Prayer and Silence
In my last blog posting, “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?”, the title was drawn from the book by that name written by Malcolm Boyd and first published in l965. I reflected on that book as a sign of the times in the ’60s and ’70s – the decades of protest against the Viet Nam war we were mired in and against racism endemic in our society at the time (as well as now, but that’s another story). That first edition sold more than 100,000 copies internationally. It was an ecumenical best seller, found on the bookshelves of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and secularists alike. In my last blog posting, “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?”, the title was drawn from the book by that name written by Malcolm Boyd and first published in l965. I reflected on that book as a sign of the times in the ’60s and ’70s – the decades of protest against the Viet Nam war we were mired in and against racism endemic in our society at the time (as well as now, but that’s another story). That first edition sold more than 100,000 copies internationally. It was an ecumenical best seller, found on the bookshelves of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and secularists alike.
In 2005, a new edition was published to celebrate its 40 years of continued purchase and circulation, with Boyd himself editing the new text. The original prayers concerned with racial freedom and film content were edited and shaped more clearly for our times. But on the whole, the book of prayers appears in all its original force for a new generation of readers to absorb.
Having just Googled Malcolm Boyd on the internet, I was surprised to learn that he died – at age 91 – just last month. I don’t remember any news coverage of that death event, but there must have been one that I just missed. Of course, at 91 I suppose it was not so surprising that he had died. What was surprising and to my delight was that he had remained a writer and lecturer up to the end. He was a maverick Episcopal priest, an anti-establishment and social activist clergy all his life.
In the original introduction to the first edition, Boyd reflects on his use of everyday speech in his prayers to Jesus. He says, “prayer could no longer be offered to God up there but to God here, had to be natural and real, not phony or contrived; it was not about other things … (as fantasy or escape) but these things, however unattractive, jarring, or even socially outcast they might be.”
Boyd also reflects on the blurred line between sacred and profane. That if you really listen, you can hear the prayers to God uttered in the “novels, songs, plays, and films of Samuel Beckett … Ingmar Bergman, Saul Below, Bob Dylan, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin … or John Updike.” And then he ends that reflection with the words, “of course, to hear some prayers, verbal or non-verbal, you must listen for what was not said” – listen in the liminal silence after words are spoken.
Which brings me to my current “must read” book on my breakfast table. Written by Pico Iyer – a novelist and essayist for periodicals such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books – The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere is a wonderful short read on the virtue of silence, the kind of silence that Malcolm Boyd spoke up in his Introduction. Iyer is a self-proclaimed “secular,” but he is also one of those who is deeply spiritual and also in search of the Transcendent in everyday life.
Interestingly, Iyer begins the first chapter setting it in a Zen monastery in California (so he really didn’t always go nowhere!). His host and Zen Master on that first of many visits was the Canadian songwriter and musician, Leonard Cohen. You may not recognize his name, but Cohen was a genius lyricist who wrote such well-known songs as “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah,” the former most famously sung by Neil Diamond and the latter immortalized by Jeff Buckley’s rendition. (By the way, a book titled The Holy or the Broken was published in 2012, describing the beginning and “unlikely ascent” of the song “Hallelujah.”) Apparently Cohen wound up as a Zen monk toward the end of his life, practicing the art of “going nowhere,” meditating and contemplating the deepest meanings to be found only in the silence of our hearts in a sacred setting … or even in our favorite easy chair at home or in a quiet evening stroll around the neighborhood.
Whether one is a Zen practitioner, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, or Christian devotee, or secularist by choice, I think that Iyer can speak to your heart. He writes out of the obvious – we are all caught up in an increasing maelstrom of hectic business, on call 24 hours of the day through Internet connections. The author reflects on Cohen’s example and apparent advice about the virtues of just sitting still, how liberating it could be to just try. He says:
One could start just by taking a few minutes out of every day to sit quietly and do nothing, letting what moves one rise to the surface. One could take a few days out of every season to go on retreat or enjoy a long walk in the wilderness, recalling what lies deeper than the moment or the self. One could even, as Cohen was doing, try to find a life in which stage sets and performances disappear and one is reminded, at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions. (p.5)
I haven’t quite finished Iyer’s book. Even though it is so short – he intended it to be read in one sitting – but I’ve been so busy (!) working on my new book, trying to do research for the fifth chapter, that I do struggle to find some quiet time at the breakfast table … and I haven’t had that retreat since last fall! But I will! Really!!
And I will also return to Iyer when I finally finish reading this little work – maybe by my next blog posting. In the meantime, for those in the Christian camp, we are rapidly heading into Holy Week next week, followed by the great celebration of Easter. So wherever you are on your own spiritual path, I wish you peace … and some time of silence to reflect on the meaning of it all.