THE VOCATION OF PRAYER: FROM THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL TO RETIREMENT
by John Buttars
Throw the word “prayer” into a brainstorming session and my first responses are decidedly negative. I have skeletons in my prayer closet where prayer is fake and useless, associated with self-righteousness, prissy formality, vapid sentimentality.
At the same time I intuited prayer as deep, fearsomely intimate. In the eighth decade of my life, part of my self-identity is as a man of prayer. And by “man” I mean the total specificity of this one human life. I may not pray well, whatever “well” means but I do pray, as in having intentional, regular, and consistent practices that engage my body, mind, and spirit, enabling me to be more conscious of my connection with all that is, here and now: around, within, transcending, connecting with the “All in All,” what we colloquially name “God.”
How did this self-identity as a man of prayer arise? It was certainly not chosen. It grew hidden, like a mustard seed, a sign that the Spirit has been praying within me long before I was conscious of it. The most obvious starting point was feeling disembowelled in the early years of paid accountable ministry: disembowelled by life, by being pulled in seemingly opposing directions in ministry, marriage, parenthood, and in my confused and confusing interior and exterior worlds. Before formal ministry, there were streaks of light pointing to the banquet that has come: wonder-struck as a child on a starlit night, moved by some of my father’s sermons, seeking to pray as a teenager, or being moved by beauty. Other than chapel worship, attention to the spiritual life was absent in my theological studies. If I prayed as a student or in early ministry it was to read other people’s prayers.
A few years after ordination I began to fear that if I kept at life the way I was travelling, rich and rewarding as it was, I would end an empty husk. A residency in hospital chaplaincy edged me into my inner world. Upon returning to the pastorate two unexpected processes began: facilitating and participating in congregational prayer/personal sharing groups and meeting with a Jesuit spiritual director. My academic and social gospel self was astonished, even embarrassed by these developments. Twenty years or so into this journey I said to my spiritual director that a phrase was stuck in my head, “The Rev. John Buttars is dead.” She asked, “What happened to the Rev.?” My inner identity had shifted. Yes, I remained a United Church minister, but now less a man of the church and more a man seeking to commit my life through physical, mental, and spiritual practices to a living of the Way, to the building of the commonwealth of God, to the unfolding Christifying work of God.
At first I sought to learn practices, a challenging learning curve. My first spiritual director, John Haley, SJ, shared words and images foreign to my Protestant ears. He suggested I come to Loyola House north of Guelph for several hours once a month and simply remain in a bedroom. Just be. He guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, which was followed by initial training as a Spiritual Director. There were also events at Five Oaks and the Toronto School of Theology, plus many books.
It felt like being invited to travel to, and live in, a foreign land—and it was exhilarating. Preparing sermons evolved as I incorporated gospel contemplation and lectio divina into the process. Pastoral Counselling reoriented into more of a guiding relationship, with my beginning to listen with an inner ear seeking to discern what God was doing. Teaching expanded from primarily head knowledge to heart and spirit foci. John Veltri, SJ, organized the first Week of Guided Prayer in the congregation, and it continues in Guelph more than thirty-five years later, and has spread around the world.1 I began to share my experiences with the congregation and members started to take retreats, engage the Ignatian Exercises and even get training as spiritual directors. One layperson, Lorraine Dykman, began a covenanted relationship with the congregation as a Spiritual Companion and others followed. I also began to provide leadership: retreats, talks, spiritual direction (companioning). I was gaining new skills, and I had mentors upon whom to rely. I could see the lives of people in the congregation, even in the larger community, being transformed and enriched; mine was too. One colleague told me that he grieved that people’s lives were being changed by the AA group in the church basement but nothing seemed to be happening upstairs in the sanctuary. That was not my situation. As challenging as ministry was, I was growing, even thriving.
Intentional, consistent, and regular practices gradually began to form. It was tough initiating and maintaining them. I experimented with reading for a half hour in the morning, going for a walk, using prayer workbooks. It was trial and error, sometimes feeling a failure, sometimes affirmed. There was lots of inner resistance. Slowly a more consistent lifestyle emerged, helped enormously by my life partner experimenting with similar practices. The lifestyle that started to emerge was something I began to see as “contemplative.”
Here is a brief overview of my constantly evolving practices. A detailed description would require a face to face conversation.
Daily: I have four periods totalling about sixty minutes, three of them very short, one of them outside. I engage my body, mind, spirit, memories, emotions, consciousness. Activities include movement, singing, writing (dominant and non-dominant hands), reciting, ritual, reading, art, and more.
Weekly/Monthly: Having intentional, regular, and consistent practices is work. I need a break. I practice them normally six days a week, but sometimes specific practices or a full day are missed. I am grateful for one guide noting that his practices shifted about every six months. I see a spiritual companion approximately every six weeks, finding them through referral or by choosing someone whom I trust. I attend monthly Taize services when available and Sunday worship about three Sundays out of four. I try to turn off electronic devices two consecutive days each week (and can go weeks in the summer without them).
Yearly: I attend Taize weekend retreats once or twice a year as well as have a silent retreat, normally eight or nine days in length. Most of them have been taken at the family cottage. Since ordination I have taken one yearlong study leave, three sabbaticals, and designated the first six months of retirement a sabbatical.
Holidays: I do not maintain my formal practices when on holiday or away from home for short periods. However, I find that elements of them creep into these times away, and for that I am grateful. A daily early summer morning kayak paddle can replace some of the more formal prayer periods.
What I have learned in this journey has been piece-meal, more like picking up jigsaw pieces than suddenly discovering a fully finished puzzle. The journey continues as a rich unfolding conversion story. What I have learned is specific to my personality, history, and orientation to life. Others might find similarities but experiences are always specific to an individual. Nothing that I write is prescriptive. Here is an alphabetical list of some topics.
Absence. My experience of God is often in absence. At one time the sense of absence fed my doubt and darkness. Now it provides space for seeking to love as God loves. I do not understand why the absence does not bother me as much, nor how the absence can grow into a form of presence, but I treat it as one example of how God prays within me. The essential of a contemplative life is to show up. As Abba Moses (Egypt, 4th C), said, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Art. I have a school memory of being shamed for a drawing. One spiritual director encouraged me to try again. My first piece was a revelation. Occasionally with pastels I draw a mandala or print short phrases that particularly speak to me, all with my non-dominant hand. Doing so always draws me into the present moment, sometimes expresses hidden emotions or insights and amazingly can provide a living Word. It always feels like prayer. I always feel better.
Breathing. Breathe deeply. My distractions are endless, my inner life like a nonstop soap opera, a boisterous cocktail party. It takes much effort to bring my attention to my breathing, to the present moment. However, only then can I meet my truest self and my Maker.
Desire. I try to pay close attention to my heart’s deepest desire. Sometimes I develop a prayer out of that desire. Twenty-five years ago, I began to seek a deeper intimacy with Jesus. It sounded terribly evangelical, and, in embarrassment, I kept it under wraps. Nothing seemed to happen until I realized I was reading voraciously about the misuse of power within the church, the ongoing crucifixion of Christ. This has become focused on a multitude of books on reconciliation in Canada.
Discernment. “Do not judge,” said Jesus. Do not compare, condemn, react. Pay attention, experience non-judgmentally. I try to use a threefold process. What am I noticing? What am I learning? In response to the noticing and learning, is there some small step I can take? This approach is in stark contrast to being reactive in life, a liberating gift since congregational ministry can be full of reactivity, and today’s social media is by its very nature reactive. The opposite of a contemplative life is not inactivity but reactivity.
Circle of Love. Intercession is a mystery. Do our prayers make any difference? Shopping list prayers seem cheap. True, I have been changed by my praying for others. Now I practise intercessory prayer with the image of placing people and situations within a circle of love including those profoundly different from me (even Donald Trump), or the people for whom I write letters on behalf of Amnesty International, their persecutors and jailers.
Fallow time. Dryness and feeling lost have been companions in my journey, but I have found it helpful to reframe these times as fallow time. The field may look dreary but it is resting and in that resting there are things happening; I don’t need to know what God might be doing below the surface of my consciousness. Nothing is wasted in the contemplative life, neither the shabbiest nor the most beautiful.
Formula. John Cassian (CE 365-435) emphasized the desert tradition of repeating a single phrase to move towards purity of heart and unceasing prayer. As a formula he recommended Psalm 69, “O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.” This developed into the single word focus of Western Christianity (such as “Maranatha” of the John Main stream), or the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Christianity. I try to use both, the word or a few words for my twenty minutes of silence in Centering Prayer or a form of the Jesus Prayer other times to help keep me in the present or to deal with distractions. There is a lot more joy in repeating a short formula than going down the rabbit hole of self-condemnation or hyper reactivity. A contemplative life is fully active and has given me more focus for works of peace, charity, and justice.
Friends/Colleagues/Groups. I am grateful that in my first pastoral charge in Manitoba the Conference and the University of Winnipeg set up pastor groups. There I learned the significance of being part of an ongoing collegial group that shares, prays, learns, and seeks to be open and honest. The focus was learning skills, speaking from the heart and hearing oneself into truth and abundant life. In retirement I continue to belong to collegial sharing groups.
Images. Theological school was a world of ideas. Now images are equally important and have been life-transforming. Contemplating Lazarus bound in the tomb, I found myself, between sleep and wakefulness, feeling bound and imprisoned in darkness, and hearing a voice cry, “Come out!” In a process of gospel contemplation and conversation with a guide I came to identify a primal life-long question, “Is there a place for me?” My fearful “I” believed there was not. I left the retreat shaken, deeply grateful for the experience and newborn alive.
Intentional/regular/consistent. These concepts are essential to the whole enterprise. Discipline is not a four letter word. A new practice needs to be carried out for at least three months before a fair appraisal can be undertaken.
Listening. Prayer is essentially listening. I wonder if God wants to respond to our wordiness with, “Shut up!” Learning to listen has been a challenging discipline. It has to do with being in the here and now, paying attention, being “mindful,” as Buddhists would say.
Novice. My first spiritual director was adamant I would always be a novice. Experiences are collected, insights gained, maybe even some wisdom. There is no graduation but an invitation to life-long learning.
Reading. This activity is a life-giving practice but contains a temptation. It is easy to think that, if one reads about prayer, one has prayed. You haven’t. And a lot of my “secular” reading speaks deeply to my life of prayer, inter-penetrating and deepening my contemplative life.
Repetition. In school I learned that repetition happens when I behaved badly or failed. However, in a contemplative life repetition is to deepen the experience. This continues to be a challenging insight as my ego cries, “Boring!” always craving new experiences.
Self-care. I cannot separate self-care from my contemplative life. Life is a whole, its parts inter-connected. Physical exercise, nutrition, contemplative practices, reading, attitude, and self-talk interweave into the quilt of life. I seek to be in more authentic relationship with myself, others, the natural world, and God. I see all of life as simultaneously secular and sacred.
Self-emptying. This is at the core of my daily prayer, seeking to empty myself of all the stuff in my inner and outer life, and to take on the mind of Christ even though I am not sure what this entails. The practice of self-emptying, particularly in Centering Prayer, has led me to ponder whether God emptied God’s self and made space for creation so that we and all reality exist within God. This theological journey has been intensified by doing the Ignatian Exercises a third time through the lens of evolution and the thought of Teilhard de Chardin. To have one’s theology shaped by prayer is profoundly satisfying.
Self-knowledge. A saying from one of my mentors was, “I know what I know only when I say it.” I have learned that for me to truly know myself I need to speak, write, or draw what is within; externalize it in some fashion. Thus, hearing myself, and being heard, helps keep me honest about myself, my motivations, attachments, attitudes, and enables me to own my own truth. Christian mystics have always seen self-knowledge as inseparable from knowing God. “May I know myself that I may know Thee,” St. Augustine prayed.
Silence. It was only in silence that I discovered that my inner world was peopled by “demons,” particularly free floating anxiety, specific fears, and shame, some having their origin in early childhood experiences. To allow these room to surface and speak required more courage than I could ever have anticipated. There is a nakedness in silence, in withdrawing from the regular routine. Insights can transform: I lived without a clock for a week in retreat, discovered my natural bodily rhythm and returned home never to use an alarm again. Gradually I have noticed increasing joy and gratitude for beauty or small mercies.
Vocabulary. Just as a patient can feel “better” when given a diagnosis because now one knows what is being faced, so learning a tradition’s vocabulary can be extremely helpful. Ignatian terminology and rules of discernment have been particularly useful, as was the Celtic Christian naming of two scriptures, Bible and Nature. Personality orientations through the Myers Briggs Type Inventory, Spiritual Types, and Enneagram have been illuminating.
Words. We in the United Church are wordy. In leading public prayer, I have fewer words. Yet words can become a living Word. A transforming Word can come in a phrase or image, from a book, poem or sermon. A Word can also be heard within, like biking home on a cold Sunday afternoon after leading two services and sharing in a seminar; unbidden, I heard, “It’s time to set down this full-time responsibility” which led into months of discernment around retirement.
I visualize my inner world like a watershed with rivers and creeks, some larger, some smaller, draining into a lake or maybe several lakes. The streams vary in health, turbidity, length, width, depth, biodiversity, and so on. However, they all contribute, sometimes more helpfully. A lake can be inaccessible, my life too cluttered with anxieties, tiredness, hunger, loneliness, to-do lists. Sometimes a lake is rough with storms, sometimes beautiful to behold. In the depths of these waters, the Holy One is present and at work. Exploring the watershed continues.
When I heard a call to retire I was not burnt out or cynical. Although the routine of ministry vanished, the backbone of my life was intact because I carried on with all of my practices except one, the annual week of retreat. After eighteen months, I booked another retreat discovering that my wellbeing depended on continuing to live with a full complement of intentional, consistent, and regular practices of body, mind, and spirit.
The contemplative life continues with joy and gratitude. It has been and continues as a pilgrimage of conversion.
1 For a history of the Week of Guided Prayer see http://orientations.jesuits.ca/weekofguidedprayer(1).pdf).
First appeared in Touchstone, June 2019. Reproduced here with permission from the Author and the Editor of Touchstone.