On my last visit to the monastery of The Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge Massachusetts I was talking with Brother Curtis Almquist about my prayer life. He told me that nearly every priest he speaks with is concerned that their prayer life is inadequate. Likewise many people I speak with are concerned that their prayer life is lacking. It seems with a few notable exceptions, mostly saints; we judge our personal prayer life as wanting. I suspect that is because we have a clichéd way of thinking about what is proper prayer. It involves getting on our knees with hands together and pointed toward heaven. Our head is bowed our eyes are closed and all is silent, and all around us is still. Then we repeat a memorized prayer or, if we are particularly godly, we make up, on the spot, a prayer that is both eloquent and terribly pious. We believe this type of prayer, and this type only, is what will please God, and earn us stars in our heavenly crown. However, I think we can be fairly certain that this is not the case.
Indeed, prayer is not about earning anything or doing your duty or being pious. Rather prayer is about communing with the heart of God. There are so many ways to do this. One that I was reminded of this week is beholding. What reminded me is this quotation from American poet Diane Ackerman, “There is a way of beholding which is a form of prayer.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “behold” as a verb “to see or observe (a thing or person, especially a remarkable or impressive one).” It also categorizes this word as archaic-literary. That is that no one beholds something except in a poem or novel. However, in ancient times it would seem that to behold was fairly common. According to one source the word behold shows up 1,298 in the Bible. That is quite a lot of beholding! Jokes and dictionaries aside, a return to beholding may be an answer to our prayer of how to pray.
Sitting in a garden and simply looking at a flower. Going to a museum and gazing on a painting without counting the minutes. Watching a child sleep. Regarding your beloved as she or he performs an ordinary task. Peering up at the sky at night as the stars twinkle or the clouds in daytime. A prayer tradition in the Orthodox Church is looking upon icons. Those outside this tradition think that the devout are praying to the icon. Actually, they are praying through the icon, by using the eyes of the image to see into heaven.
In recent weeks I have been looking at the Little-Joe-Pye-Weed in my garden as the bees and butterflies swarm over it for nectar. I have never seen bees so frantically searching a flower. It is fascinating. I behold the flower and the bees in silence. I do not think scientific thoughts or even religious ones. I simply gaze in wonder. As an afterthought is how the parts of God’s creation work together for the benefit of all.
Behold the world around you. Behold those you love. Behold God in all of God’s various manifestations. As the angel said, “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” Behold the wonder, glory, and love of God. To behold brings us unwittingly into the very heartbeat of God. There we can feel the pulse of our souls joining up with the center of all things, the ground of all things, the very essence of all that is and ever shall be. Amen.