During the times of centering prayer at the Desert House of Prayer, we are invited to remove our shoes, to sit shoeless and to walk around the room shoeless. This invitation hearkens back to Exodus 3, when Moses drew near to the burning bush and God said to him, “Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Years ago I often went about barefoot, but after a couple of painful bouts with plantar fasciitis, I now wear orthotics in my shoes that have been specially molded for my feet. So I nearly always wear shoes. I am particularly conscientious about wearing shoes (rather than sandals) in the Arizona desert where it is always possible to step in striking range of a rattlesnake or a scorpion. Being so used to wearing shoes, but sitting there shoeless and walking around the room shoeless, I got to thinking about the spiritual significance of setting aside my shoes.
The first thing I realized about God’s call to Moses to set aside His sandals and the invitation to us to be shoeless during the time of centering prayer is that setting aside one’s sandals or shoes is a conscious act of taking off one’s form of self-protection and making ourselves vulnerable to God. Isn’t that what prayer is meant to be? Setting aside our self-protection and making ourselves vulnerable to God? For prayer is meant to be the place where our souls are laid bare before God, with no pretense or defensiveness between us. And prayer is meant to be the place where we are exposed to God for God to convict us of sins that need to be repented of and of brokenness in our psyche that needs to be healed. And prayer is meant to be the place where we are vulnerable to God calling us to take some new step of faith or some new step of service, where God might call us out of our comfort zone into some daring adventure with Him.
The second thing that came to my mind had to do with a talk I heard Jack Hayford give many years ago. He talked about all the “stuff” that had accumulated on the bottom of Moses’ sandals—all the thorns he had stepped on and the sheep poop he had stepped in and so forth. It strikes me that this, too, is a good reason to take off our “shoes” when we come before God in prayer. So often I want to come to God holding on to the crap in my soul instead of giving it up. I want to come before God without letting go of sins in my life or grudges in my heart or prejudices against persons or my pridefulness about something. Prayer is an invitation to give those things up and not to keep holding onto them.
A third thought that came to my mind also came from a talk I heard somebody else give (but I don’t remember who it was). That person talked about Moses’ sandals being man-made, that God was calling him to set aside man-made ways when coming before God. That is good advice for me to heed. When I come before God, it is so easy for me to get stuck in man-made traditions or structures or assumptions, and it is so easy for me to be stuck in the expectations others have of me. Those things get in the way of me simply bringing to God just who I am. Prayer is an invitation to me to come to God just as I am and just who I am. If taking off my shoes helps me to remember this, then it is worth taking off my shoes. (But if I am taking off my shoes just because it is the tradition here and it is “what we are supposed to do” then I have really missed the point.)
In the early morning and in the late afternoon at the Desert House of Prayer, we are invited to an extended block of time together for centering prayer. At the close of the centering prayer, we walk slowly around the room and back to our chair. I found myself trying to keep my distance behind a woman who was walking extremely slowly and with various pauses in her walk. This was causing some awkwardness to my walking and some discomfort to my arthritic hip. I said to myself, “Tom, accept where you are. You don’t have to get back to your seat quickly. Just accept where you are.”
This is good advice to me not just when it comes to walking a circle in a prayer chapel. No matter where I am, I am so prone to be thinking about where I should be next, or what I should be doing afterward. I often fail to enjoy the moment because I am so driven by what else I could be doing or should be doing. I feel most guilty about this in conversation with people, when I should be giving my full attention to the person but am actually thinking about what else I should be taking care of.
Which leads to the second conversation I had with myself in that slow walk around the room…. I started off telling myself to accept where I was at the moment, but quickly it struck me that where I was had to do with the pace that someone else was setting. I needed to accept not just where I was. I also needed to accept the pace that woman was setting without trying to rush ahead of her.
I realize how important that piece of advice is in my life as well. In my calling to care for other people (whether in my family, my church, other involvements I have, or simply in interactions with people in general), I often find myself trying to get others on board with the pace I want to set. But when I try to get others on board with the pace I want to set, I stop caring for them and am actually simply interested in them coming around to my way of doing things.
I find myself greatly challenged by something Henri Nouwen wrote for February 8 in the daily devotional Bread for the Journey: “Care is something other than cure. Cure means ‘change.’ A doctor, a lawyer, a minister, a social worker—they all want to use their professional skills to bring about changes in people’s lives. They get paid for whatever kind of cure they can bring about. But cure, desirable as it may be, can easily become violent, manipulative, and even destructive if it does not grow out of care. Care is being with, crying out with, suffering with, feeling with. Care is compassion…. When care is our first concern, cure can be received as a gift. Often we are not able to cure, but we are always able to care.”
I want to learn to accept where I am as I am there. And I want to learn to adjust to the pace of others whom I care for, being with them where they are, rather than trying to get them to come over to where I am.
I guess sometimes God speaks to me in centering prayer differently than I was expecting!
While at the Desert House of Prayer, I am proof-reading and editing a manuscript I hope to get published, and I am preparing the pitch I will make to some literary agents, hoping one will take on my manuscript. I am also taking time to pray and read and reflect (and do some hiking in the beauty of the desert).
One of the books I am reading is an old children’s book by George MacDonald: The Princess and Curdie. As C.S. Lewis did, I always find George MacDonald’s writings stimulating my faith.
In this book, Curdie meets a wise old woman who represents God. (As C.S. Lewis used a lion in several of his books to represent Jesus, George MacDonald uses a wise old woman in several of his books to represent God.)
Curdie is surprised by her ever-changing appearance, so he asks her, “But how can I tell what you may look like next?”
She replies, “Those who know me well, know me whatever new dress or shape…I may be in; and by and by you will have learned to do so too.”
This answer is not entirely satisfying to Curdie, so he persists, “But if you want me to know you again, ma’am, for certain sure…could you not give me some sign, or tell me something about you that never changes—or some other way to know you, or thing to know you by?” (Doesn’t he sound like Moses in Exodus 3, when Moses keeps trying to peg God down and finally asks, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”)
The wise old woman replies wisely, “No, Curdie, that would be to keep you from knowing me. You must know me in quite another way from that. It would not be the least use to you or me either if I were to make you know me in that way. It would be but to know the sign of Me—not to know me myself. It would be no better than if I were to take this emerald out of my crown and give it to you to take home with you, and you were to call it me, and talk to it as if it heard and saw and loved you. Much good that would do you, Curdie! No; you must do what you can to know me, and if you do, you will.”
As I read her response to Curdie’s question, I understood how easily ancient peoples fell into the trap of idol worship. They wanted to know how to recognize God, so they took one aspect by which they had recognized a particular manifestation of God and made that one aspect their representation of God.
Then it struck me how easily we do something similar today. We recognize a certain aspect of God—either one we feel especially good about like His mercy or one we particularly fear like His holiness—and the only time we recognize God working is when God acts in a way that is in keeping with that one particular aspect of His being. We don’t really know God in God’s fullness; we merely know one aspect of God.
There have been so many times in my life when God has been at work around me, but I have not recognized Him because I was only looking for the way I assumed God would show up rather than in the way He did show up. I want to learn to recognize God in whatever “new dress or shape” God may show up in. To do so, I will need to heed the wise old woman’s advice to Curdie: “You must do what you can to know Me, and if you do, you will.”
The high point of their conversation comes with these four lines:
“‘Now, Curdie, are you ready?’ she said.
“‘Yes, ma’am,’ answered Curdie.
“‘You do not know what for.’
“‘You do, ma’am. That is enough.’”
That’s what I most deeply hope. I hope that I can say that to God when I do not know what is ahead of me or when I do not know what is going on around me. I hope that I can say, “You know, Lord. That is enough.”
Not being Catholic, I do not often walk the Stations of the Cross…but every time I do so I find myself deeply moved…and in different ways each time.
Arriving at the Desert House of Prayer at dusk this evening, I walked the stations of the cross in the cooling desert heat. As I came upon several stations that portray Jesus carrying the cross and collapsing under the weight of the cross, I was struck by what—precisely—He was carrying. He was carrying the implement of His death. He was carrying that which would kill Him. The weight of that implement of death (following a severe loss of blood from the beating He endured) knocked Him to His knees over and over again.
Then it struck me. It wasn’t actually the cross that killed Him. He died before the experienced centurion figured that crucifixion would take His life.
The cross wasn’t actually the implement of His death. It was our sins that killed Him. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities….” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Yes, Jesus carried the implement of His death to the place of crucifixion. He carried our sins.
Yes, the weight of that implement of death (our sins) knocked Him to His knees (in the Garden of Gethsemane He fell to His knees praying in anguish, with blood seeping from the pores in His skin).
As I walked the Stations of the Cross, looking at pictures of Jesus collapsing under the weight of the cross, the agony He endured took on added personal significance to me. It wasn’t the Roman guards who forced Him to carry the implement of His death. He took my sins upon Himself willingly.
It was my sins that killed Him (and your sins too), but He did it on purpose. He did it for a reason. He did it to save me (and to save you). He did it to adopt me into His own family (and to adopt you into His family).
As a wonderful hymn expresses it:
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure….
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life.
I know that it is finished….
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart:
His wounds have paid my ransom!