Friday, 16 September 2011

Water and Prayer

I have been reading Thomas Green’s book “When The Well Runs Dry”. Green, very helpfully and very powerfully, explores the image of water as representing prayer, drawing his initial inspiration from Teresa of Avila. Teresa engages with this metaphor by suggesting that we are as assistant gardeners whose task is to tend a garden owned and planted by God. The primary job is to water the garden – and watering is an image for praying.

Teresa suggests that there are four ways of getting the water. The first way is to draw the water from the well by hand. This is hard work. It takes quite a while and water gets spilled on the way. Sometimes we even wonder if it is worth it. In the same way beginning in prayer can be a struggle. We are easily distracted. But what we manage is worth it.

Teresa’s second way of drawing water is “by means of a water wheel and aqueducts in such a way that it is obtained by turning the crank of the water wheel”. Perhaps a slightly more modern equivalent would be to talk about a water pump. When I was in Harare recently I several times saw people queuing up at water pumps because the city supply is often turned off. Here less effort produces more water. The mechanism does much of the work. As we persist in prayer, it becomes much more natural. The water flows much more easily. The point is that if we allow our prayer life to develop, it will.

The third way of drawing the water of prayer for the garden of the Lord is from a river or stream. Green, citing Teresa, puts it like this: “One day, if the Lord so pleases, we find a stream flowing through the garden: the water is there and we have done nothing to secure it. Even our work of remembering seems unnecessary; God comes to us without our doing anything to seek him. We arise in the morning and take up our bucket to go to the pump, and, lo and behold, the water of the Lord’s presence is right at our feet. What must we do now? Only one thing, Teresa says: to “direct” or channel the water to the flowers.”

But there is still more – because there is a fourth way, and the fourth way is the rain. Now we don’t need to do anything. The watering just happens. I will leave you to make the connections as to how this image works and how prayer might develop in our lives – except to say two things. One is a little comment from Thomas Green’s book. At the end of explaining Teresa’s imagery he says: “The art of praying, as we grow, is really the art of learning to waste time gracefully – to be simply the clay in the hands of the potter. This may sound easy – too easy to be true – but it is really the most difficult thing we ever learn to do.

The other thing that I want to mention also comes from Thomas Green as he uses this wonderful image of water in a slightly different way later in his book. He uses the image of prayer, as we do it, as being like swimming – but suggests that what we need is to be floating. Green talks about the energy of swimming, the way in which we are focussed as to where we are going. By contrast, the secret of floating is to relax, to learn to not do all the things we instinctively want to do. Green comments: “The swimmer is intensely active and is going someplace; the floater yields to the flow of the water. .. the floater, too, is going someplace, but that is the concern of the current .. “

Green suggests that most of us want to do a bit of both, but that we need to learn the confidence of what he calls total floating because then, and only then, are we really putting ourselves at God’s disposal.

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