By J.S. Porter
When you come to the holy, you come to it without pride or adornment, without plumage or puffery. You come naked, or as close to naked as you can get. You come in confusion, in doubt, with a troubled mind. You come with plain words, with as few words as possible, or with no words at all. You come, as the Catholic media theorist Marshall McLuhan says you must, “on your knees.”
When you come to the holy, you come the way the disciples came to Christ in Passolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Mathew. You come in rawness, in urgency, unprepared. You come unkempt, with uncouth language and smelly armpits. When you come to the holy, you come by prayer.
On December l, 1968, when the Trappist monk Thomas Merton approaches the giant Buddha statues of Polinnaruwa in Sri Lanka as part of his Asian pilgrimage, his first impulse is to take off his shoes. In The Asian Journal he writes: “I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand.” With his shoes off, he notices “the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle.” He feels himself “suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things.” He pierces “through the surface” and sees beyond “the shadow and the disguise.”
Merton has a soul-opening encounter with these statues. But it’s important to note that he begins by taking off his shoes, by feeling with his feet what the grass and the sand may tell him. Shoes would be a hindrance in such encounter. They would come between his feet and their experience and appreciation of the earth.
Fancy words and elegant phrases can sometimes be a hindrance too in addressing the holy. Late in life, Leo Tolstoy came to this wisdom. In his Master and Man, a work so charged with Christian radiance that it might be added to the New Testament as the fifth Gospel, two approaches to prayer are made vivid.
The first approach is embodied by a rich landowner, Vassili Andreitch Brekhunoff, and the second by his poor serf, Nikita. The rich man has three names. The poor man has one.
When the master and his servant find themselves lost in the midst of a snowstorm, they each address the holy in their own class-conscious ways. Vassili, fearing he might die from the cold, uses extravagant language to make his entreaties to divinity. He prays “O Queen of Heaven! O Holy Father Saint Nicholas who teaches us abstinence.”
Nikita, finding himself in a similar situation of frostbite and possible death, prays with very simple language: “Little Father—our Little Father in Heaven!” He imagines God to be little like himself. His last spoken words in the narrative are “O God, Little Father of ours, surely thou wilt call me also? … If so, Thy will be done…”
The one approach to prayer is to summon frilly words, words of lace and embroidery. The other approach to prayer is to say whatever is in your heart without regard to sophistication or elegance. Northrop Frye once remarked that the Lord’s Prayer is not a particularly elegant utterance. It’s plain, it’s simple, and yet it’s also very powerful for reasons having to do in part with plain speech and linguistic simplicity.
I have a familial connection to the Lord’s Prayer. My son has it tacked to his corkboard and my father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, clung to the prayer as one of his last memories. The prayer also had significance to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his imprisonment by the Nazis. He said the prayer each morning to a group of his fellow prisoners until he realized that one person in the group was not a Christian. He stopped saying it then for fear he would cause discomfort to that one person.
In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the German-born Toronto sculptor, Ted Rettig. I first saw his stone sculptures at Father Donovan’s art exhibit at the Hamilton Art Gallery in 1994. One piece in particular caught my eye. It was a stone piece the height of a human thigh and the width of a human skull. The stone was hollowed out in the middle, and there was a small bronze gate opening to empty space. I felt that I was looking at a holy object, an icon of Golgotha, honouring the risen Christ.
Ted comes to the holy in many different ways: through his relationships with family and friends, through his sculpture, and through his words. Like Nikita, he doesn’t try to impress in his prayers, he doesn’t try to be eloquent or wise. He takes off his shoes; he speaks plainly from the heart.
My prayer life
is very modest
It seems so small
so hidden away and ineffectual
not part of our busy world
But I like it very much
and need it
This prayer has no title, no punctuation, no metaphors. Perhaps it doesn’t even conjure any images for the reader, and yet it evokes such beauty and power.
The prayer brings to mind a poem by the German poet, Paul Celan. The poem is called “With wine and being lost,” and it recalls Tolstoy’s snowy landscape and amplifies the meaning of Ted’s imageless prayer. The translation is by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh.
With wine and being lost…
I rode through the snow…
I rode God far—I rode God
near, he sang,
our last ride over
the hurdled humans.
They cowered when
they heard us
lied our neighing
Is prayer a form of human neighing to the divine? A sound more than a word. A cry more than a language.