These are particularly challenging times for prayerful people. We are aware that whenever, wherever, and however we pray we can expect distractions. The moment we settle ourselves in prayer our list of things done and left undone begins knocking at the door.
Yet, in the intention and action of prayer there is more to reckon with than our distractions. We must also consider that we are immersed in the world of a collective consciousness. We are social and empathetic creatures—we breathe the same air, we share the same joys, desires, and fears of our world community.
I recently read a list of reasons for the currently falling numbers of committed Christians attending church. The list was helpful and interesting to a degree, however, I could not help thinking that there are other forces at work beyond those listed. I wonder if there is a quiet suspicion, even among churchgoers, that the church is powerless and unable to meet this moment.
I wonder if a foreboding haunts our collective consciousness and, thus, our prayers. A gnawing, shared anxiety seems to pervade our everyday speech. The time in which we live calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s poem of 1922, The Wasteland.
“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
I wonder if our planet’s condition and the war in Europe are not reverberating in the depths of our communal being. We sense approaching disaster.
The Church seems to be thought of like it was by some in 1913, like artist Hugo Ball. “The Church is regarded as a “redemption factory” of little importance,” he wrote.
The Wasteland was written in 1922 and Ball’s analysis refers to Berlin and Europe in general in 1913. In 1913, shortly before the outbreak of WWI, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, had a dream: “I saw a blood red glow, like the flicker of the sea from afar, stretched from East to West across the northern horizon. And at that time someone asked me what I thought about world events in the near future. I said that I had not thoughts, but saw blood, rivers of blood.” The “war to end all wars” came very shortly thereafter. I wonder if we are dreaming the same dream.
In the face of this collective anxiety, I want to suggest that we have been here before. There have been periods of history in which we’ve faced apocalyptic fear. Some might say, “apocalyptic feeling in the past was not a true universal threat.” I am sure that the prospect of the Assyrians preparing to build a mountain of skulls at the city gate felt like a universal threat to the life of the world.
The Bible addresses our heart, mind, soul, and body, even in our anxious times. “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.” (Psalm 91)
I am beginning to wonder if the Bible was in fact primarily written to strengthen human will in the face of apocalyptic danger. The Bible says to us: This is not the time to abandon the very origins of our courage. We must refute the notion that religion is an avoidance mechanism or the source of excuses for nonaction in the face of danger. The entire story of the Bible, culminating in our being loved into wholeness, through the life, death, and Resurrection of the incarnate logos of God, is the source of our strength, resilience, and vision in this present era.
The moment at hand is without a doubt threatening our entire world. The current threats shake us to the core of our collective imagination. The solution will require humankind to cooperate on a scale that must transcend fear. As Christians, we have something to bring to this effort.
When we meet anxiety in our prayer we must go deeper to the source of prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who prays in us. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words”, and “It is Christ Jesus … who indeed intercedes for us.” (Romans 8:26-34 NRSV) In the depths of our prayer we find the strength, vision, and capacity to meet the moment at hand.
The word we hear in our prayer is that humankind has imagined and lived disaster in the past. The word we hear births in us a vision of the future that calls forward our best gifts, inherent in our being made in God’s image.
We are empowered and compelled by the ancient witness of scriptures and present grace of the indwelling Christ to join the ranks of those working to heal our threatened world. The parish church has never been more necessary for our surrounding culture in this regard. The reluctance of Christians to attend their local church is truly lamentable. The degree to which the collective anxiety of our age is responsible for that reluctance is difficult to judge.
The power and lived wisdom of our Scriptures offer a compelling resource for the struggle to heal the planet. In the Eucharistic community we see with our own eyes the living sacrament of our relationship with one another and the natural world. The indwelling Holy Spirit moves us beyond the boundaries of our collective anxiety to embrace the vision we long to realize for a healing world.