Not as in the old days I pray, God. My life is not what it was... Once I would have asked healing. I go now to be doctored... to lend my flesh as manuscript of the great poem Of the scalpel. I would have knelt long, wrestling with you, wearing you down. Hear my prayer Lord, hear my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads of mortals have kept up their shrill cry, explaining your silence by their unfitness. It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about. It is the annihilation of difference, the consciousness of myself in you, of you in me...I begin to recognize you anew, God of form and number. There are questions we are the solution to, others whose echoes we must expand to contain. Circular as our way is, it leads not back to the snake-haunted garden, but onward to the tall city of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.
What is it we do when we pray?
Last week we opened up the question by writing about silence – the waiting. But what do we expect? Writing at the height of faith in science, Thomas sees the scientist replacing many of the needs we used to have for God. In the UK it has often been said that the NHS is the new national religion. The advent of the vaccine to ward off Covid has, understandably, been greeted with the same acclaim that the Second Coming might expect. Medical science teaches us that genetic defects can be inherited – the sins of the fathers are, in that sense, passed on to the children – literally. But this is not the same as thinking, for example, that those with leprosy somehow are being punished by God.
I don’t know about you, but for me some of the most difficlt parts of the Old Testament and Psalms are to do with what seems to me almost a self-righteous satisfaction in the enemies of Israel being smitten with all varieties of plague. No doubt the Chosen People were often unworthy, and the Psalmist often excoriates them for their infidelity and the plagues it brings down upon them. But this is a mindset now, in most places, banished by the light of modern science.
But, if in the 1970s “Science” rode high, and as a consequence, our need for God seemed to shrink to the margins, then for the poet that posed questions about prayer and its purpose. God created all things, and the patterns of numbers, what Thomas called the ‘adult geometry/of the mind’ reflects him the way all Nature does. Was the new Eden to be found, perhaps in the temples of science?
How stand such shining hopes now? Grateful though we shall all be as and when the vaccines mean that we can find a way to stop socially distancing, the lockdowns and social distancing have suggested to us the limits of science. I tread carefully here. When I pray to God for healing, I do not disparage the science of medicine, but I recognise something else, which is that the spirit has needs of which the medical doctor knows but little. Blind faith is a bad idea, and that applies to science as much as to faith. Some things we need medicine for, but while it can heal the body and save our lives, one of the things covidtide leaves us with is the question of “living for what?”
A society in which I am free to go into a supermarket with dozens of people as long as I am masked and try to keep my distance, but where I am not free to go to Church and do the same, where people cannot attend a dying relative on her death bed, where the tender love and care we give through touch and contact are not allowed, raises real questions about what life is for?
Those are the questions to which, in the silence of meditative prayer, I put to God and await his answer. It may just be that I lack the scientific mindset, but I still pray ‘as of old’.
There is an #adventbookclub using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here: https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god. We’ll be running this club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. Other folk doing this are https://grahart.wordpress.com/, and https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/ so please pop over and read their thoughts too!