Contemplative Prayer: Asking Questions, Expecting Answers- (Jan 2010)

Haftarah Shemot (for Sephardim)
Jeremiah 1:11

In the Torah portion called Shemot, Moses asks God many questions and then begs for signs of “proof”. God then grants those signs.

In the Haftarah  reading for Shemot, God reveals various signs to Jeremiah and then asks Jeremiah some questions.  The image of an almond branch, a symbol of rapid new growth and of the priesthood, seems to have made sense to Jeremiah.

From time to time we too ask God questions in our prayers. Hopefully we have learnt to listen for His answer.  Though we may have to wait years, at certain special times our questions may be answered with lightning speed.  Sometimes, such a response will come in the sudden illumination of a specific text in the liturgy we are in the midst of praying, or perhaps in the Hegyon Ha-Lev ( lectio divina) of a psalm chosen at random, or perhaps in something someone says to us in the hours immediately after our prayer-question. 

But there are also times when we receive minor "revelations" direct.  God has a Voice. Though we don’t use our physical eyes and ears to do so, we may both “hear” and “see” it.  Our scriptures are full of such direct communication yet “modern  man” is shy of  acknowledging that it (or something resembling such communication) still happens. This reserve is perhaps born of humility  (whether it be spiritually fashionable or genuine). More often it is due to the sheer terror of being labelled as a religious weirdo.   We are not prophets like Moses, nor even prophets like Jeremiah,  but that does not mean that we are somehow, mysteriously immune to the communications of the God they “heard” and “saw”.   Their God has not gone anywhere.  He still has a Voice  and those who are looking for Him still hear and see Him, albeit in a more “homely” way.  (Moses and Jeremiah surely qualify for the epithet “weirdo” anyway, so we are in good company, relax.)

So, having got that out of the way, and always allowing that such revelations can be the product of psychosis and  delusion - let’s assume that, as contemplatives, we are talking to God (or perhaps “a God” or “an aspect of God”) who is capable of answering us directly within our souls.

Given that, let’s ask:  How should we relate to “signs”?   What value do they have?  Should we ask “questions” in contemplative prayer anyway?

It is six years since I asked a question in my prayers and waited for an answer.  This does not mean that I received an answer or answers which produced some sort of “enlightenment” that makes further questioning unnecessary. It simply means that I am not praying in that way these days.  I’m pretty sure I will need to ask more questions before I’m done, but six years ago it was a common occurrence in my prayers, as much of the time I was asking about the route through the maze of contemplative prayer and contemplative lifestyle choices.

Then as now I prefer to undertake the interior journey without a route map and without paying too much attention (if any) to the experiences of others.  I do this because I feel that the journey is totally unique and particular to each individual anyway, and because I believe that following in someone else’s footsteps does not lead to a soul finding its own road, its own path, but only to a substitute: being like someone else.

For anyone sharing that view of the contemplative life, the only Map to follow is the Torah of the Heart, the only Road to walk is the one which God unrolls like a narrow carpet before you, a few steps, or one step at a time.   It is only wide enough to take you alone.  

For such a contemplative: All questions that are asked then HAVE to be asked of God Himself and God alone.

So- on those occasions when our answer comes not through those we meet in emails, or in books, or in the street, but directly-  how does He answer?

In the waiting silence of a “standing” prayer, we are hoping that we might be granted an “angelic” inspiration: a personally addressed and gift-wrapped message which answers our question directly or obliquely.

Most often obliquely.

In this we may sense immediate kinship with Jeremiah.

We will “hear/see/sense” a phrase, an object, a symbol, a single word or sound which we are then left to decipher.  Sometimes this happens during the prayer itself, sometimes afterwards.   Frequently it happens just after we have completed our formal prayer session and have moved on to consider the evening menu, or reached for a mop- In that moment it can hit us like a smack in the face or materialise before the mind’s eye like a Cheshire cat.   Sometimes we have to examine the message, or its “angel” to see if it is (i) a divine message; (ii) a valuable subconsciously generated message from the core of our being; or(iii) just the random mis-firing of our imaginations.  Or a flu-virus.  Or too much coffee.  

Most often we “know in our bones” which it is. If it really is a gift-wrapped personalised “angelic” message then usually (though not always) it becomes clear by being confirmed as such by “signs”.  (Please bear with me, this really is not as outlandish at it might at first seem).

For example: Someone suddenly “senses” a “door” in pictorial form during prayer, apparently meaningless, and apparently totally unrelated to any thought or event preceding it.   Or perhaps they sense a phrase like “I am the Door, Why are you here?” which they imagine spoken or written in their minds out of the blue. One reaction is to be surprised by the event and discount it as a passing freaky thought.  Another reaction is to feel that something significant has occurred. Either could be the right one.  Moments later, they open the Bible at random and are surprised to read “Lift up your heads, O Gates” by “chance”. The next hour, they pick up a  secular book which is their light-reading for the week, turn the page and “coincidentally” encounter a long passage dwelling on the image of a door held ajar.  The following morning they lose the key to their own front door.  Such chains of meaningful coincidences, a series in Jungian synchronicity, are common.   They happen to people who are sensitive to their surroundings whether or not they believe in God and regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of it.     But when they happen to contemplatives, they can, in some cases, be clear indicators that what seemed to be a work of the imagination was and is more than just that alone.  It is a sign.  In this case, a sign to the contemplative that they are to reflect on the symbols of  “door” and “key” or the “perceived door text”  in order to unroll that carpet just a little further into the future.

I think that I found an echo of this process in the text chosen to head this commentary.  Jeremiah “sees” an almond rod, God/he questions its significance, and God confirms Jeremiah’s interpretation as a correct one.   This process is repeated in the “revelation” of a boiling kettle (Jeremiah1:13).   Later, (possibly when Jeremiah has honed his prophetic sensibilities and “listening skills”), he is not put off by the choice of a pair of cotton underpants as a vehicle for an angelic message (Jeremiah13:1-11) nor does he need  much assistance in understanding the meaning of that message.  Jeremiah is nothing if not bizarre in his visionary materials, but many of us could match his almonds, kettle and underwear in our prayerfully imaginative moments.

In this week’s Torah portion, I am irked by the “signs” Moses asks for and receives (the snake-stick, the leprous hand cured, the water becoming blood) because these are “proof-signs” which could quite easily have been matched by the guile and skill of the Egyptian magicians. On the other hand, I am quite at ease with the commonplace “signs” of synchronicity which I have just described.  But I do not believe they are necessary.  They are like St Therese’s sweets: something to make our spiritual journey a little bit more fun.  But too much of them and we get either hyper-active or greedy and fat.  Fortunately, ninety-nine percent of the time, they don’t come if we ask for them….only when we least expect them.  As I have written elsewhere, the “signs” we need are usually already there, and we need nothing more than simple attentiveness to our ordinary circumstances to see them as true angels.    The sort of “signs” I have written about today are definitely an occasional treat rather than our daily bread.

But should we ask questions in our contemplative prayer?
Should we expect, even in a veiled form, that we be given signs at all?

There are definitely crisis points in our spiritual lives during which we have to cry out for them.  If it suits Him we may be granted favours.  If it suits Him, God may choose to keep the sweetie drawer firmly locked for our own good.  But we are all children spiritually and though we do grow up we never lose that child-like “role”.  We can expect therefore to be treated as any good parent would treat a growing child.  That’s not too bad is it?

But we are also servants.  And we know, for sure, that asking too many questions and expecting too many signs is inappropriate behaviour.  We are rarely told the answers to our personal life-questions anyway.  The Voice may often speak in imperatives but it never makes our choices for us.  When we reach the point where choices are made, the silence is always deafening though we often “know” how our eventual choice has been received once we have made it.

The way of the contemplative comes somewhere between the way of the child and the way of the servant.

By accepting whatever we are given on a daily basis,
balancing on the unfolding carpet as it inches across the chasm;

By  dwelling in the Contemplative Goal
and not dwelling on the Contemplative Process-
Making the door to our own unique path materialise before us;

By seeing the signs which are already there for what they are,
as keys to answer many of our questions;

Then we can be just a little bit like Moses and be aware that all ground is holy ground. That God’s Voice can be heard in ordinary things.  That, extraordinarily, God is quite capable of speaking to us directly if we let Him.

(This article was first published on January 14 2009 as a Haftarah Commentary on the private website of the “Beit El Community of Jewish Contemplatives”)