|Huge (15 - 20 feet tall) rhododendron on our street|
- Maximus the Confessor, "Asceticism."
"Pray without ceasing" is one of the directions of the New Testament (I Thessalonians 5):
"14 Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. 15 See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
I always found this confusing and a little bit troubling, because of the way my mind works. When I am concentrating on something, I am concentrating fully on it - and this means that I can't process two kinds of directions at once. A good example of this is in my beginner's ability on the tennis court ("step into the ball" and "set your racket for a volley" are not both going to happen at the same time, yet). It is also true in living off of the tennis court; how could one pray without ceasing, when concentrating on listening to our spouse, or following a recipe, or planning/implementing a marketing strategy, or composing a letter?
The quote from Maximus the Confessor gives me a great feeling of relief, for it is intuitively true, and I can recall living this way while Katie was sick. "Cling[ing] to God with deep emotion and great longing" was what I did as I was fulfilling "all the actions and events" that unfolded before us, moment by moment.
There were times, after her passing, when I questioned my prayers; had I done EVERYTHING that I could, had I missed some point, was there something I had left undone that might have made a difference to her survival? That path of thinking is highly self-destructive, leads nowhere and to nothing good, and is fundamentally untrue - but it is tempting to take it, once in a great while. Maximus' statement is a healing balm for the parched and dry soul who has been on that empty and dusty path, and I remember: Yes, God knows my heart; God knew that my deepest, strongest, most profound longing was to save Katie's life.
That prayer was prayed every moment in what we were doing. It was heard, and it was known. Apparently, it was not possible to give the answer that I wanted to receive, under the circumstances. It is not because of what I did (or didn't do), or how I did it (or didn't do it), that Katie died. My prayers, as Maximus defines them, were constant and deep.
One answer to those prayers is found in the loving presence of God in His people, which was a daily gift during this trial; the medical staff which supported us so lovingly, faithfully and skillfully. Another answer is the fellowship of support for new cancer research, and the progress being made on that front: the will to change the methods of treatment AND outcomes for others. Yet another answer to those prayers can be seen in the changes that occurred (and are still occurring) within me, changes at the heart of who I thought I was, and who I am gradually realizing that I am. God hears our prayers, even if we don't know how to express our thoughts and feelings.
As it says in Romans 8: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
28 "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31 " What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? ...Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died —more than that, who was raised to life —is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
35 " Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
'For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.'[j]
When I look out of the window at the new, brilliant-green leaves and colorful buds and blossoms, I realize that, in Western Washington, spring does not necessarily bring the expectation of warm, sunny days. Here, spring means new growth, greenery and color. It doesn't mean guaranteed barbeques, sunbathing and outdoor sports; it means lush foliage, renewed birdsongs, baby eagles and foxes and other creatures coming out of hiding. This reminds me of the promises above in Romans: we will have troubles; we will have trials, "we face death all day long," but that will never "be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord," who hears our prayers in any form we offer them. Thanks be to God!