Tag Archives: Heschel

Our Common Prayer

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the human soul.  We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community of prayer.
It is not safe to pray alone.  Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of community; that public worship is preferable to private worship.  Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other.  To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both….
[The] truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety….Our relationship to [God] is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a devotee of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  One of the most profound thinkers on prayer and spirituality in the last century, perhaps in any century, Heschel always leaves me with a sense of wonder. I took this reading from his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God. He observed that prayer constituted “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

In this reading, Rabbi Heschel suggests that our spiritual lives depend on our common prayer, and our prayers remain somehow incomplete when we restrict ourselves to private prayer. That good rabbi argues that private prayer and prayer actually depend upon each other.  He calls this a spiritual symbiosis; private prayer and prayer in community need each other for either to be able to thrive.

This offers an answer for both those whose prayer life consists merely of attending church on Sunday morning, and for many (if not most) of those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” (In my experience, many of the latter are those who’ve been wounded or hurt by the Church at some point, and have simply decided that their spirituality is safer in private.)

In the final section, Heschel clearly offers a gloss to Martin Buber’s classic work, I and Thou. Rabbi Heschel suggests that the really important relationship is We and Thou. Most of us belong to many communities of faith. We’re members of churches or parishes, prayer groups, study groups, families, religious orders or just people who gather together for prayer, study and accountability.  Each of these support, enhance, complete and inform our private prayer and our spiritual lives.

In one sense, our collective prayer and our private prayer are like the two levers on a pair of pliers.  Neither of them have a great deal of utility alone; together, they combine to achieve their purpose.

We not only enrich each other; we come to depend upon each other.  And somewhere in that process, we discover that these relationships are icons for the relationship which really sustains us: our relationship with the Living God.

Be blessed today, and be a blessing,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Our Prayers

The idea of prayer is based upon the assumption of man’s ability to accost God, to lay our hopes, sorrows and wishes before Him.  But this assumption is not an awareness of a particular ability with which we are endowed.  We do not feel that we possess a magic power of speaking to the Infinite; we merely witness the wonder of prayer, the wonder of man addressing Himself to the Eternal.  Contact with Him is not our achievement.  It is a gift, coming down from on high like a meteor, rather than rising up like a rocket.  Before the words of prayer come to the lips, the mind must believe in God’s willingness to draw near to us, and in our ability to clear the path for His approach.  Such belief is the idea that leads us toward prayer. 

–Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God.

If you have been following this blog for very long, you know that I respect, admire and often refer to Rabbi A.J. Heschel.  I consider him one of the most profound spiritual thinkers and writers of the last century.  His thoughts are particularly compelling on the subject of prayer.

Too often, we think of prayer as something we initiate.  Rabbi Heschel suggests that, to the contrary, God continually invites us to partake in prayer with Him.  Sometimes we respond to that invitation; more often we do not.  As the Prayer Book observes, God remains “always more ready to hear than we to pray.”

We cannot list prayer as one of our achievements.  We answer the call to pray through grace; our prayer itself constitutes a gift from God.  We are not the Source of prayer, we merely respond to that Source.  Somehow, we have been given the audacity to address the Infinite.  We bring before the Eternal all our hopes and fears, our failures and our triumphs, our sorrows and our joys.

As Rabbi Heschel notes, our faith that God wants to share these things provides the conduit for prayer.  The bedrock of prayer lies in the bold presumption that the Almighty wants to draw us within Himself, to share in our lives so that we might share in His dreams for this world. Here, we encounter the great mystery of prayer.   In that single act of courage, we begin to clear a space for God’s entry into our lives.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Season For Everything

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;  a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.  Eccles. 3:1-15.

Today’s reading  from the Daily Office is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes.  We don’t know much about the writer of this book, who is generally referred to as Qoheleth, often translated as The Preacher or The Teacher.  Although the early Church attributed these writings to King Solomon, The Teacher probably lived much later, about 200-300 years before Jesus.

In the first section of the poem, The Teacher offers 14 pairs of events and their antipodes (keeping and throwing away, killing and healing, seeking and losing), which seem to offer a vision of a sort of balance within the universe.  Throughout the ancient world, the belief in specific, appropriate times ran very deep.  They looked for the right time to plant, to harvest, to build a house, or to begin a battle.  

Aligning one’s actions with divinely set times offered the best chance for success.  In a way, Jesus himself seems to have echoed this notion, having on one occasion told his mother “My hour has not yet come.”  John 2:4; see John 7:6. .  Later, in the Upper Room with the disciples, he said, “Father, the hour has come.”  John 17:1.  At a minimum, Jesus had a keen sense of divine time, and of working within God’s chronology.

The Teacher suggests that both within our lives, and within time itself, creation moves toward a kind of equilibrium.  The teacher also struggled, as many of us do, with questions about the real point of our existence, about the meaning of our sorrows and our joys.  Throughout all the seasons of our lives, God remains the only constant, and God alone remains sovereign.  Jesus announced that quite clearly when He told us, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near ….”  Mark 1:15.  (Interestingly, these are the very first words the Savior speaks in Mark’s Gospel.) 

Although we struggle and strive, our efforts are mere vanities, as though we were “chasing after the wind.”  Eccles. 4: 16. None of our efforts will add to or subtract from God’s work.  As Rabbi Heschel taught, we will not be able to locate the meaning of our lives abstracted or apart from God.  As the Teacher observed, most of our work, and almost of all of the things we worry about, will pass away.  He tells us, however, that “whatever God does endures forever.”  Because we know that God loves us, we know that His love for us therefore will live forever.  In that, we find the good news, the Gospel.

May we feel that love today and throughout our time,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Standing in Awe of Him

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us,*
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth,*
your saving health among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,*
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has brought forth her increase;*
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7 May God give us his blessing,*
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him. Ps. 67.

We find Psalm 67 in the Daily Office for this morning.  The idea of a blessing provides the principle theme for this psalm, one of the great songs of the people of God.  In the opening verse, the psalmist prays for the blessing of the light of God’s presence.

We see the movement of asking for a blessing in the idea of God revealing Himself (“show us the light of your countenance”) and asking the Lord to make Himself known.  The psalmist, however, seeks not only that God’s gifts be apparent to the people of Israel, but also throughout the world.  He prays “let all the peoples praise you” to “all the ends of the earth”.  We hear the echo of the book of Genesis, in which God told Abram, “‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” Gen 12:2-3.

While the psalm celebrates the prior gifts of God (a good harvest), it calls for God’s blessings throughout the world.  It strikes me that the psalmist really prays for an awareness of God’s presence throughout all creation.  The psalm asks for the light of God’s presence.  I’m struck by the idea that we never actually see “light”; rather we see all things because of the light.  The light which flows from God’s presence, therefore, enables us to see the grace of our blessings.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I believe in God’s grace “as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

When we do become aware of God’s presence in and movement through the world, the psalmist describes our appropriate response:  “may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.”  I believe we have been conditioned to avoid experiencing awe.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a big fan of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He said, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.”  Many of us have become indifferent to God’s presence in and blessings of this world.

We are like guests at a banquet, who have stuffed ourselves and gorged upon the feast for so long that we’ve forgotten how to savor the food.  God’s presence surrounds us; only through it do we “live and move and have our being.”  Acts 17:28.  As Rabbi Heschel noted, “The thought of it is too powerful to be ignored and too holy to be absorbed by us.”  So today, my prayer for you is that, full of the certainty of God’s presence, that you be blessed today, and that you be a blessing.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Grace of Charity

If you have received from God the gift of knowledge, however limited, beware of neglecting charity and temperance.  They are virtues which radically purify the soul from passions and so open the way of knowledge continually.
The way of spiritual knowledge passes through inner freedom and humility.  Without them we shall never see the Lord.
“Knowledge puffs up whereas charity builds up.”  [1 Cor. 8:1.]  Therefore, unite knowledge with charity and by being cleansed from pride you will build yourself up and all those who are your neighbors.

Charity takes its power to build up from the fact that it is never envious nor unkind.  It is natural for knowledge to bring with it, at the beginning anyway, some measure of presumption and envy.  But charity overcomes these defects:  presumption because “it is not puffed up” and envy because “it is patient and kind.”  [1 Cor. 13:4]

Anyone who has knowledge, therefore, ought also to have charity, because charity can save his spirit from injury.
      –Maximus the Confessor (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain)

The Dominican Order expects its brothers and sisters to spend an hour a day in prayer and an hour a day in study of Holy Scripture and theology.  Frankly, I love that part of the rubric of my Order, because learning and study come easy to me.  Maximus the Confessor reminds me that maybe it comes a bit too easy.

Maximus was a monk who lived from around 580 to 662.  Most scholars believe that he was born in Constantinople; we know he was tried there for heresy.  Maximus suffered both exile and torture for the faith.  After his death, the Church declared his innocence of the charge of heresy.  Both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches recognize him as a saint and a Father of the Church.  He famously said, “Theology without practice is the theology of demons.”

Looking to the reading today, Maximus reminds us that our study and our learning must be rooted in the ancient Christian practice of charity.  Charity carried a slightly different meaning then; it meant more than simply giving money to the poor.  Charity meant loving kindness without limits.  This notion was related to the Hebrew concept of chesed or the Greek word agape.

Thomas Aquinas said that all the virtues pointed toward charity, the highest of the virtues, and charity (or love) makes all the other virtues possible.  Charity is a grace, and we practice charity because we were first loved by God.  Charity relates closely to humility because both enable us to lay aside our own desires and concerns for a while.  As a friend of mine observed, the Christian virtue of humility doesn’t mean we think less of ourselves; it means we think of ourselves less.

Maximus reminds us that all our study, all our theology, will leave us parched and withered unless we drink from the well of charity.  Our knowledge is always deeply incomplete and inadequate.  Rabbi Heschel once said, “The tree of knowledge grows upon the soil of mystery.”  Part of that mystery lies in God’s limitless capacity to love, and our capacity to reflect His love through the practice of charity.  Thus, as Heschel observed, “When I was young I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

I wish you a good and holy Lent,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

N.B.  Earlier this week, through a computer glitch or some sort of (as yet unknown) operator error, this post was erroneously published as a draft with many, many typos.  I was mortified.  The irony of that event, in a post about humility is not lost on me, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies.

Rabbi, Teach Us How to Pray

The Master of peace and unity would not have each of us pray singly and severally, since when we pray we are not to pray only for ourselves.  For we neither say: “My Father, who art in heaven” nor “Give me this day my bread”; nor does each of one of individually pray for our own debt to be forgiven, nor do we ask that we alone should not be led into temptation, nor that we only should be delivered from evil.

Our prayer is general and for all; and when we pray, we pray not for one person but for us all, because we are all one.  God, the Master of peace and concord, so willed that one should pray for all, even as he himself bore us all.  St. Cyprian, Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer.

I found this commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in a wonderful book, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  St. Cyprian lived in the third century in and around Carthage, in northern Africa.  He lived during a time of great trials for the Church, a time of plague, famine, schism and persecution.  He died for the faith in 258 A.D.

I recently wrote about the nature of evil, which always works to separate us: from God, from our brothers and sisters and from our true selves.  Unlike sin, which separates, prayer works to unify.  Cyprian rightly reminds us that God has woven our lives together.  Jesus called upon us to recognize that bond in the Lord’s Prayer.  If we take a look at the very first two words of the prayer (“Our Father”) we recognize our common origin.  We aren’t like a family; we are a family.

When I was a boy at Burnet Elementary School, one of my classmates accosted me on the playground and asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  This question took place in a fairly big crowd of kids, and that event may be my first memory of genuine peer pressure.  I answered, “Well, yes, and no….I think He came to save the whole world.”

I’m not sure how well I understood the theology behind what I said.  (I’m pretty sure it was not a popular answer.)  On the other hand, I think this statement recognized an important concept:  I cannot really separate God’s love for me from my love for His children.  The Lord’s Prayer, and St. Cyprian, call us into that recognition.  I cannot pray for my daily bread alone; my brother’s bread must be just as important.

This notion underlies a good deal of Christian theology.  All were made in the image of God.  The forgiveness of us all must be my concern and my prayer.  One of my favorite writers on prayer, Rabbi Heschel, noted:  “The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech.  The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we partake in the hopes and the troubles and the gratitude of our brothers and sisters.  We also share in God’s hopes and concerns for all His children.  We thus knit our lives together with God’s dreams for the kingdom: the kingdom which has not yet come and the kingdom which is already here and present.  During this holy season, let’s pray for each other and for God’s presence to fall down upon all our lives like a steady rain.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Binding Up the Brokenhearted

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
           because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
          to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
          and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
          and the day of vengeance of our God;
          to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
          to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
          the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  Is. 61: 1-3.

In many respects, this passage from the book of Isaiah provides the perfect Advent reflection.  It gathers up many of the emotions of the people of Israel after the Babylonian exile.   King Nebuchadnezzar and his army had destroyed the Temple, the place where God and man intersected.  Many had been sold into bondage; families were scattered and broken.  The Jews had been humiliated and these were “the worst hard times”.    And Isaiah rose to tell them God remained with them, somehow, in all this mess.

Isaiah refers back to the book of Leviticus, to proclaim the year of jubilee.  (In the year of jubilee, which occurred every fifty years, the prisoners were released, and all debts were forgiven. )  We see this theme running throughout Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments):  God comes to shower his blessings on those whose spirits have been crushed and whose hearts have been broken.  God’s focus doesn’t rest on the superpowers, the wealthy, the priests or the religious elite.  Isaiah thus proclaimed that God was at work; the days of sorrow were over and the days of joy had begun.

 This passage from Isaiah should sound very familiar to Christian readers.  This is the exact passage Jesus reads from in the synagogue when he returns to his hometown, Nazareth.  When Jesus read from this scroll, he announced:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke 4:20.  I think this reveals two important messages.  First, it tells us a good deal about Jesus’ understanding of his mission.  He came to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the prisoners and set the captives free, and to bring sight to the blind.

 If we take the Incarnation seriously and believe that we really are the body of Christ the second message of this Scripture becomes clear:  if we follow Jesus, this is our mission as well.  Because of the Incarnation, our task is clear:  we are to tend to the brokenhearted, the blind, those who mourn, and those who are enslaved.  Sometimes, those conditions may be literal, and sometimes they may be spiritual.  Either way, that’s the purpose and the proper function of the Body of Christ.

Thus, Advent announces something deeply joyous, a joy that reaches far beyond our understanding.  As Rabbi Heschel once wrote:

There is not enough grandeur in our souls
To be able to unravel in words
The knot of time and eternity.
One should like to sing for all men,
For all generations…
There is a song in the wind
And joy in the trees.

Our joy approaches, and the whole earth quickens as the Word nears.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis