It feels like prayer.
I had a beautiful experience recently, on holiday in New Zealand. On the few hot days we got, I went swimming in the sea, at a beach within a bay with small, gentle waves and calm water.
I initially splashed about in the shallows, enjoying the water lapping on my feet but hesitant of the cold and depths further out.
Next I dove in and swam furiously, thinking a bit of exercise would do me good, and take my mind off what might lurk below!
Eventually, I discovered floating, every muscle in my body relaxed, held afloat by the salty water, eyes closed against the bright sun. It was quietly, gently blissful, and I returned at every opportunity, each day submerging myself in the cool water more quickly so that I could begin floating.
Those were all good experiences of the sea – splashing, swimming, floating, But while I stayed with splashing or swimming, I couldn’t have begun to imagine what it was like to float, how I could trust the sea to hold me and the delightful sensation of it. If I had held on to my fears, and my own idea of what was good for me, I would have missed the sublimely simple, effortless joy of floating.
How might I live and pray like this?
There’s a meditation in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises which challenges me afresh every time I encounter it. It tells of 3 couples who each come into a large sum of money. They are all good folk who want to use the money for God’s purposes, but take different approaches to it:
The first couple (aka the Jawbones), talk endlessly about wanting to find a good use for the money, but never get around to making a decision.
The second couple (the Wishbones) do make some decisions about how to use the money, but the plans are of their own making, which they then ask God to bless.
The third couple (the Backbones) hold the money in open hands, neither holding it back, nor using it for their own plans, but waiting, in freedom, on God to direct them, at ease with either keeping or giving away the money.
Ignatius’ invitation to us is to consider where we find ourselves in this dynamic, and perhaps it is in different places at different times. I don’t know about you, but I spend much of my life straddled somewhere between the Jawbones and Wishbones: ‘umm-ing and ah-ing’, dreaming and fantasising, procrastinating and making plans to suit me. I even take action and do some good things with my time, money and abilities. But mostly, my life choices are of my own making (which God has been good enough, in some instances, to bless).
I’d love to live with the freedom of the Backbones, but I have a mountain of fears, anxieties, and selfishness that gets in the way. And so I pray for the grace of more freedom … it’s a case of ‘watch this space’.
I realised recently this meditation is the story of each of my prayer times: that each time I sit to pray, I encounter my inner Jawbone and Wishbone, and if I’m lucky, get a brief glimpse of Ms Backbone.
Firstly, I take AGES to sit in the first place – it’s amazing how many things feel more important than prayer. Even when I do stop and sit, I manage to put prayer off – sometimes by castigating myself for having taken so long to get down to it!
When I get past that, I start ‘hatching plans’, pondering all the things I might do, places I might go, people I might help, trying to work out the ‘best’ choices for my life, and hoping God will bless them.
‘Sigh’ … it feels like a hopeless case…..
But occasionally and momentarily, my body remembers the floating sensation, and in that re-membering, my body & mind relax and let go of all the ideas, hopes, plans (and the tensed muscles that go with them). I enter a quiet, still space where I am surrendered to God and feel the possibility of trust. It’s usually fleeting: before long I become aware of tense muscles and busy ‘monkey mind’ once again, but in that fleeting, ‘floating’ moment I feel free.