Contemplative Prayer: Preparation and Spontaneity (Feb 2010)

The Torah readings which are being read in the synagogue cycle at the moment are focused on the building of the mishkan-the desert “temple”. Last week in Parshah Terumah we read about this desert sanctuary and in the haftarah we listened to the account of the building of Solomon’s temple. There are many lessons to be learnt from these two structures which can be applied to our personal contemplative prayer-lives.

The text which heads this little commentary is the verse which led to the bizarre myth of Solomon’s Shamir, a magic worm which was simply laid on top of a stone for it to be cleft silently into the needed shape and dimensions for use in constructing the Temple.

The plain truth of the text is a little less picturesque, but nonetheless inspiring:- As we can see (from elsewhere in the chapter) the comparative silence in the building process on the temple site was possible because the stones were thoroughly prepared off-site at the quarry.

A woodcutter may well spend more time sharpening the saw than is spent in making the cut, it is said. Having spent many afternoons sawing logs for my wood-burning stove this winter, I know the value of a well-honed saw. I also know that I was able to make an easier job of it if I spent time working out how to steady each oddly-shaped log before I started sawing. Choosing the optimum place to make the cuts in each individual log also saved time later. Good preparation makes good common sense.

Sometimes we can be lucky in creative work or prayer and find that our thoughts flow freely and spontaneously from their Source. At other times we have to work very hard indeed. Sometimes we move as though caught in a driving current, powered by sails in a strong and steady wind. At other times we find ourselves pushing a broken down wagon up a hill, by ourselves more often than not. In the rain- if we are feeling particularly self-pitying.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right when he wrote “Much plod makes plough down sillion shine”, and his comment applies to the greater part of our prayer lives as much as it does to the work of any artist.

There is a precedent for both the spontaneous and the meticulously planned “methods of working” in the various stages of the building of the Temple. Both seem to require considerable effort in their execution.

The desert Mishkan was built following a “moment” of inspiration and creative conception in Moses’ soul. A comparatively short period of focused time and a receptive “ear” were what was required. The creative process did not require any additional effort it would seem. Putting this creative inspiration into effect via the meticulous instructions and “construction kit” details we see in the season’s Torah readings would suggest that actually walking the talk of the “mishkan vision” would need extensive planning and group co-ordination.

By comparison, the building of the Temple of Solomon seems to have been laborious right from the planning stages. Plans for a building which was to be constructed from weighty and relatively inflexible materials prepared off-site and fitted together comparatively silently will have required the most meticulous planning from the very start.

Building the House of God in our souls calls for the inspiration of Moses, and the creativity of Solomon. It also needs the practical skills of Bezalel and Hiram. It’s a partnership of God’s Grace and Our Effort. Our effort in making good preparation may be as crucial as our devotion in prayer itself.

We may find that for weeks or months we cannot “Stand before Him” in silent receptive prayer. In those times, we make liturgical prayer our main activity and we follow the architect’s plan which is given us in the prayer book. Our “dryness” maybe may be rooted in avoidance…It may be that we are being lazy or cowardly in giving our attention to God in a silence which makes demands. Or maybe it is rooted in reticence because we are aware of enormity of what we are about to do when we attempt to meet Him on that silent and otherwise deserted building site. It may be generated by a desire to be as fully prepared as possible.

One thing is certain though: we cannot force our progress in that contemplative construction project by our own effort alone. Hammer and axe and force like iron will get us nowhere because “Unless the LORD Himself builds the house, in vain do the builders labour.” (Psalm 127:1).

Whether our prayer life resembles a tent we take with us, or a building we visit when we can…we construct it best in silent but persistent attentiveness. Most of the time the materials will have been prepared off-site. Occasionally by our own doing, but more often by the grace of God through the lessons of daily living.

(This is an edited version of an article written in February 2009
for the Community of Jewish Contemplatives  website)