish through a torn net. God will be present precisely in the loving attention I give to the work entrusted to me. By giving myself fully and lovingly to that work, I give myself fully to God.  This happens not only in work but also in play, say, in bird-watching or in watching a good movie. 

God must be enjoying it in me, when I am enjoying it in God. Is not this communion the essence of praying?  One of the gifts in my life for which I am most grateful is the way I was taught about the Blessed Trinity. 

Others have told me that, early on, they got the message that God’s Trinity is a mystery we could never fathom, so they draw the conclusion, why bother? When I was told of this mystery, it was always in a tone that invited me to explore it – the task not of a lifetime only but of eternal life, life beyond time. My life of prayer has been just this exploration, and it continues to be so. In fact, in my seventies, I feel I’ve barely begun.

My highest goal in prayer is to enter into that dance through everything I do or think or suffer or say.

As far back as I can remember, I had learned to think of God not as far away but as nearer than near. I must have been four or five when I came racing from the garden into the kitchen, all out of breath, announcing that I had just seen the Holy Spirit writing something up in heaven. I turned out to have been an advertisement for soap powder, written by a plane so high up in the sky that it looked just like the white dove in the fresco of the Blessed Trinity painted on our church ceiling.

 About that same time, shortly before Christmas, when Austrian children wait not for Santa but for the Christ Child to bring them presents, I spied one morning a tiny thread of gold lame on the carpet, and nothing could have convinced me that this was not a golden hair the Christ Child had lost. The chills of awe I felt and the thrill of tender affection are still vivid in my memory.

These childish misapprehensions were nevertheless genuine religious experiences. What was essential to them remains: a sense of God’s nearness.

Not only did it remain, it kept growing wider and deeper. Nearness is too weak a word. From a sermon by our Dominican student chaplain, Father Diego, I soared, ecstatic in the realization that we can know God as triune precisely because we are drawn into the eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

For students in Vienna it is not frivolous to speak of God as dancing. Dancing is serious – not dead-serious, of course, but life-serious. Much later, I learned the Shaker hymn about Christ as “Lord of the Dance.”

Perichoresis. Praying The Great Dance


I also learned that St. Gregory of Nyssa, way back in the fourth century, had spoken of the Circle Dance of the Blessed Trinity; the eternal Son comes forth from the Father and leads us with all of creation in the Holy Spirit back to the Father.

We can speak of this Great Dance also in terms of Word, Silence, and Action:  The Logos, the Word of God, comes forth from God’s unfathomable silence and returns to God, heavy with harvest in the Spirit that inspires loving action. 

This trinitarian perspective helps me understand in ever new ways the “communication with God” that we call prayers – not as a sort of heavenly long-distance call but as the gift of coming ever more alive by sharing in God’s life.

Here I come back once more to formal prayer, to the doxology that traditionally concludes the prayers we begin “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In the concluding doxology, too, we usually connect Father, Son and Spirit by and.  

But I prefer a more ancient version. This more dynamic version suggests our entering into God’s life as we pray to the Father (Mother and Source of all), through the Son (through whom we have communion with God), in the Holy Spirit (that Force which comes from God, is God, and leads all things back to the Source in a great dance).

My highest goal in prayer is to enter into that dance through everything I do or think or suffer or say. 

For that end-without-end I long, whenever I pray: “Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

From The Best Spiritual Writing 1998, edited by Philip Zaleski.
(Dimensions,  Harper San Francisco, 1998) 

As we approach Trinity Sunday, this prayer from Frederick Buechner hits the mark.

"Come unto me. Come unto me, you say. All right then, dear my Lord. I will try in my own absurd way...For who am I? I know only that heel and toe, memory and metatarsal, I am everything that turns, all of a piece, unthinking, at the sound of my name. I am where my feet take me. Come unto me, you say. I, all of me, unknowing and finally unknowable even to myself, turn. 

 O Lord and lover, I come if I can to you down through the litter of any day, through sleeping and waking and eating and saying goodbye and going away and coming back again. Laboring and laden with endless histories heavy on my back."

-Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, 28-29.

This beautiful song by Christopher Grundy gives expression to the rhythmic tidal nature of the pull and push of prayer life, lulling softly against the soundscape of the ocean in the background.
The cyclic nature and the ebb and flow of life remind me of the creative trinitarian power of life, the perichoresis of our life, the Alpha and the Omega of our existence, at the beginning and the end of all our days.

As the moon pulls the ocean
 so my soul is drawn to you
Pull me closer as you circle
I will fall and rise with you
and rise with you

As the tide rocks the beaches
Lifting sand as it rolls through
Lift us up into your dancing
We will rise and dance with you
And dance with you

As the sand shapes the shoreline
Sculpting all the lands anew
We will shape the world you're dreaming
Dancing with the rising moon
The rising moon
The rising moon
The rising moon
The rising moon

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