Friday, May 05, 2006

American Monasticism: conclusion

“My whole life becomes a prayer” said Thomas Merton, “my whole silence is full of prayer [and] the world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to that prayer.”[1]

This “whole life” approach advocated by Merton, Lawrence, Peterson, etc… is an approach that has opened up the mystery of an approachable God for me. It is an approach that redeemed me from my own failed attempts at “doing” the right things in an effort to gain God’s favor, and instead allowed me to accept His love without question, and without striving.

It is the devotional quality of this experience that has roused me to try and articulate these thoughts in this way. It is my desire to help others encounter God more deeply, more fully, than perhaps a more routine approach would permit. I have not done this lightly, however, for I am aware that there always exists the dark danger that we might dilute the devotion and love our God deserves in an attempt to “succeed” more quickly at being spiritual. But I am of the conviction that God is always pleased when we endeavor to please Him, and that all of our attempts at getting this right appear to our Father’s eyes as the playful songs and imagination of children in the spring, playing with their Dad.

Spirituality has become more about embracing this world rather than escaping it, more about loving all of the created order than waiting around for its doom and hoping I don’t have to watch; so, with this in mind, allow me to say that it is my dear hope to have contributed in some way to the greater conversation about how we might use every available avenue to connect more personally with Him.

I leave you with thoughts from Brother Lawrence, who articulates my own thoughts far better than I ever could:

What I wanted was simply to belong totally to God, so I decided to give everything I could give in order to attain the greatest blessing in return – knowing Him. I gave myself completely to God, accepting His forgiveness of my sins, after which I renounced everything that might offend Him. I began to live as if there were no one but God and myself in the world.[2]

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 91.
[2] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 1982), 52.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

American Monasticism: Pilgrimage of the easy rider

Thomas A Kempis’ words on pilgrimage paint a tenuous picture for those with earthly concerns:

“Keep yourself a stranger and a pilgrim upon this earth, to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.”[1]

Yet I often wonder if this sentiment, this seeming impatience with mortality, doesn’t cause us to miss out on a great truth. The word pilgrim, by the way, comes from the Latin word meaning ‘resident alien’ and it can also mean “to wander over a great distance”[2], but a pilgrimage is not merely a journey. It is a journey precursored by mental and spiritual preparation, and those “intentions are necessary for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage.”[3]

While I think most spiritual seekers understand this to be true, that the value of a pilgrimage is not necessarily in arriving at a specific destination, I am left with some deeper level questions.

For example, we tend to think that the purpose of the pilgrimage is the journey – the change that such an ordeal brings to our soul and spirit - but what if it’s not?

What if it is the pleasure?

What if it is the pleasure of the pilgrimage that brings value into the journey? What if, in our efforts to be free of the temptations of the flesh, we have actually subdued the enjoyable parts of our quest in a vain attempt to be more authentically “spiritual”? What if we grow not just through trials and tribulations, but also through the incredible experience of joyfulness and happiness granted to us by God?

We tend to get so caught up in the tasks we have at hand, that we may have unwittingly reduced even a task less thing like a pilgrimage into something to be accomplished. Yet I think that the true worth of a pilgrimage is in the wandering and in the distance themselves, not necessarily just in the internal transformation that occurs, for it is in these wanderings that we are introduced to new experiences and in this distance that we discover the periphery of our identity.

I would like to offer that one common way in which we all make regular pilgrimages is through the internet. If truly a pilgrimage is marked by purpose and by wandering/distance, then certainly the internet qualifies for our meanderings online are intensely marked by both qualities. Furthermore, when we approach any medium – particularly one so open ended as the world wide wed – we are given the opportunity to make spiritual and mental preparation and, in doing so, create a spiritual paradigm for understanding this quest as divinely oriented.

Like the desert to which the Fathers ran long ago, the internet is not an entirely safe place. Full of pitfalls and snares for the unwary and the tempted, the internet has become the “country of madness”[4] and the “refuge of the devil.”[5] Yet sites like, and give us a glimmer of what things may be like in the future for those who would reorient the world of technological vice to one of hyperlinked virtues. These are examples of sites where you can post prayers or share concerns, where you can explore the motif of journeying inwards towards yourself and upwards and throughwards into God.

They are decidedly and deliberately spiritual.

I have spent the last several months developing two pieces of software.[6] The Prayground [] is an online experiential prayer exercise, designed to interface users with sacred readings, art, photography, and live audio mixing in an effort to embrace a multi-sensory approach to cyber spirituality. My hope is that spiritual seekers will use the Prayground – a free site – to experiment with such a pilgrimage and to take a few moments to try and discover what it means to intersect spirituality with technology.

Community W, on the other hand, [] is a clone that is designed to connect users one-to-another along the lines of shared interest and mutual practices online. It has a very low design profile, but a high functionality in terms of cross-referencing data and matching up people with other people of like mind. In this way, it almost resembles a dating service, though it is employed for less “intimate” results.

Of course, the church world is not the only realm in which the “journeying” motif of the internet is being explored. Sites like [] and [http://www. ] are gaining notoriety. Their expression focuses on the reclamation of Voice, which has been stolen from the people in our postmodern world, and the undying human interest in a good story. The Cluetrain Manifesto, for example, holds as one of its 95 Thesis that they “want you to drop your [business] trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, and join the party [of finding your Voice]”[7] showing that even in the business world there is an increasing awareness and value for the journey, and pleasure of the journey, that we all might take together.

Another form of pilgrimage that we might experience is memory.

In a world threatened by collective amnesia, Walter Brueggemann has suggested that one of the great fights of 21st century Christians must be the fight to remember all that God has done in service to, and providence on behalf of, His people.[8] Memory certainly requires us to journey backwards into the recesses of our minds, reliving some painful experiences as well as those memories that cause us to well up with joy and anticipation. Yet is it precisely this range of emotion that many minds have turned to during their physical pilgrimages to sacred sites on the earth.

In the Psalms of Ascent[9] we see this kind of reflection, and even a kind of longing, when the psalmist looks up to the hills[10] and recalls the days of apostasy where his people worshipped foreign gods. Those gods now seem close to the psalmist, and – thirsty and far from his goal – he longs for the easy worship of those old days. But quickly his stray thoughts are bolstered back to salvation by his memory – “my help comes from you, Lord, maker of heaven and creator of the earth” and he knows he can no longer fawn after quick solutions to eternal strife.

The more we begin to explore pilgrimage as spiritual formation, the more we can begin to understand that there are deserts other than those full of sand. There are places of liminality, places for wandering and distance, all around – and even within – us, and it is our great privilege to find them and to explore ourselves in them as we endeavor to draw closer to Jesus Christ.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004),149.
[2] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 151.
[3] Ibid., 155
[4] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 6.
[5] Ibid.
[6] It should be noted that Gabe Cooper is developing the Prayground and Dave Buchannan is working on Community W. Contact information is available upon request.
[7] Rick Levine, et. al, The Cluetrain Manifesto (Cambridge, Perseus, 2001), xxvii.
[8] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination
(Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993).
[9] Commonly considered Psalms 120-134
[10] Cf. Psalms 121 NIV

prayTripper: the ancient practice of honesty and transcendance

When I was about eight or ten years old, my good friend, Ryan Rainnville discovered that his father, Russ, had contracted cancer; and, three months later, he died.

In three months I saw my friend’s dad visibly deteriorate almost before our very eyes.

Russ was an active participant in our church - he was one of our worship leaders, and was always up on the platform, even during his battle with cancer. He was leading in the corporate worship space, in the corporate worship time, and demonstrating for us what it meant to be a person who honored God in all circumstances. Russ was a great dad, a great example, and he was a great father.

The night before Russ died, I can remember being overcome with emotion. Our whole church was praying for Russ’ recovery, and we, as a church, believed that prayer could bring healing change to his health. So, as a young guy, I remember standing there shaking with the belief that if I could somehow just say the right prayer, like if I could somehow do it right, that God would heal Russ Renville and spare his life.

Well, the next day he passed away and so I was catapulted into this whole huge set of metaphysical questions that young boys aren’t entirely equipped for. I begin to ask questions like, “What does it mean when you feel like you have faith, but God doesn’t answer your prayer?” What does it mean when you ask for something, when you ask for a favor, for a little bit of help, from the god who created you, from the god who knit you together, who breathes life into you, who is the giver and sustainer of life—the Bible refers to him as the Great Physician—what does it mean when you call the Great Physician and he doesn’t answer?

When I think of prayer, I think of that prayer, my very first unanswered prayer and what that did to me in my understanding of spirituality and the lessons that I’ve learned about how we understand God.

I think one of the great mistakes that we often make is the mistake that I made as a little boy and that I still make all the time is that we think that prayer really is almost like spell-casting. We think if we can pray the right words or say things the right way, that we can somehow magically invoke the Great Spirit of God; but the Bible doesn’t support that belief at all. In fact, nothing that we’re taught about prayer or about God anywhere in the Scripture sounds anything like a magical incantation.

It’s the exact opposite.

Prayer, quite simply, is conversation with God.

When your speech is directed to God—that’s prayer. It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter if you say it right. It doesn’t matter what words you use or what language you use. It doesn’t matter if it makes any sense. The fact that we come to God is most accurately, most definitively, prayer; so you can’t pray wrong.

There’s no wrong way to eat a Reeses Pieces; there’s no wrong way to pray.

Did you know that prayer is actually the oldest form of human communication? The earliest records we have in all ancient civilizations, be they Mayan or Ancient Egyptian, or Phoenician, are records of prayer. We have accounts of people worshiping the Creator, of people calling out and begging for some kind of contact with God, and tat’s a thread that’s maintained itself throughout all of human history, because today we see in every culture, in every little undiscovered part of the world, as we discover it, we find people searching for God and wanting to have contact with God.

I think that speaks to us here in the Twenty-First Century, living in a post-modern world in America, full of Best Buys and Wal-Marts and Starbucks. It tells us we have a need to talk to God, a need to get some answers, a need to get some clarity.

For people in the ancient near east, prayer was an act of total openness. There weren’t any rules that they were trying to abide by; so I love when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he was walking on the water. The disciples are all in a boat and they’re discouraged, the storm comes up and they’re worried for their lives [that they’re going to be capsized and they’re all going to drown]. They look out across the water and they see Jesus walking on the water coming towards them.

Peter, terrified by the sea and yet full of faith in the power of Jesus Christ, sees Jesus walking out on the water and gets out of the boat to try and actually emulate this miracle. Incredibly, Peter begins to also walk on the surface of the water towards Jesus, calling out to him and reaching out to accept Jesus’ stretched out arm.

Then Peter begins to falter. He gets scared, doubts, and he begins to sink. At this point, Peter prays one of the most profound prayers that we see anywhere in the Bible. He says, “Jesus, help.”

That’s all.

It’s a great picture for us of how that whole culture understood prayer, that there’s not form or convention, just desperation for God to hear us. Now, over the last couple thousand years we’ve put all kinds of like tricks and tips into prayer, into making prayer right or into making prayer nice. But let’s read from Psalms, Chapter 5 and look at the beautiful portrait of King David’s heart totally borne open before God.

Listen, GOD! Please, pay attention!

Can you make sense of these ramblings, my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.

I love that he starts off by going, “Am I making any sense here? Does anyone up there understand what I’m trying to communicate right now?”

Every morning you’ll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out
the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.

You know, I think there’s probably times where everyone of us feel like our lives are in pieces, where we feel our family is somehow separated from itself or we feel like our job doesn’t relate to our faith or that our faith doesn’t relate to our marriage, etc…I love that even King David, the foremost figure of Jewish royalty, one of the most important historical figures of all time, says, “My life’s a mess. My life is in pieces,” and what is his response? “Every morning I take the broken pieces of my life and put them on your alter so that fire can consume them, can unify the garbage of my life.”

You don’t socialize with Wicked…

That’s “Wicked” capitalized, “Wicked” personified, a person named “Wicked.”

…or invite Evil over as your houseguest.

Hot-Air-Boaster collapses in front of you, you shake your head over

God destroys Lie-Speaker, Blood-Thirsty and Truth-Bender disgust

And here I am, your invited guest—it’s incredible! I enter your house;
here I am, prostrate in your inner sanctum, waiting for directions to
get me safely through enemy lines.

Every word they speak is a land mind, their lungs breathe out
poison gas. Their throats are gaping graves, their tongues slick as

Pile on the guilt, God! Let their so-called wisdom wreck them. Kick
them out! They’ve had their chance.

But you’ll welcome us with open arms when we run for cover to you
So let the party last all night long and stand guard over our celebration.

You are famous, GOD, for welcoming God-seekers, for decking us
out in delight.

You know, when I pray, I typically don’t want to do anything wrong—like I don’t want to call anybody names. I try to avoid things like, “Oh, God, help me with that total, dirty, Communist jerk who I hate.” I don’t ever pray like that, because I’m afraid that He’s going zap me, or call down divine WMDs or something.

But King David prays using some caustic labels for people, “Don’t socialize with Mr. Wicked, Hot-Air Boaster, Mischief-Maker. Destroy Lie-Speaker, Mr. Blood-Thirsty and Truth-Bender.” Remember that are probably references to a real person[s], not a fictional narrative. This is a real man, a national ruler, who is talking about actual people. David has in his mind someone who he identifies as Mr. Wicked, the bad guy, and he’s calling out to God these accusations.

This prayer starts out by painting a picture of total honesty before God. The mistake that I always seem to make is that I’m always fudging the truth. David, on the other hand, comes and says, “I hate this guy and that guy and that guy and that guy. They are wrecking my life, so pile on the guilt for them, Lord.” David isn’t playing games.

If we’re going to approach prayer, I think we really have to grab hold of the fact that God is not interested in our BS.

He’s not interested in our lies, in our deceit.

He wants us to come completely, honestly to him - He knows the truth anyway, he’s able to see through you—but he values it when we’re honest.

So let us ask ourselves a couple of questions:

When was the last time you actually told God exactly how you felt?

When was the last time you said something to God that you’d never say to your spouse, to your friend, to your brother, that you’d never say in church?

Understand here that I’m not advocating some kind of prayerful potty-mouthing. I’m talking about vulnerability, about coming open to God, about cracking open your chest and bearing your soul and saying, “Maker and Father God, I need you.” I think that’s what we see here in David.

Even Jesus, when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer [which we have so often, erroneously, reduced to some kind of formula] attempts to show us that our whole lives are to be presented before God as an offering, that there is to be no stone unturned, that every part of who we are and how we understand ourselves is to be given to God without restraint.

My dad taught me how to pray when I was a little guy. He knelt beside my bed and every night before bed we did this family thing. He always taught me that prayer was about thanksgiving, repentance and request. I think the whole rest of my life, I’m never going to be able to get that out of my head, but it gives me an anchor for those times when I don’t know how to pray.

I remember when I was doing college ministry and working with college kids, we had a group of guys who were recovering heroine addicts [actually, they were just addicts when they came; thankfully, they became recovering addicts]. Our group of college kids was so cool in how they embraced these guys and how they loved them and welcomed them into our community. I was really proud of them.

But I remember one fellow showed up and has got about 800 hundred piercings in his face, and he’s got a Mohawk and he’s covered in tats got a big chain hanging off his belt. We had a lot of people like that anyway, but this guy was bit different.

As he’s walking down the aisle—he’s going to come and sit in the very front—I’m seeing all my guys and gals stare at him. Because I can see them staring, I’m getting mad while I’m preaching and I’m judging them for judging him. I can remember thinking, “Oh, you hypocrites, how can you do that? Don’t you know Christ died for you?” Until this guy gets to the very front row and he stands up and turns around and bends over to move something off his chair. It’s at this point that I realize that the bum-cheeks are cut out of his leather pants. Now I’m the one staring – and his naked behind is staring back while I’m trying to talk about Jesus.

My experience with this group of guys taught me that people really don’t really care what advice I have. They don’t care about my formula for life, about my three points to this or how I understand that. They don’t care one bit. The only thing that matters to them is that I love them, that I talk to them. There are months that go by where I’m not even sure I did anything good to help them, but what mattered is that we talked, that they spoke into my life as much maybe as I spoke into theirs.

I think this must be what the experience of prayer is like for God. I think He’s asking us to cut out the formula, to just get to the heart-issues, to who we really are and who He really is, and pour out our lives out ahead of Him.

Jake, my two year old son, and I were watching T.V. yesterday morning. We’re all cuddled up on the couch watching The Wiggles and I say, “Hey, bud, Daddy really loves you.” To which Jake replies, “Daddy, I like The Wiggles.”

“Yeah, do you know your daddy loves you?” “Yeah.” “Do you love Daddy?” “Daddy, I really like The Wiggles.”

For the next ten minutes, I am desperate to hear “Daddy, I love you. Daddy, I love you.”

I think maybe this is a good place for our prayers to start.

Prayer is the, “Daddy, I love you.”

I told you about my friend, Ryan Renville, and his dad, Russ, and what that did for me to have those prayers remain unanswered. A couple years later, I went to the Philippians with a humanitarian aid group. We were in a city called Tarlock and had a couple days set aside to go pray with people who were connected to the school that we were working for.

So, myself and another gal from Vancouver got into a taxi with an interpreter and he starts carting us around to all these different places to pray for people. One of the stops that we made was in a little hut, up on stilts with a thatched roof and a small generator for electricity. It was pretty primitive. Inside there’s an older Pilipino fellow lying down in a bed. When we enter, he props himself up on an elbow and looks at us. Our interpreter walks in and they talk while we’re waiting.

Finally, the interpreter says, “Why don’t you come pray for this older fellow?” and we begin to pray. Remember, in this story I’m young, I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’m feeling sick and I don’t know why I’m there. The whole experience makes me feel stupid, but I remember putting my hand on this fellow’s arm and praying for him. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I remember it feeling lame – weak – and being something like, “Dear God, thank you for this day. Help this guy and make him happy. Amen.”

Well, this fellow hops out of bed, runs around, grabs a kettle and makes some tea while we all sit down at his kitchen table and are talking. It’s all still feeling awkward, but this man is really animated and will sit down and talk to us for a bit and then get a big burst of energy and run around the room, then come back and sit down for only a second.

Our interpreter is visibly pleased by all of this, but we’re still a little disoriented.

We leave, say goodbye, and as we’re driving back in the taxi I ask the interpreter, “What happened? What was he so happy about?” Through his broken English and, of course, later on as he talks to others, we find out that this old man hasn’t walked since he was seven years old.

The foolish, simple prayer of a young boy and girl from were used by God to be the conduit for incredible healing power.

So, when I think about prayer and what it is, I have these two poles, these two stories - of Russ Rainnville, my friend’s dad, who I loved, who I admired, who I prayed for with every ounce of vehemence and fervor and who wasn’t healed – and this elderly Pilipino man who I have never seen since - whose name I don’t even know, and the way God used my crummiest prayer to bring healing.

I look at these two things and all that I’m left with is that life’s not about how good you pray. It’s about how God’s goodness, about how he honors our openness and honors our love. It’s about how He sits and waits for His little boys and girls to look up and say, “Daddy, I love you.”

American Monasticism: Centering on rebels without a cause

“Centering prayer is an opening,” says Tony Jones, giving us a layman’s definition of the ancient practice of centering prayer. He continues saying, “it is a response, a putting aside of all the debris that stands in the way of our being totally present to the present Lord, so that He can be present to us”[1]. Historically practiced by mystics and Hesychasts,[2] centering prayer is the practice of of mental ascesis that involves the use of the Jesus Prayer assisted by certain psychophysical techniques,[3] namely, various breathing patterns and bodily postures.

Hesychasts generally believe that there is a deeper, more fundamental state of existence hidden beneath the appearances of day–to–day living. For the mystic, “the hidden state is the focus, and may be perceived in any of various ways — as God, ultimate reality, a universal presence, a force or principle, psychological emancipation — and be experienced or realized directly.”[4] This kind of spiritual attitude is described in the ancient text, The Cloud of Unknowing, as being the process by which “the pray-er ascends above the ‘cloud of forgetting’ where all creatures and all thoughts dwell, and rises toward the ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which God dwells.”[5]

However, “centering” is really a notion with a much broader application than that of monks and ascetics, and I think we might do well to explore what centering might look like in some common instances. Jones’ alternate definition, printed later in the text, says that “[centering] is a laying aside of thoughts, so that the heart can attend immediately to [God]”, and with that in mind I think we can extend our definition of centering to include such things as illness, conversation, hospitality, and laughter.

When we become ill, for example, we are forced to re-center. We are forced by the encroaching awareness of our own frailty to consider what is truly important. It is why families spend so much time together at hospitals, and why elderly church ladies sing hymns before they die. It is the reason why bedside manner is tantamount to good medicine, and why the love and compassion of a minister brings peace to the sick and comfort to those who remain at home.

This centering, though, is not merely a re-prioritization of family values, but a re-enthronement of God; and this is why I rarely doubt the sincerity of deathbed conversions. In the face of death, men become afraid and look to God for salvation; and, when we look and are willing to receive, He allows us to become absorbed into His center and be made whole once again.

When I first began my own exploration of spiritual formation and Christian growth I asked my father, Bishop of our denomination and Pastor for over forty years, what he thought was the most effective way of growing as a Christian. “Trials,” he replied “we grow most through our trials.”

Yet centering does not always have to be a heavy experience. Indeed, the “laying aside of thoughts” also has a lighter side – the side of hospitality, of laughter, and of conversation. This is the side represented by Jesus’ human qualities demonstrated by his willingness to eat with anyone, and his unwillingness to ever eat alone. It is the side of friendship and of closeness with those around us, and it is where we fight battles against the circumference of despair. Many mistakenly fight those battles with anger, or with greater fervor, but I maintain that we are best served in finding our center through a full compliment of light and love, and through the great embrace of close friends and family; for it is at the dinner table where we can find our center as we find God in the midst of our family.

This is one of the great omissions, in my mind, of so many of the wonderful treatises written on spiritual disciplines: they ignore, and some even disdain, family. Yet Jesus, despite his caustic words to Mary in Mark 3.32-35, certainly seemed to draw a larger, more inclusive line around family – calling “whoever does the will of God [to be His] brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus seems to indicate that men are now “friends of God”[6] and no longer servants by addressing God in familiar terms, such as “Abba”[7], and by modeling for His followers what it meant to speak affectionately to YHWH.

If we are to truly begin to center our lives, I cannot help but think that we ought to begin with those things that are most local, most accessible – family, hospitality, laughter – rather than the sometime gnostic path alternative. We make a mistake when we limit the value of centering to an otherworldly expression of a God, absent in our sensual and material world. I think if we are to truly emulate the life of Christ, if we are to truly grow in grace and godliness, we cannot only look to the admirable lives and practices of saints – whose admirable lives have taught us this ancient discipline - but must also look to the life of Christ and the examples in scripture that demonstrate what it means to be ‘in this world, though we are not of it.’[8]

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 73.
[2] Name for the Eastern Orthodox priests and holy men who practice centering prayer. Cf.
[3] Cf.
[5] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 71.
[6] Cf. John 15:12-17 NKJV
[7] Lit. “father.” Cf. Strong's Number: 5,
[8] Cf. John 17.14-17 NIV

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

American Monasticism: Solitude of the Midnight Cowboy

For many years I have been a motorcycle enthusiast, and the moment I close my eyes I can recall the exhilaration of riding down the TransCanada Highway every night on my way home from work. Now, despite the fact that Vancouver is a rainy city, with 1200mm of rain annually, I rode my motorcycle every single day – rain, snow, or sleet – everywhere I went. In the process of becoming that familiar with riding, and that familiar with the elements, I also became that familiar with being alone.

I became familiar with the low frequency thrum of my stovepipe muffler as I ignored the needles of rain that forced me to shut my eyes into two slits.

I became familiar with the hiss of passing cars and the deadness that bald tires make when they hydroplane, and you pray to God that car doesn’t slide into you.

I became familiar with prayer, with motorcycle prayer, with the absolute isolation you can experience on top of a bike surrounded by other people who are simply trapped inside their 6 cylinder cages watching the world go by like more T.V.

You see, when you pray on a motorcycle there’s so much noise and commotion around you, you actually begin to tune it all out and are left with only 105db of yawning silence. You don’t really notice that silence until you try and speak, or – in my case – when you first try and pray. You don’t really understand that silence is the silence of something, that the things that make noise are now the things that are in silence. It’s at that moment that you realize two things: [1] you are utterly, utterly alone with no chance of human contact, and [2] in order to be heard, either by your own ears or your perception of God’s, you have to scream.

There’s something powerful, almost feral, about having to scream your prayers out to God in order to feel like they’re being heard.

Tony Jones, in his exploration of the spiritual practice of solitude, identifies the purpose of solitude as being the discovery of what we can “learn from ourselves when we turn off external stimuli that are so much a part of our world.”[1] For Richard Foster, the purpose of solitude was to cultivate “increased sensitivity and compassion for others”[2], a sentiment that Esther de Waal echoes eloquently when she notes the solitude helps her “stop thinking about the world and instead start feeling and seeing with some of the same immediacy.”[3] De Waal continues saying that “by entering the cell, the cave of the heart, we encounter God and we encounter our own selves”[4], which bears an eerie similarity to the experiences I used to have on the TransCanada.

It was on that motorcycle that I allowed myself to explore isolation with God. Where once hermits escaped into the desert, or men like John Chrysostome sought solitude away from the organized church within the cities, I found my solace at 100mph in the dark rain of Vancouver. It was there I truly began to understand the metaphors of the invisible yet material spirit, the ruach,[5] which whipped past my face with crystal alacrity and gave me the chill I know our ancestors must have encountered when they first began to explore a spirituality that was far more sensual than esoteric. It was that spirit, that breath that both hovered over the waters at creation and formed the first words and language.[6]

It was that same spirit that I was able to engage while riding my motorcycle.

And I was able to engage that spirit because I was free from distraction. I was free from the fragmentation of a consumer world where every clerk treats me like I’m the thing for sale. I am able to disengage the pieces of my life, engage the peace of God, and find “quiet” by yelling myself hoarse on my bike.

But I don’t want to romanticize only this experience; for, though I have had this same experience many times on a motorcycle, I have also experienced it rock climbing, or hiking and – ironically – have never experienced it during a 3 day retreat in isolation or a 5 day fast in the woods. It is the same kind of experience Christ sought in the Garden of Gethsemane[7] and the Psalmist coveted in times of despair,[8] it just looks a little different at present for me.

Thomas Merton said that a man “becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary”[9], and in my experience I reference that moment back to my first screaming prayer, where I knew I was alone with God.

It was then that solitude was no longer a potentiality, but an actuality – a reality that awaits my stillness, for “as soon as [we] are truly alone [we] are alone with God.”[10] It is in that aloneness that we “encounter God and we encounter our own selves”[11], and that God renews us “in solitude and in prayer”[12] by the power of His Spirit.

Solitude, then, is not about seclusion as much as it is about attentiveness; and, though some may find attentiveness in the middle of nowhere, we are better served when we look inside ourselves and ask God to be present with us in our aloneness.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 41.
[2] Ibid., 42
[3] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 100.
[4] Ibid., 103
[5] lit. “spirit, wind”, “seat of the mind” Strong's Number: 07308, Cf.
[6] Cf. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 20-22.
[7] Cf. Matthew 26.36ff, NIV.
[8] Cf. Psalm 143:5-10 NIV.
[9] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 77.
[10] Ibid., 177
[11] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 103.
[12] Paula Huston, The Holy Way (Chicago, Loyola, 2003), 13.