How do we Pray about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

The shock and horror of what is happening in Afghanistan have left many in the West angry or numb. Some have taken to social media to vent their distress or accuse those they consider to be responsible. Others have found solace in tears or confided to their diaries thoughts they can scarcely put into words. As to what it means for the people of Afghanistan themselves, there we draw a blank. We can speculate, but imagination and knowledge of what has happened in the past will take us only so far. Afghans living in Britain may have some idea, but most of us do not. We are outsiders, with a guilty sense of being being at least partly responsible for  the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

While politicians and commentators take to the media to try to ‘explain’ what is happening and tell us what to expect in the future, the Church exhorts us to pray. That sounds easy enough, at least to those who do not believe or have never tried to pray. It is what the Church always says in times of crisis or tragedy, isn’t it? But how do we really pray when the heart is overwhelmed with feeling and there are no words that do not seem hollow and trite? How do we pray about something as big and painful as Afghanistan? 

Not Praying

Perhaps the first thing we should do is not even try. By that I mean, we need to abandon the idea of praying as a self-regarding exercise. We must forget that we are praying, take the spotlight off ourselves as doing a good act (praying for those in need) and remember Jesus on the cross, his words reduced to very few and ending with a great cry. We must forget all the words we love so much, too, and the way we try to cajole God into doing our will rather than paying attention to him and his will. Words are not necessary, and they bend and break under the strain of trying to express what lies deepest in our being. The Holy Spirit is more eloquent than any of us, and we can trust the Spirit to articulate what we cannot put into words. Most difficult of all, perhaps, we must try to forget the self and its emotions. When greatly affected by another’s pain, it is easy to turn everything round to what we feel, our sorrow, our pain, and forget why we were inspired to pray in the first place.

Why Pray?

Why do we want to pray? It is a question we need to ask because I am not sure we are always clear or honest with ourselves in the answers we give. Praying is what good Christians do, isn’t it? Yes, but there is more to it than that. We pray because we are made for union with God, and for that union to be perfect, it must include everyone. So, we want the suffering in Afghanistan to end, for peace and justice to be established, but we want more than that. We want God to have joy in what he has created, for his beloved sons and daughters to live in freedom and harmony, to experience a transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. The means God chooses to achieve that— the people, the events — may surprise us, but that is not really our business. Our business, humanly speaking, is to make what God desires and wills possible by responding to the invitation to pray, to align our will with his. In Jesus Christ we have the perfect example of prayer and obedience — a prayer and obedience so wonderful that the whole human race has been redeemed.

The Prayer of Christ

At a time of tragedy or crisis, we need to unite ourselves ever more profoundly with the prayer of Christ himself. To do that we have to be much quieter and more attentive than most of us like being. To pray with Christ and in Christ requires a radical change of stance. We no longer have the satisfaction of thinking we do anything. We throw ourselves and the whole world on the mercy of God. There is no safer place to be, but that act of renunciation, of relying on God alone, is infinitely costly. It is much easier to seek safety in words and gestures (which may be very eloquent/heroically generous) and thereby miss the essential. As a wise old monk once remarked, ‘It was not Christ’s death on the cross that redeemed us but the love and obedience that led him there.’ Love and obedience — they are what God asks of us in prayer, not eloquence, not brilliance, just our deepest, truest selves.

Not everyone is comfortable with the kind of prayer I have been describing, and I should be sorry if anyone were to conclude that I think it the only kind of prayer that is valid. We must always ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, but none of us should dismiss what I have described as being ‘not for me’ or impossible of attainment. Old friends don’t need to say much to each other, and it is cultivating friendship with God that the habit of prayer encourages. Confronted with the tragedy of Afghanistan, however, I think it is also the kind of prayer which protects us against two temptations that can paralyse our best efforts. They are (1) condemning others for what has happened and possibly wishing all kinds of ill upon them, and (2) spending time on our own solutions, most of which are probably naive or ill-informed or both.

Simply asking God to do what is best is much harder than railing against others. Giving time to prayer which doesn’t try to tell God what to do is harder still. To get up from our knees, seeing no obvious change yet determined to persevere, is hardest of all. It is to walk by faith not sight, to trust, to hope. It is what all Christians are called to do, and I think it is a good way of praying for Afghanistan.

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Light for Mind and Eye

For those who haven’t seen it yet, there’s a lovely photo-article in the Huffington Post about stained glass windows. Most of us might make a different choice according to our particular favourites, but these lovely windows provide light for mind and eye: http://huff.to/1kwDVjC. Is it accidental that most of these windows are religious in inspiration and purpose? There is something about light that answers to our deepest quest for love and understanding. St Benedict wrote of the deificum lumen, the light that not only comes from God but is, in a sense, a God-making light given to us for our guidance and reassurance. Re-reading the Prologue to the Rule, as we do during these days of Eastertide, we are reminded that our whole being must become light. Hearts and minds must be transformed — easy to say, far from easy to do! It is the work of a lifetime, and we need encouragement to go on, day after day, struggling with our inner demons and never giving up. Like the stained glass window seen from the wrong side, we may at present see only a jumble of shapes and forms that look dark and sombre. One day, however, the full glory will be revealed: the work of the Holy Spirit complete in us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Our Need of Light

I love the fact that we sing the antiphon O Oriens on the shortest day of the year.  In asking the Morning Star to dawn upon us, to scatter the darkness of sin and death and allow the Sun of Justice to shed his rays upon us, we are doing more than praying for a certain event to take place. We are asking to be transformed by the coming of Christ (the Sun of Justice), that we ourselves may live as children of light. It is one of those breath-taking prayers we utter without perhaps stopping to think what we mean.

To live as children of light is more than a liturgical catch-phrase, something we usually think of in an Easter context. It is a whole way of being, a genuinely radical change that we are hoping for in our lives. The contrast between light and darkness is stark, but it is amazing how complacent we can be about the shadowy aspects of our existence. Today would be a good day to think about those areas of our lives which need the healing and transforming light of Christ to shine upon them and seek his grace in the confessional. Sometimes naming what has gone wrong is enough to destroy its power over us. We have nothing to fear. Light is our proper environment.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Snowfall and Silence

Snow is beautiful to look at, but what I love best about it is its silence: great drifts of silence falling from the sky and hushing everything. The world is noisy and we sigh over the necessity of having to cope with incessant clamour, sometimes amazed to discover that the worst din of all is from within. Snow changes our perception of reality, transforming common objects into strange shapes and revealing the mystery hidden within the apparently ordinary. Lying white and still, it quietens the world around us so that our inner noise is heard for what it is: ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

May you be blessed with a day of great interior silence in which to wonder at the beauty of the snow and its Creator.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Blessing of Silence

Yesterday was full of appointments and meetings. At the end of the day to go into my cell (room) and experience its silence was a blessing in the natural as well as supernatural order. Why do we so often fear silence and surround ourselves with sound, any sound, rather than allow ourselves to be lapped in silence?

Perhaps because I am a nun and silence is for me as natural as breathing, I don’t quite ‘get’ the desire for sound. (I refuse to call it noise, because that is disparaging.) Maybe it is something to do with the connection between silence, sleep and death. All three, in different ways and in different degrees, make it impossible for us to exert our will over others. Silence equates to powerlessness; but I’d want to say, it is not powerlessness as commonly understood. The deepest, most complete silence the world has ever known began on Calvary and ended with the Resurrection. We experience it afresh every year on Holy Saturday and in times of prayer when the Word silently transforms our being.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail