by Robert Corin Morris
“Now they’re poisoning the elephant water-holes,” my wife says to me shortly after breakfast. Our morning routine includes prayer, food, and the newspapers. “Ivory poachers killed over one hundred in the largest national park in Zimbabwe yesterday with cyanide,” she goes on. “And that’s to say nothing about any other animals that drank the water.”
A throb of sorrow pulses through my heart. Do I need this? The morning is lovely; I’ve slept well. But I’ve come to believe that while I don’t need to go looking for trouble, any trouble that gets through to my heart calls me to witness it, to let it touch me, and to offer it to God. I have no doubt that the cry of the dying elephants echoes in the heart of the God whose “eye is on the sparrow,”1 but I feel increasingly that God wants me to join that cry when I hear it myself, to pray the elephants’ dismay and distress, their dying breath, even to lift the poachers’ hardened hearts into the merciful and purifying fires of God’s own love.
For many years I have felt called to “pray the world.” My soul insists on this particular wording, even though it’s grammatically odd. Pray for the world seems to imply a kind of separation, as if I were something other than the world, rather than part of its very fabric.
All creation wants its prayer and praise to join with ours and present itself to God. According to St. Paul, the world’s “groans” rise within us, calling us to intercession, and when feasible, other actions.2 I would add that the world’s joy sings within us, too. We cannot, of course, take on the whole world. We can, however, pray the world, be the world praying, or at least the parts the Spirit puts into our hearts. If we allow ourselves to be present.
So many forces in our culture, however, seem bent on pulling us ever deeper into a self-referential, insulated bubble. You and I are part of a consumption-driven, entertainment-rich society that offers increasingly tantalizing ways to shut out the unpleasantness of the world and focus only on our own preferences, prejudices, and desires.
Once I was invited to be the guest lecturer on a high-end luxury study tour of Turkey and Greece. Superior five-star hotels (including a former pasha’s palace) sheltered us, a three-hundred foot, four-masted sailing ship carried us to islands in the Aegean. On land, luxury coaches and vans carried us to every sight and shopping location. Comfort was queen, and every possible need was met. We would “drop in” from our sphere of luxury into a tourist site, then get whisked away to the next location, finish early and return once more to the fabulous hotel.
I had a great time, but felt as if we traveled in a bubble, protected from the world by a plastic shield. I came away with the haunting suspicion that much of American life, at least for the well-off, takes place coddled by the pleasures of life inside a bubble. My colleague Geoffrey, who has worked for decades doing community organizing in poor communities, calls life in the suburbs the “playground.” That’s a bit unfair; the suburbs have their share of personal drama, dilemmas, sickness, and sorrow. But I know what he means, if only because I, too, live in and enjoy the playground.
Email and Facebook immerse me in a virtual community that can tempt me away from the body-electric engagement of face-to-face conversation. The news of the world can be tailored to block out any reports and editorials that challenge my current convictions. Cable channels offer me tantalizing choices for any of my interests. My iPod insures that even the sounds of nature can be blocked by my chosen entertainment as I walk the neighborhood. I’m in danger of hiding out in a cocoon of my own choices, rather than allowing the unchosen surprises of the real world to touch me.
A great deal of entertainment simply holds up a mirror to us, the life we live. Like Narcissus beholding his own face, we watch the dramatized foibles, conflicts, and concerns of family, workplace, or government. This was always true to a degree, of course; but balance came from the Great Stories that rooted the human adventure in a wider cosmic or spiritual context. Scripture spoke of the grace of God, fairy tales prepared children for the dark side of life, and heroes, both mythic and historic, embodied the virtues necessary for good to triumph over evil.
Such stories can be chosen from our vast pantry of offerings, of course. But from the popularity of Reality TV to the massive ignorance of both scripture and mythology, entertainment overwhelmingly holds up a mirror to our immediate culture’s pastimes, preoccupations, and passions.
St. Augustine had a phrase for all this, which Luther made prominent by his teaching: homo incurvatus in se, the human being turned in on itself.3 For both of them, it was at the heart of sin—all the attitudes and actions that choke the flow of the life-giving grace of God at work in us and the world. The biblical writers had their own incisive metaphor for what can happen to people in self-protective bubbles, especially those of wealth and privilege: “their heart is covered with fat,” that is, with insulation against the unhappy feelings and moral challenges that might call them out of themselves into engagement.4
We shelter ourselves so that we can feel safe. Letting in the sorrows of the world just raises our anxiety unless we find new and deeper sources of security than the palliatives of the playground. Lacking such security, we soothe our fears with the culture’s myriad nostrums. Shuttering our eyes, we can feel safe rather than scared, happy rather than exposed to the risk of unbidden compassion.
It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity....
It is in the “dark shade of courage” alone that the spell can be broken.5
Playing safe in the midst of difficulties can be dangerous for both individuals and societies. A certain sort of personal bravery is required to break out of the enchanted circle of the bubble and bear witness to the actual world God loves, grieves over, and seeks to save. The human race faces such challenges in this century that as many souls as possible need to be awake, inwardly engaged, and, when clearly called, outwardly active. Often, bearing witness is all we can do; if that be the case, doing so is better than keeping our “eyes wide shut,” to borrow an apt phrase from a movie title. If our eyes are open, of course, the beauty and delight of the world can spark our hearts into praise as well.
And so I pray the world. As I read the newspapers, I lift each situation that penetrates my heart to God: the poisoned elephants, the frightened families hiding from gunmen in the Nairobi shopping mall, the latest bombing victims. As I learn about the distress of people I know, “arrow prayers” shoot off, however wordlessly. Nothing good will come of my fretting about any of this. The biblical antidote to fretting is prayer (Phil. 4:6). I cannot carry the whole world. Only God can, but I can participate in God’s action through the Spirit. On occasion, a situation or a cause is laid on my heart to which I can respond with some financial support or direct action.
The 7th-century saint, Isaac the Syrian, tells us that a person with a “merciful heart...is...on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for every created thing....This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals.”6 These words encourage me to follow the Spirit’s call deeper into prayer for culture and creation.
In Christ, my sorrow over the elephants rises toward God’s heart—or, more accurately, God’s own sorrow for the elephants reaches my heart. In my middle years of excessive theological sophistication, I was leery of speaking in such humanoid ways about God’s feelings, but I’ve long since let that go. Being made in the image of God surely means that our feelings and thoughts can somehow reflect the unimaginable movements of God’s own heart.
Those divine movements seek to recruit us into God’s own love, sorrow, and compassion. Prayer undergirds the well-being of the world, completing the circuit of the Spirit’s flow from the heart of God, through the cosmos, and back to God. Prayer is for God’s sake as much or more than it is for ours.
Without prayer, our very attempts to make things better may fall far from the work the Spirit would do through us.
What is your practice of “praying the world”?
From “Shuttered Eyes, Sheltered Hearts: Life in the Bubble" by Robert Corin Morris. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June/July 2014, Vol. 29, No. 3. Copyright © 2014 by The Upper Room.
Photograph by Christine Donaldson / Unsplash
1 Lyrics for “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” by Civilla D. Martin, 1905, and see Luke 12:6.
2 Romans 8:23, NIV.
3 See Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, Volume 25, 1.515-1.516, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1972).
4 Psalm 119:70, New American Standard Bible.
5 Dag Hammarskjöld, Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Volume III, edited with extensive commentary by Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972-1975), 142.
6 The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), 344-5; A.M. Allchin (ed.) and Sebastian Brock (tr.), The Heart of Compassion: Daily Readings with St Isaac the Syrian (‘Enfolded in Love’ series), (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1989), 9.