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Is Prayer Bad?

Newsweek had a piece in their June 20 issue about the growing number of hermits, mostly Catholic people over 50 who have had some sort of intense religious experience as well as some sort of tragedy in their lives. Generally admiring, writer Lisa Miller focuses on Agnes Long, a seventy-something New Jersey woman who is a consecrated woman in the diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Long was a successful upper-middle class woman whose first marriage ended when "she betrayed her church and filed for divorce." Reporters don't know that civil divorce is not in itself against Catholic faith, though remarriage is (without a declaration that the first marriage was not successfully contracted). After the death of the second man she married civilly, she felt called by God to confess her sins and to live a life of penance and silence. Now she lives in the wilderness, making icons to supplement her social security check. She has not kept the vows she made when she retreated to visit her children back east every year and she seems not to keep contact with one of her children, though it's not clear why. And she ends up eating more meat than she planned since the neighbors often shoot deer and give her venison. But she is able to do what God called her to: enter into a deeper life of prayer.

The article ends with a very nice line: "A decade of solitude has taught her, she says, that she is as broken as anybody and that God's love is unconditional."

All in all, it sounds as if Agnes has the spirit of the Desert Fathers. It may not be my calling, but it's a recognizable one.

What interests me are the two letters printed in the July 4 edition of the magazine. Susie Leonard Weller, who writes as a "spiritual director and life coach" (two self-designations that make me wonder if she knows anything about life or the spirit) offers the story of her own mother, who was also inspired by the Desert Fathers and ended up in some sort of monastic setting. She concludes, "My mom loved me in her own way, but it's been difficult to reconcile a faith that separates union with God from loving others."

Okey-dokey. My mom loved me, but the faith she practices doesn't believe in loving others? Or maybe we are meant to understand that her mom "loved" in the past tense, but doesn't love her now because of her faith.

I'm afraid I can't understand either of these two possible explanations. If God calls someone to a life of prayer and silence, that doesn't mean he or she doesn't love you. It means that God has called that person to share in the aloneness of Jesus on the Cross. It means that perhaps God has called that person to love you in a way that you can't understand--simply in prayer.

The other letter comes in more straightforward blowhard-know-it-all-guy-in-the-bar-who-knows-organized-religion-is-a-crock-I'm-angry-with-my-religious-mother-jackass letter writing style of a guy who's never met Agnes Long but feels compelled to offer his views on anybody who does weird religious things. BEHOLD, Edward Huber of Philadelphia:

"If Agnes Long had really heard God's voice speaking to her, as she claims, she would have found herself drawn like Jesus to the stink, poverty, and corruption on our planet ("Life in Solitary," June 20). What she heard, I'm afraid, is the voice too many of us hear, which calls us to abandon suffering humanity so that we may live out useless lives of peace and solitude until finally our souls die with a whimper."

O Wise Elder Edward, we are not worthy of your wisdom! "Useless lives" whose "souls die with a whimper." I am sure the poor suffering humanity of Philadelphia, PA crowds to your door to hear your compassionate response to other people's choices. They long to hear your wise counsel about their lives. "You there, drunkard, I don't know you, but it is clear to me you are living a useless life of hangovers and blackouts until finally your soul dies with a whimper." Oh, I'm sure you're quoting the words of Jesus or the Compassionate Buddha or Oprah or something. Please don't tell me, I'm too unexalted.

Well, all scorn aside, Edward and Susie represent a significant problem in human, but especially modern western life: Susie is focused on her needs alone, though she is a grown woman; Edward is focused on "suffering humanity" without being able to resist the temptation to judge the soul of a person who's made different choices than he has whom he knows from a two-page article in Newsweek.

Neither, unfortunately, has any clue that prayer is itself a spiritual task that we are all called to, and that some are called to do in a more radical fashion. These "shock troops" of the kingdom of God live in a state that represents what eternity is like: focusing on God's desires and worshiping him--letting him take care of our business as we take care of his. Some will be called to active physical care of the suffering poor, others will be called to a life of more intense directed prayer, and all will be called to love in the way they are able.

But all are called to continual prayer. It is this witness of the hermits that catches in the craw of the West where we believe that life is about doing, doing, doing.

In the real world, that is the Christian world, we should know that the motto is "Don't just do something, get on your knees and pray."

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 5, 2005 8:54 PM.

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