"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, July 15, 2016

Michael Plekon on the Uncommon Prayers We Pray

It is one of the great delights of my life that I have known Michael Plekon for a decade now, and continue to benefit from his friendship and counsel, to say nothing of his books. I have in the past written in his honour and also interviewed him about previous books, any and all of which are more than worth your time--both the ones he has written himself, and the many others he has edited or translated.

Two weeks ago the publisher sent me advanced page proofs of his forthcoming book, set for release on 15 September 2016: Uncommon Prayer. Prayer in Everyday Experience (UND Press, 280pp.). Amazon will let you pre-order a copy now and ship it upon release; but in case you forget I'll try to post a reminder of the book's release two months hence.

I asked Fr. Michael for an interview about this book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: In the few years since our last interview on here, discussing your Saints as They Really Are, what have you been up to? How did you get from that book to the present one, Uncommon Prayer, and what if any threads link them?

MP: Saints as They Really Are was the last in a trilogy of books about holy women and men in our time, how they pursued a life in and with God. I started out with persons of faith from the Eastern Church in Living Icons, but wanted to expand horizons. Thus those profiled and listened to in Hidden Holiness and Saints are ecumenically diverse, some even at odds with the institutional church. Given the conflict at the recent Pentecost Pan-Orthodox gathering in Crete over whether non-Orthodox Christian communities could even be called "churches," whether they were in any way Christian, bearers of the Spirit, the commitment to authentic and ecclesial ecumenical perspectives is all the more necessary! There is no reason, within the church's tradition, to doubt the faith of, say, a Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day, a Rowan Williams or Michael Ramsay any more than a Mother Maria Skobtsova or Alexander Men, an Alexander Schmemann or Nicholas Afanasiev or Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

I mention not only Western Christians here but some of those associated with the "Paris School" and the "religious Renaissance" among the Russians, as Nicholas Zernov called it in the early 20th century. I do so because even these faithful Eastern Church figures have been called into question as "innovationists" or even "heretics" by some Orthodox traditionalists. Listening to these "ecclesial beings" or "people of the church," as Paul Evdokimov called them, it is clear that in both East and West, such women and men were attending to the "signs of the times." They were trying to bring the church into encounter with political revolutions and those fleeing them into exile, a destructive economic Depression, the rise of fascism and two horrendous world wars, followed by a cold war and buildup of nuclear arms.

Contrary to what one might suspect, the processions of these persons of faith was anything but a march of fearful, introverted believers. Rather, those already passed into the kingdom, as well as those still with us, despite their marked differences in vision, nonetheless converged in many ways. They celebrated the life of Christ lived out in the details of everyday life. Rather than condemn secular institutions, they remembered the preaching and enacting of the Gospel in the church's earliest years. They also connected the Gospel with peacemaking, with the fight for human/civil rights and social justice more broadly.

So as it usually is, "one thing leads to another" for me. The books about persons of faith and their experiences of looking for God and trying to live with God in daily life led me to prayer, I supposed the language of faith, the heart of spirituality. I think many are turning away from making a hard distinction between being "religious" and being "spiritual." Jesuit Roger Haight's new book on this, Spiritual and Religious: Explorations for Seekers, (Orbis, 2016) goes a long way toward getting back to inherent connections, commonalities, a lot of shared space, thinking and action.

This is exactly where Uncommon Prayer came to be. I very much wanted to look at how prayer is lived out after services are ended, after the scriptures and prayerbooks are closed--there in our daily round of existence. So I went back to some persons of faith I had written about before, such as Evdokimov, who wrote specifically on "becoming what you pray," also Dorothy Day and Maria Skobtsova, who refused to pit love of God against that of the neighbor--rather seeing the two as inseparable.

I also consulted Sara Miles and Barbara Brown Taylor, really fine writers on the experience of living what you believe, and Richard Rohr, Sara Coakley and Rowan Williams, who were explicit in describing the very personal aspects of prayer. But I also went, for the first time, to poets Mary Oliver, Christian Wiman, Mary Karr, but also Heather Havrilesky, who has done memoirs, criticism, and advice-columns!

And, wanting to share some of the rich experience with which I have been gifted, I take the reader into the maybe surprising liturgical work of food prep--the “liturgies” and community built up in parish pirogi making, baking of Easter breads and other pastries and the food fairs, post-funeral repasts and weekly coffee hours. After so many years in parish ministry, I wanted to share how there really is a “liturgy after the liturgy,” not only that of the “8th sacrament,” the coffee hour, but all those other adventures in food prep and eating that are at the core of my parish’s strong sense of community.

AD: Yes, I remember only too well how stuffed I was after a BBQ and picnic at St. Gregory's one Sunday two or three summers ago! I was also amazed at the gracious hospitality extended to me, a stranger. What a parish you have! 

MP: I also did some digging into my own prayer life, excavating what lies behind a now tattered, soiled prayerlist that is at least 30 years old. This list opened up both my learning to do pastoral ministry years ago, but more importantly how both forgetting and remembering are core elements of prayer and our lived prayer. I was also led to reflect on the experience of prayer in my “day job,” in the classrooms of a large, secular, public university of great ethnic and religious diversity. This is where I have worked for the past 40 years, and hopefully it can serve as a point of departure for readers to consider their own workplaces and homes and neighborhood as locations of prayer.

AD: As a former Anglican, I hear your title and immediately think of it as a riff on Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. What was your intent in speaking of "uncommon" prayer? 

I explain this title and yes, as you suspect, I did want to suggest that just as much as we need and depend on the “common prayer” of the church, of the community here and over time, that prayer of course is never restricted to the liturgical services and books, that is, to the formal contexts. If St Paul says we should pray always and everywhere, then let’s have a look at how this appears in practice. I also think what is implied here is that we all too often imprison ourselves in the “formal” language and forms of prayer, not knowing we are doing that. And often the consequence is that we are tormented by how little we pray outside the church building and the prayers we recite or read from the books. That, in my own personal experience and in my pastoral experience, is simply NOT true! We pray a lot, in many other circumstances and locations. But often do not think of what we are saying, feeling, and doing as prayer.

AD: Your introduction notes the tendency of moderns to see religious practices such as prayer as more or less private hobbies, undertaken outside of a communal context. Do you have any thoughts on what can be done to overcome this tendency towards splitting off, towards privatizing and individualizing the faith and its practices?

We all know the old line of Tertullian, is it, about “a Christian alone is no Christian.” But it is no longer the case that the community of the local church, the parish, doubles as the same community of the village, the same community of local industry, work, factories, mines, mills. We are so much more diverse in just about everything, from language to culture to political perspective.

Robert Putnam would say we have lost community. But Nancy Ammermann would say, no, just look more closely. There are all kinds of ways we bridge our individuality to others, so many ways in which connect beyond ourselves. I think it’s silly to dismiss how we do this electronically, through social media and email and all the resources online. That is an enormous marketplace, a very real public square.  Think of the capacity we have to access books, images of paintings, pieces of music. But we also are drawn more to each other—concerts, sporting events, really an array of gatherings. And we continue to see urban areas growing in population.

All this said, our community life is NOT what it was even a generation or so ago. While some communities of faith and language and ethnicity continue as enclaves, the community of homogeneity and similarity has given way as we intermarry and move. As I see it, our faith and our prayer life is portable, adaptable. We are able, especially in America, to sing, pray, collect and distribute food and clothing with diverse others. We don’t need to question their faith; in practice we do not, but cooperate. This is the proverbial “other side” of what often appears to be an isolated, hyper-individualist culture. Putnam and Campbell in American Grace found this ability to work with others in the research they studied. I see that while there are more “religious nones,” who do not join a congregation, there are many people who try to live out what they believe, whether that takes identifiable religious/spiritual forms.

AD: I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the importance of forgetting in Christian memory, and so I was struck by your introduction's noting the importance of "the experience of God's absence, God's silence" (p.7), when it often feels to people like they have been forgotten by God. Why is it important not to gloss over these experiences, these kinds of prayers? What can be learned from them?

First of all, the experiences of seeming to be forgotten by God, of God’s silence and absence are among the most frequent, the most common we have—and not just us in the 21st century but, I think, universally, and across time. The scriptures are replete with expression of just such forgetting, absence, silence, distance, especially the Hebrew Bible, and in particular, the Psalms.

Likely those who regularly pray the psalms, like monastics and others in religious communities, have been the most aware of the forgetting/absence/silence as only one side of the reality of life with God. Julian of Norwich, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Alexander Men, and more recently, Christian Wiman, Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor—these are just a few who give powerful expression to the experience of this kind of alienation from God. So, yes, as you say, this experience of silence and absence, of being forgotten, should be essential to our prayer language. Paul Evdokimov’s essay on God’s “foolish” or absurd love for us is subtitled as being linked to the “mystery of God’s silence” in contemporary spiritual experience.

AD: You note you are drawing on a wide array of people from diverse traditions. Are there any links between the English Anglicans, American Roman Catholics, and Franco-Russian Orthodox (inter alia) you draw on? Did you find common experiences of prayer across these lines?

Yes, there are some direct, documentable connections, say between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton and the “Paris School” figures of Bulgakov, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Paul Evdokimov and Vladimir Lossky, also between Richard Rohr and Merton, perhaps his primary inspiration, but also between him and Julian of Norwich from centuries back. But even when there were no traceable connections, there are nevertheless strong similarities in perception and vision. A few colleagues and friends have noticed that so many of the figures to whom I listen, writers but also activists, in this book and the two before it, are women. I have found a preponderance of women writers doing good memoirs. I also think that when you look at the ecclesial backgrounds, it is not surprising there are so many Anglicans, then Catholics, and finally Orthodox--not a lot of Baptists or Evangelicals. Somehow, I think it must be the importance of the historical liturgies and with them, the important places of Mary and the saints, as well as monastic practices that fire such fascinating writing.

AD: Several times you mention that for at least some of the authors you draw on, prayer may be conceived as mindfulness or attentiveness to what one is doing as one goes about the day. Is it just me, or has such a discipline of attentiveness become vastly more difficult in this age of constantly beeping, endlessly updating text messages, social media, and other technical distractions? Is prayer of any type fighting a losing battle with our cellphones and tablets?

Our “devices” can be disruptive, interferences with real conversation, preventing presence to each other, substitutes even for actual encounter. Now I am neither a technomaniac nor a technophobe. I am immensely grateful for what the internet, what social media can allow me to see, access, even store and come back to later on. But I recall that even the desert mothers and fathers of the 3rd-8th centuries, in the stark desert landscape, with few texts or other distractions, were well aware of minds drifting, of boredom, depression, anxiety, temptation of very powerful sorts and more.

But mindfulness is a goal at which we can always aim. In Thomas Merton’s journals and some of his letters, one can chart his struggle to acquire greater mindfulness, more awareness of the presence of God at every moment. Merton, probably more than anyone else, restored the contemplative spirit and life to not just monastic but more general, even universal practice. I would note, too, there was not much Buddhist or Sufi about his doing so—he still has critics who react badly to his openness to Asian and Eastern religious traditions.

AD: You include wonderful selections from the "prayers of the poets." But--unless I'm wrong--apart from Dante, Ephraim the Syrian, and St. Gregory Nazianzus, all long dead, modern Christians tend to pray in prose (and unless they have the genius of a Cranmer or Chrysostom, often rather banal and prolix prose!). What is it about poetry that may be unsettling for some? And yet what gifts does it offer? 

Yes, much of our formal praying is in prose, though we surely sing a great deal and listen to a great deal of lyrical, poetic material from hymnwriters and the scriptures. Perhaps the poets I listen to in Uncommon Prayer, especially Mary Oliver, Christian Wiman and Mary Karr produce poetry that is more prosaic—simple, but precise, free verse and continuous form. What I find distinctive is the power of even short lines with only a few syllables—particularly true of Oliver and Wiman—that carry enormous weight in emotion and reflection. But in addition to these more technical points, what strikes me is the ability, especially of these here poets, but also of other writers I listen to, to sense so strongly the divine in most ordinary, inconsequential details of a field, a dog cavorting across a beach, a brief encounter with a neighbor or clerk. Again, the lesson here being the experience of God and of communion outside the accustomed confines of nave and prayerbook.

AD: I loved your chapter on the community and communion discovered when making perogies! For that made me feel far less crazy in reflecting back on an intense and memorable experience of communion and community I had at an Anglican parish in Ottawa washing dishes long into the night after a potluck one Maundy Thursday evening. Do we tend to gloss over such experiences too easily, seeing them as too ordinary, too banal, and thus inconceivable places for theophany?

Only because we compartmentalize our lives do we somehow think, this is “religious,” this is “secular.” The scriptures don’t know such segregation, nor does the liturgy. Things are of God or not. And most things are of God. Now as I say that, I can hear someone in my parish insist to me that, of course pirogi making, baking, and the big December Food Fair are fine, but what we’re really here for is what goes on upstairs, i.e. in the nave of the church, the liturgy. And I can also hear myself retorting that of course, the Eucharist is the center of everything, communion with Christ and each other, but it is only an hour and some minutes most weeks. What about all the rest of the days? Years ago when I was in formation in the Carmelites, the texts and the teachers made this point, the same as in Benedict’s Rule. The kitchen pots and pans are as sacred as the communion vessels. Cleaning a room was not inferior to chanting a psalm or reading a chapter of the gospels. But when I look at church and diocesan websites, it’s clear that vested clergy, services, and icons trump soup kitchens and clothing pantries.

AD: Having finished Uncommon Prayer, what are you at work on now?

Oh, as I said, one thing for me always leads to another. Going back to some familiar figures as well as on to ones I had not yet examined, in Uncommon Prayer, prompted me to do likewise in yet another book, The World as Sacrament: Ecumenical Paths towards a Worldly Spirituality that Liturgical Press will publish in spring 2017.

I was struck, as I returned to figures I had written about, even translated some years ago, how fresh and powerful they still sounded to me, though I found myself looking for different things from them. And I was struck by their unanimous stress that faith be put into action, that the world be “churched,” that is, become the arena for love, mercy, and forgiveness. With some this was obvious—Maria Skobtsova, Paul Evdokimov, Dorothy Day, and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

But it was less apparent though real with the likes of Alexander Men, Lev Gillet, and Nicholas Afanasiev. From review of the proposal and sample chapters, Liturgical Press staff suggested I create an ecumenical selection of writers to consult, adding to these Eastern Church authors a comparable number from the West. Thus joining the gathering were Merton, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister and Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson’s trilogy of Gilead, Home and Lila became a very beautiful way, through fiction, of looking at grace, suffering, hope and mercy at work in the lives of a number of Midwesterners back in the 1950s. These are really parables retold in not too distant American heartland settings, with characters that have become unforgettable to readers. It was particularly helpful to have Robinson’s voice, imbued with the Reformed tradition, Calvin in particular, to listen to. The Franciscan and Benedictine and Anglican streams also came through with the inclusion of Rohr, Chittister, Norris, and Taylor.

Somewhere in winter of 2017 Cascade Books should be publishing “The Church Has Left the Building”: Faith, Parish and Ministry in the 21st Century, to which I contributed an essay, a collection of reflections I gathered and edited from an ecumenical group of laity and clergy on pastoral ministry, the parish and faith today. There are particularly personal and powerful reflections in this collection, one I have been trying to bring to light for several years now and finally am, with a great sense of relief and hope. No matter the demographic changes that are shrinking, reshaping the local churches, the church as communion and community endures. And I have to say this is the focus of the book I am hoping to write in the next year or so.

After 31 August 2017, I will be retired from the City University of New York, almost to the day of my starting teaching there 40 years ago, on 1 September 1977. I intend to keep writing, and giving retreats and talks as invited, even teaching at the parish level and occasionally in college settings. But Jeanne and I would like to have more time for family and for writing, her painting and pottery and other crafts.

The last several of the book projects I have described here and my own almost 35 years of experience in parish ministry have brought me to think that the principal charism or gift the Spirit is giving to and through the churches now is that of community and communion. As we see ethnic belonging, the tribalism of language disappearing, along with multi-generational presence in a town, a congregation, we see shrinkage, many small parishes simply becoming redundant due to other neighboring duplicates of who they are.

Some clergy friends, working in the Hudson valley where I live, have shared their on-going efforts to sustain parish communities, but not without sometimes painful closings of individual congregations, mergers and rebirths, reinventions. For me, as at once a sociologist of religion, theologian and pastor, there is a lot to mine here. Another colleague, interviewed here, Nicholas Denysenko, had likewise been exploring how religious identity is fed, shaped by liturgy and prayer—this another example of trying to make sense of the profound changes the churches are undergoing now and in the foreseeable future.

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