In the aftermath of the horrific violence against LGBTQ people in Orlando this past Sunday — as in the aftermath of all the mass shootings in the United States, of which this one was historically the most costly — we have heard people call for prayer. As a priest, I would be among the first to declare that prayer is important. But not, perhaps, in the way most people think.
I suspect, based strictly on many conversations with people about prayer over the years, that most people who engage in the practice of prayer do so in the hope of offering some kind of spiritual energy to those for whom they are praying. That exchange of spiritual energy is, I think, a very real thing, even though it’s difficult to describe and, at least at the moment, impossible to measure. And, praying for those effected by the murderous rampage in Orlando with this intention is certainly a good thing to do.
I would also suspect that another large group of people who engage in prayer do so with the hope of persuading God to do something. Indeed, most of the official prayer of the Christian tradition (as with the other Abrahamic faith traditions) uses language that is directed toward this end: please God, do something. Engaging in prayer with this intention is problematic, because if God does not do what we ask, we are left with difficult questions that lead us into theological territory that tends, more often than not, to make God look at best, uncaring, and at worst, like a monster.
What most people in my experience seem not to understand about prayer is that engaging in the practice is really about changing ourselves. If one reads the Christian tradition carefully — and, I would argue, the other great religious traditions of the world — it seems clear that all of the various ways we pray are meant to prepare us for the deepest prayer of all: the contemplative prayer of the heart, in which we seek nothing but to engage with and be engaged by the Divine Presence. And, in the context of that embrace, to consent to be softened. The softening of contemplative prayer — or meditation, if you prefer — is a softening of the heart, mind, and soul. It is a softening of the ego and of the passions that drive the ego. It allows us to see the ways in which we suffer, and how that effects our relationships and the way we act in the world. It shows us the places within us where love is found, but it also shows us the gaps where love is not in us. And, over time, it seeks to fill those gaps with love — so that we may be totally and completely love.
This way of prayer is, it seems to me, the way in which we most need to pray in response to what has happened in Orlando. Because we need a softening to happen among us. We need to step away from the anger and hatred and violent passions that carry us away, and ultimately prevent us from experiencing the Divine. It is, ultimately, the only way that we can short-circuit cycles of violence and retribution. It is the only way we can truly deal with the turmoil in our society, which is ultimately a reflection of the turmoil within ourselves. True peace in our culture can only happen when there is peace within us.
So, indeed, pray for those effected by what has happened in Orlando, and send out your energy to enfold them. Pray to God — but in doing so, please recognize that we are truly God’s hands and heart in the world, and if we are looking for God to do something, that something must begin inside us, where the still small voice speaks in the vast silent embrace of love that lies at the center of our being. And so, then, go within, allow God to reach you in the deepest places of your soul, and begin to be softened. And as you act more and more in the world from that place of softening, so will you become a catalyst for peace.
I wish to end with a quote from the Rev. Paul Fromberg, which captures so well what we who would seek to follow Jesus are left with in the aftermath of all this death and destruction. What he describes is, I think, both the act and the outcome of this softening of which I speak:
I spent hours thinking of something wise to write, something disruptive to do about the massacre of my sisters and brothers in Orlando. It keeps coming down to the essential truth of the Gospel: Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. This is the most radical starting place for restoring the moral order of society. Jesus taught other-love and not simply self-love or family-love or tribe-love. Living out of his teaching means that the manufacturers of the AR-15 assault rifle couldn’t make weapons designed to kill our enemies. It means that the NRA would have to work actively for the sake of eliminating weapons that are designed to kill our enemies, instead of preventing our elected officials from passing reasonable legislation to stop the sale of killing machines. It means that instead of stereotyping, demeaning and marginalizing members of Islam, we would do anything in our power to protect their dignity and honor. But, as a nation, we do not believe in the commandment of Jesus, not to the point of radicalizing the national conversation about violence. Which is why the only thing I know to do is be converted to the love of God manifest in Jesus, demonstrate that love to everyone that I encounter, and trust that God can empower me in this love to act for the sake of enemies and those who persecute. Love is the most disruptive force in the universe – it always has been and it always will be.
— The Rev. Dr. Paul Fromberg, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco