A Deeply Human Longing
Bruce Hindmarsh Talks Prayer, Ruts, and Digital Pebbles
Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. Since he recently taught a summer course on prayer, we sat down to ask him about this spiritual discipline.
CK: To start off broadly, why is it important for Christians to pray?
BH: Klaus Bockmuehl, one of my professors at Regent, said there are things in the Christian life you need to be reminded of every six minutes, and one of them is that we are in the presence of God. We can tend to operate with a kind of practical atheism. We’re resourceful people. We don’t feel moment by moment like we desperately need God unless we’re in a crisis. So what is it that helps us be recollected to the presence of God?
I remember going through a period of dryness where I didn’t want to pray. It bothered me. Prayer was work—hard work. I had certain patterns and practices of prayer that I tried to be faithful to, but it was exhausting. I started to read Hans Urs von Balthasar’s classic called Prayer. It’s deceptive because it’s just a little book, but it’s crystalline and hard like a diamond. It broke something open inside of me. Right in the first chapter, he talks about how we are made to be hearers of God’s word. We are made for prayer. It’s not like some extreme downward dog yoga position you try to hold until you fall over. Prayer is rediscovering something more deeply human about yourself. We are made for the vision of God. We are made to see and share in God’s beauty.
CK: So did that book help you get out of your prayer rut?
BH: Yes, I think realizing that prayer was a matter of coming home helped me. Maybe where I was stuck was in the sense of prayer as a duty. Prayer is a duty, but I needed to rediscover that prayer was also the fulfillment of my own nature. Prayer was about all the longings I have for beauty being fulfilled in this place. All the longings I have for something more are ultimately about coming home to prayer.
CK: Speaking of getting stuck, there are many times we don’t feel like praying. Should we pray even if we don’t feel like it in hopes that the desire will follow?
BH: On one level, I think so. Forming any healthy habit can be a matter of giving yourself to the discipline until the discipline gives something to you. For example, I’ve been running for about ten to twelve years, but when I’m injured or I get out of a routine and start coming back to it, I initially don’t want to run. But I go and do it anyway. At around four or five weeks, something begins to change and I actually want to run.
In relation to prayer, if you bear the cross, the cross will bear you. In the French tradition, they talk about the prayer of simple regard where all you do is offer up to God the fact that you’re here. “Do with me what you will.” You simply show up and make an offering of your dryness because you know, “To whom else will I turn? You have the words of life.” The feelings come and go but God can do what he wants. There can be a different offering of love that comes with that kind of prayer.
My only hesitation is that there can be particular obstacles to prayer in a person’s life that require more attention than simply, “Just keep pushing through.” This is where spiritual direction, pastoral counselling, or spiritual friendship can be helpful. Maybe a specific issue needs to be explored about where this spiritual sense of desertion is coming from: Has the person slipped into a pattern of athletic Christianity of trying to get buffed spiritually? Is there joyless labouring? Is there an unhealthy relationship affecting the prayers? Is there unforgiveness? Prayer is a wonderful index of the health of our relational lives.
CK: A lot of the practices you taught in your course have a structure to them. Does our prayer style depend on our personality—whether we prefer structure or a freestyle approach? Should we push ourselves to try new styles?
BH: First of all, I think there’s a wonderful balance between structure and freedom in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer, like jazz, has a structure from which you can improvise. “Lord, Your kingdom come—in my own heart today, in my family and those I love, in my neighbourhood, my church, and in the Sudan.” Each one of the petitions becomes something you can riff on. Another example, the Jesuit composition of place, is a way of using your imagination to enter wholly into a passage of Scripture. Once you’ve anchored yourself there, you can feel the water of the storm and the wind in your face. You’re looking up at Jesus, and that becomes the place where you talk to him in homemade language—what the Jesuits call colloquy.
If there’s no structure, freedom is chaos. But what you said about personality is absolutely true. Temperament, personality, even psychopathology and neurosis all shape our prayer. We can get in a rut and I think it’s good to push ourselves. If we only ever prayed the Prayer Book or written prayers, we need to learn the freedom of what the New Testament calls parrhesia—boldness of approach to speak in our own person in the assembly. On the other hand, if one has only ever known freestyle, it’s good to pray the deeply doctrinal prayers of the church rather than just saying to God, “I love the way I feel when I love you.”
We should also be attentive to the ways we can get in ruts. It may be that certain personalities become overly conscientious and almost slavish where they fear that if they haven’t followed the rules, they haven’t prayed properly. That’s something that needs to be explored about what it would mean to pray counter-compulsively, to ask ourselves, “What ways have I become shrunken or straitjacketed in my prayers? How can I put my boat out into deeper water to experience something deeper and freer?”
CK: Given our busy lives and short attention spans, in large part due to technology and social media, it’s hard to be still and pray for just five minutes without cell phones ringing or thinking about what we’ll make for dinner. Is this a modern problem or did the ancients have trouble focusing too?
BH: I think it’s always been a problem. The very nature of sin and temptation has made us all have spiritual ADD. It’s hard to be spiritually recollected and centred. Evagrius, one of the Desert Fathers, talked about logismoi—all the kinds of thoughts we have. Some of his writing sounds an awful lot like what cognitive psychology deals with. Evagrius was very aware that our thoughts can be distracting, and beyond even the thoughts that are distracting us are the operations of spiritual powers—good and evil—that can co-opt our thoughts. So we can be distracted, and some of those distractions are being twisted and used by the enemy of our souls. That’s the human condition.
But absolutely, the experience of our modern and very recent modern world is the acceleration of life and the presence of distractions in terms of the digital age, the consumer economy, capitalist work/time discipline, economic demands, and so on. It becomes the social imaginary in which we live.
I’ll often have students do a twenty-four hour personal retreat in which they can only take a notebook, a Bible, and a pen. One of the first things people find is that it exposes their complete and utter restlessness. It’s interesting that we’re wired to keep checking email and social media, and we initially feel this loss that life is passing us by—there isn’t a little endorphin rush from someone getting in touch with you—but then you sit with that for a while. One of the values of that kind of retreat experience is that it simply exposes our restlessness.
CK: How can we integrate prayer into our everyday routines given the lure of media and technology?
BH: It’s been interesting for me because this last year I went from using a desktop to a laptop, so instead of having to go to my computer, now my computer goes with me. I also got my first iPhone, so I’ve found unplugging a real difficulty. What I’ve started to do is banish this stuff from my bedroom. I had been using my iPhone for my alarm but when I got out of bed to turn the alarm off, I started checking my email. Everyone’s experience is going to be different, but I had to actually plug this stuff in another room so that when I get up first thing in the morning, there is space to begin the day with recollection and prayer (well, coffee first). Otherwise, everything starts racing. I think one of the most significant kinds of fasting and Sabbath practices today might be Sabbath from media.
CK: There are several prayer apps out there to help organize our prayers and remind us to pray. One example, Echo Prayer Manager, says, “Echo is a tool to help Christ-followers engage with God.” What do you think of prayer tools like this?
BH: At one level, it seems trivial and silly and I just have to say that. But there’s the Neo-Reformed idea that there is not one square inch of creation over which the Lord does not cry “mine”, and that includes the digital world in which I live. Is the digital world and my use of it entirely secular? Of course there’s always something about it that seems virtual, but it’s still part of God’s creation. So on my iPhone, I’ve got my one-year Bible and Book of Common Prayer, and I’m trying to figure out how to experience, in some form, that God is here. If there’s a reminder that comes up and says, “Don’t forget to pray about this,” that can be a useful prop. Maybe that’s a modern-day equivalent of William Wilberforce sticking a pebble in his shoe to remind him to pray for people in the midst of a party or a conversation. It’s a digital pebble in our shoe reminding us to pray.
CK: Or church bells.
BH: Right. But I think we need to be reflective not just with the content but also with the form. Since we spend a lot of time on our screens, how can we do so redemptively? How can we remember this is God’s world?
CK: Any ideas?
BH: One thing I’ve been doing is using phrases of the Lord’s Prayer when I read Google news headlines. For instance, when I see a news headline about Syria on my phone, I’ll pray “Deliver us from evil,” and in another context, “Thy kingdom come,” or “Give us this day our daily bread.” If there are ways to experience the digital world as God’s world, I think that’s good. But we have to be careful not to trivialize prayer as an instrumental activity we’re in control of because apps often give us a sense of resourcefulness and control.
Prayer isn’t about efficiency. Prayer is about the destination, not the instrument. It may be that I’m becoming addicted to my technology even while using apps to pray. I don’t think the approach is to banish these things from our lives altogether, but to be wise and judicious—to unplug, to experience Sabbath from our devices, and then also to find ways to be recollected to God’s presence as we’re emailing, surfing the web, or reading news.
Years ago, Jacques Ellul said technology was not just going to be a tool to use but an environment in which we live, and that’s where we’re at now. The Internet is our address, as my colleague Iwan Russell-Jones says. It’s where we all live. So how do we explore what it is to be human within that? Where do we learn to push back? Within a capitalist economy, generosity and Sabbath become radical disciplines to practice. To be spontaneous and generous with no other end in view but the good of another and to rest and genuinely enjoy time that is not instrumentalized are quite radical things. The first place we can experience this spaciousness is in prayer.
CK: Speaking of Sabbath, how do you picture the relationship between Sabbath and prayer?
BH: Richard Baxter was a Puritan in the 17th century who wrote a ton of books but my favourite one is on rest. For a book about rest, it was very laborious—800,000 words. It’s a complete meditation on the words in Hebrews 4:9: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” Baxter says we need to “fetch one walk daily in the new Jersualem.” How I summarize his thesis is, “You need to be sufficiently, heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use.” I think prayer is the way we call down Sabbath into our lives. Prayer is the way in which we enter Sabbath rest. It becomes our daily Sabbath; it becomes our moment-by-moment Sabbath; it becomes the point that is always terminal and never instrumental—never for the sake of something else. But everything else is for the sake of this: to be in the presence of God. So prayer is Sabbath.