The Long and Winding Road

As one who draws his spirituality from a number of sources, was born a nominal Christian, became deeply interested in Buddhism about eleven years ago, and has also done some reading in other Eastern religions, I have recently been led back into an exploration of what is known as The Jesus Prayer.  The Jesus Prayer, if you don’t know, is often prayed using a chotki (also known as a prayer rope) and is the primary prayer of monks of Orthodox Christianity – though it is used in other Christian Traditions, as well.  It has many versions, but classically it is said more or less like this:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

To be quite honest, many people leave the “a sinner” off the end of the prayer, as I do, and after repeated use many people find the prayer shortens itself to “Jesus, Mercy.”  About a month ago I felt called to this form of prayer again.  Initially, it was very comfortable – like visiting an old friend.  After a time, though, it became less comfortable.   What, exactly, are we asking for “mercy” from?  An angry, vengeful God?  That isn’t my understanding of God.  Are we asking for mercy from life?  Though I do find life frustrating at times, I really don’t understand my life to be something I need mercy from – as if God was causing my frustration – because I recognize that when my life is most frustrating the only one to blame is me!

Despite these misgivings, I forged ahead with The Jesus Prayer but became more and more trouble by a sense of uneasiness that I couldn’t put my finger on.   The last night I picked up Osho’s Buddha, Zen, Tao, Tantra and read Osho’s interpretation of Buddha’s understanding of God.  To paraphrase, he said that Buddha didn’t believe in a Creator God that was separate from creation because Buddha saw all of creation as divine.  Herein lies the problem for me: I agree with the Buddha more than the Orthodox!

Then I started reflecting on the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The Hebrew people believed that God lived in the Temple – with humanity, not “out there” somewhere.  Granted, only the high priest could actually enter the Holy of Holies, the “living quarters” of God, if you will, but anybody could hang out in God’s front yard, so to speak.   It wasn’t a perfect system.  How close you could get to God’s front door was dependent upon whether you were Jewish and male, or Jewish and female, or a Gentile – but even the Gentiles had a spot in God’s front yard!

The system wasn’t perfect.  The Temple was destroyed now and then – and for the final time in 70 C.E. – and God’s whereabouts weren’t precisely known.  However, when the Temple was rebuilt, God was apparently compliant and glad to return to God’s house and the people started hanging out in God’s front yard again.  All was well in the world, and God was present and accounted for, at least most of the time.  Enter Jesus, and the picture remains the same, at least until institutional Christianity gets hold of it.

For Jesus, God dwelt in the Temple – though he did, according to the Gospel accounts, predict the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. – and lived among the people.  A close reading of the death of Jesus – the so-called Passion Gospels – reveals that at Jesus’ death the curtain in the Temple was torn in two.  This meant that God had exited the Temple, but not to live in an undisclosed location ala Dick Cheney.   The symbolism meant that there was now no barrier between God and the creation – just in case someone had missed the significance of the Incarnation.  Jesus had also said that he would send the Holy Spirit after his ascension.  God with us, God with us, God with us – and also transcending us, but definitely not removed from people, not distant, not inaccessible.

The problem is that you can’t control people if you can’t make them fear something over which you claim to have control.  Constantine wanted to control the people and conquer the world, and he decided the Christian God was the best way to do that.  He enlisted the help of the Church, which – being composed of human beings – was only too happy to trade its integrity for temporal power.  Suddenly the Church had the only access route to God, who was rapidly escorted to a remote, disclosed but inaccessible, location in a place called “heaven.”   Now if you were going to get to God you needed the help of the Church.   Tired of being run all over the countryside, God became angry and vengeful.  Apparently suffering some sort of dementia and having forgotten human nature, God became mightily upset that human beings weren’t perfect and needed to be appeased.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

The problem is that I don’t believe in that God.  That isn’t the God I find when I read the scriptures and that isn’t the God I find when I pray.  I should mention that, when I read the scriptures, I do find evidence of all sorts of interpretations of God, all sorts of things blamed on God that really amount to little more than people either behaving badly but appropriate to their developmental stage or else just behaving badly – but that doesn’t mean that those are accurate understandings of God!  I believe that the whole of creation is shot through and through with divinity, and so I completely agree with Buddha, who didn’t see a creator God as separate from creation.  How could God be, when all of the creation mythologies say that God created everything out of God’s self?  Could we ever remove ourselves, our very DNA, from our children?  Of course not – nor would we want to, no matter how much they might disappoint us!   Divinity isn’t “out there” somewhere, it’s in you and me and everything and everyone we encounter!

I have been set free from the notion that I have to appease an angry God, and I can’t crawl back into the prison that demands I pretend to believe in that fictional God.  Interestingly, Jesus makes more – not less – sense when we break out of the trap of believing God is more than a Middle School Assistant Principal writ large.  All the tribalism, all of the need to exclude people from the love of God so that we can somehow feel more certain that God actually loves us, becomes not only unnecessary but foolishness!

The only hitch is that I am not sure that most people who were raised within the tradition can make the journey from fictional God to experiential God solely through reason.  Life has to provide most of us with the evidence of life’s inconsistencies with the “company God” before we will be willing to call everything into question and emerge with a God-image that conforms to our experience of God.  We need to get knocked on our asses by life before we are forced to re-evaluate the load of faith that we have been handed.  When we reach that point, the truth is that nothing less will do.

The most encouraging thing about all of this is that there is a growing network of people who have been knocked on their asses and been forced to confront our demons.  I am not the only one, and the numbers are growing daily.  There are also pastors and spiritual teachers in different points along the way on this journey, so companions on the way are available to everyone.  When the door to the self-inflicted prison flies open, it really is safe to walk through it.   In many ways, it is the only viable choice!

2 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road

  1. I too tried to incorporate The Jesus Prayer into my daily practice and couldn’t, for the same reason you cite. I was fearful that I was just being prideful but I’m pretty sure that’s old paradigm dialogue that was creeping in.

    I find that petitioning in prayer doesn’t make sense for me anymore. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Hasn’t mercy already been doled out? Along with grace, peace, love, hope, and faith? Don’t we already have within us, that which we require? When people say, “With the Lord’s help!” I think, well sure, you’re really saying, “with my help, if I can access that within which is divine.” The Lord is not some separate, anthropomorphic character in a play.

    Loved this post. Thanks for sharing, Bishop Craig. (And sorry for my rambling comment.)

    1. You’re not rambling at all! I am right there with you, which proves that great minds think alike . Back in the day, say 1995 or so, I found the Jesus Prayer an excellent doorway to mantra practice and contemplation (had been a rosary, Anglican and Catholic, guy prior to that), but since about 2000 I much prefer Buddhist mantras because, not being in English, they are less likely to lead me to discursive thought. Agree with you completely about petitions, except in corporate prayer where I haven’t come up with a better idea, though I do tend to just lift people up without presuming to know the best answer. I do think energy is changed and directed when we pray.

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