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Chapter 8 - The Prayer of Rest
Augustine, in the first chapter of his Confessions, says to God: "Man, this part of creation, wishes to praise you. You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." (The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. by John K Ryan, p. 43.)
In Luke 23:50-56, we find a startling story of the contrast between intense, stressful, heartbreaking work, on the one hand, and rest on the other hand. Jesus had been crucified. Pilate released his body to Joseph of Arimathea, who took it down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid Jesus in a rock-hewn tomb. It was the day of Preparation. That was the day before the Sabbath. People spent the whole day preparing food and suspending business affairs to avoid all risk of infraction of the Sabbath, which began at sunset. On this occasion the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee "followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments" with which to anoint his body. This was their heavy day of work, on the day of Preparation.
Then the Scripture tells us: "On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment." The Greek word for rest used here is hesychazein. It means to be quiet, to rest, to remain silent. They did this. They did not talk or try to figure out all these monstrous events. They prayed without ceasing. The kind of prayer in which you do not talk nor try to think things out for yourself—even before God—has throughout history come to be known as the prayer of the hesychast, that is, the prayer of rest. As Henri J. M. Nouwen describes it: "This rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle." He says that this prayer of rest is more than and different from speaking with God or thinking about God. The limits of words and logical inquiry are beginning to be felt by many Christians, although Sundays at church are filled with speeches and explanations of just about every thing, even those severe mysteries for which there are no words or explanations. The apostle Paul described this word less groping experience of the prayer of rest in Romans 8:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:26–27)
As Nouwen again says: "The prayer of rest is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at the point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one." He quotes Theophan the Recluse: "To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all-seeing, within you." Then Nouwen says: "The prayer of the heart is a prayer that does not allow us to limit our relationship to God to interesting words and pious emotions." (Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pp. 54, 59, 61.)
This is the secret of the prayer of rest: it is wordless and pushes past the logical thought processes into the depths of your feelings. You are face-to-face with God, who enables you to feel your feelings before you dash into thoughts about your feelings or words to describe them. You do not try to justify God's ways or to explain them to yourself or to that imaginary set of faces of other people to whom you speak more often than to God.
What kind of character do you become when you enter into the prayer of rest?
The Power to Wait and the Prayer of Rest
When you sink your words and contending logic into the prayer of rest in the living presence of God and just let yourself be in the presence of God, a whole new perspective of time encompasses you. That which you were in such a hurry to see come to pass fades into insignificance. Waiting is a cardinal feature of the prayer of rest. You walk in a park or a shopping center. You see a young mother sitting, waiting, and watching as her child wanders from her and runs back to her. In between times you catch an inwardly distant look on her face. She is saying nothing to anyone. She seems not to be thinking about anything. Yet she seems happy, and a sort of peace pervades her face as her hands rest quietly in her lap. Have you captured an external view of a person praying the prayer of rest? Only God could tell you. Only God knows.
Or something has come up in your life that is an insult, an affront, an injustice. You are seething with rage. To act upon your rage now would be action saturated with bad judgment, the height of foolishness. Yet you are filled with impatience. Visualize what this may be in your day, week, month, or year. Turn to Luke 9:51–56 and you will find two kindred spirits in James and John, the "sons of thunder," as Jesus called them. The people of some nameless Samaritan village had refused to let Jesus stay in their town because he was on his way to Jerusalem. James and John were as filled with rage as you are. They asked Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" After all, Elijah had done that in his day. But Jesus saw another way, warned them, and advised that they go to another village. It was neither the time not the place for such overkill. He himself could be indignant, angry, and impatient. Yet he urged his disciples to wait.
Such waiting pushes you past words; all you can do is groan, snort, spit, and pace. It pushes you down past logic and clear thinking. In such a state, you are submerged in your heart. You are ready for the prayer of rest. Back off, stand apart, focus your whole being on the presence of God. Enjoy God's presence. Wait before God.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, 0 people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Now you come forth from the prayer of rest with a fresh perspective of the slights and hurts you have sustained. They still matter, but they do not matter totally, not even primarily. You have been given self-control by the prayer of rest. Yet this was not the purpose of the prayer of rest. The purpose of the prayer of rest is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. The natural side effect of such an experience of waiting before God is to place the transient, fleeting hurts of life in the context of the Eternal. A pimple on the face of life ceases to be a cancer to you!
The Power to Forgive and the Prayer of Rest
When you do not feel forgiven by other human beings or by God, you are bound to them by your need for forgiveness, acceptance, and restoration to their good graces. When you can't forgive other persons or God, you have hold of them in that you hold them responsible, you blame them and cannot be gracious to them. Being held captive in these ways uses large amounts of energy. You carry a load that needs loosing. In fact, such a lack of forgiveness or of power to forgive can exercise demonic power over you and me. People can rightly ask: "What on earth has got hold of you?" The prayer of rest is your way of the heart in this dilemma.
The sense of condemnation by others and by God, or the grinding preoccupation of a grudge of unforgiveness (or both), may have pushed you below the level of words and beyond the limits of logic. Wordy or logical attempts to talk or think your way through and out of them no longer work. You are, nevertheless, by the negative forces that have hold of you, prepared to enter the prayer of rest before God. When you and I, unveiled, face the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, several profound changes will take place if we will lay aside all words and arguments and just be in God's loving presence.
We find that the bonds of the condemnation we have felt both from God and from ourselves begin to loosen. The Holy Spirit brings back to us Jesus' words-not ours:
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6:37–38)
Jesus' word forgive here is rich with such meanings as loosen, set free, release, pardon. It has the image of your and my being in debt and having our debt canceled or pardoned; or, if someone is held in debt to us, blamed by us, it means our pardoning them or canceling their debt. This is the first change that comes over us in the prayer of rest.
Then comes the awesome gift of God's inspiring in us a power to let go of our unforgiveness toward others, of God's letting go of our sins toward those who have wronged us. Turn now to Jesus' parable of the king and his servants, found in Matt. 18:23–35. The parable tells of a king who forgave the debts of his servants according to the way they forgave each other's debts. We are required to forgive our brother or sister in our hearts. Jesus' word forgive here has the central meaning of let off. Strangely enough, let off, has come back into our common speech today with this same meaning. Two children wrestling on the floor are playing until one gets an unbreakable hold on the other and brings pain to the other. Then the hurting one yells: "Let off!" Grown-ups, too, want to get unbreakable holds on each other, to have the humiliating last word in an argument, to get the best of each other. What a restless, exhausting, painful way to be.
The wisdom of God in Christ comes to us in the prayer of rest: "Let off!" Life is short. Death is sure. Your energy is precious. Rest from this hammerlock you think you have on your neighbor. Cease to phrase in your mind that clever and cutting comment you wish you had said the last time you contended with your neighbor or that you plan to say the next time you see him or her. Let it go! Let off! In the dark night of sleeplessness in which these rehearsals of your own unforgiveness plague you, return to the simplicity and sincerity of your inmost heart. You might pray Augustine's prayer: "Noverim te, noverim me"—"May I know you; may I know myself!" You begin to feel the rest that comes from having received from God the power to forgive and to be forgiven by God. What a rest!
Forgiveness that comes through the prayer of rest brings another realization from a face-to-face meeting with God in Christ. Forgiveness is more than just setting us free or letting go of us as we do the same for our neighbor. The prayer of rest brings to us the tender friendship of God in all God's graciousness. Jesus said that we are to forgive "seventy times seven," which to me means that we do not bestow forgiveness just once and cease to be bothered with it thereafter. Rather, we rehearse that first forgiveness again and again until forgiveness is the habitual atmosphere of our being. Forgiveness is like washing a garment. After you wear it for a while, the garment needs washing again. So too, as time goes on, people need forgiving again.
Forgiveness in this last sense is being gracious to one another because we have received the graciousness of God. The apostle Paul said:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4:30–32)
"Forgiving one another" here means being gracious. From the same root spring such words as thanks, gratitude, a gift freely and graciously given, a favor bestowed. Forgiveness is unmerited, unearned. It is a gift. It takes no price, exacts no ransom, and demands no contract. It springs from a greatness of heart, a graciousness of being on your part. You are tired, fatigued, and exhausted by hauling the burden of unforgiveness around with you. Having been face-to-face with God in the prayer of rest, you have laid this burden down. You rest in the graciousness of God's forgiveness.
In turn, you are taking on the character of the graciousness of God yourself. As you behold the glory of the Lord "with unveiled face," you are being "changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (II Cor. 3:18). You are, in the prayer of rest, delivered of your burden of unforgiveness and unforgivingness. Remember John Bunyan's pilgrim at the cross and sepulcher (grave) of Christ: "Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more." (The Pilgrim's Progress, p. 38; Peter Pauper Press, n.d.) The spirit of graciousness springs from gratitude for deliverance. The change in our very being is brought about by the habitual vision of the greatness of God, which happens at the heart of the prayer of rest. Thus you and I lay hold of the greatness of heart God has for us, much as Sidney Lanier wrote in reflecting upon the greatness of the sea marshes:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod,
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God.
(From "The Marshes of Glynn" )
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The republication of this book was made possible through a grant from Eleanor Bingham Miller
- Published: 02 August 2013