Rev. Karin A. Craven is guest blogging for Theresa Latini. Karin is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a second year PhD student in the pastoral care program at Luther Seminary. Her ongoing interest in emotion and images is indebted to analytical psychology, her love of stories, and to her previous work at Circus Juventas. ________________________________________________________________________________________
In recent preparation for a sermon on Psalm 77 I find myself musing about the important interplay of self-images and God-images in the practice of prayer. Prayer is one way to tend to the different aspects of the self, particularly those more hidden and strange dimensions that are not in public view but no less alive for lack of wide exposure.
The imaginative space for this work is created not just by a humble trusting attitude of hope and expectation in God, but a generous hospitality extended toward the self.
Were I to follow up this particular sermon with an adult education conversation or even another sermon about prayer, I would connect these initial ideas with Karl Barth’s ideas about what it means to be human. His fourfold movement of seeing and hearing others, of lending mutual assistance in an attitude of gratitude speaks not only to the task of reaching out to others. It can also characterize the internal movement within as we get in touch with multiple aspects of ourselves. Barth’s notion of humanity is imbued with certain hospitality, a welcoming attitude that may be easier to extend to others than it is to ourselves. And therein lies its importance to the life of prayer.
If we view our human identity as complex and multiple, contingent and provisional, then there is an implicit sense of the importance of hospitality. There is also the emergent sense of judgment as well. In the moment of emerging consciousness, a welcoming attitude toward the self offers the opportunity of fruitful encounter, especially in the context of prayer.
We become aware of self-images as we quiet and empty ourselves for the sake of contemplation and meditation. We become aware and full of emotion as we collect ourselves for the sake of purposeful directed prayer. We have monkey mind, as image after image rises up from within us. We begin to realize just how little we know ourselves, or of what we really need.
We face the choice of accepting or excluding these bits and pieces of ourselves as we encounter a community of images that live within us. There is the trickster and bully who jockeys around inside of us. The wise one and the judge reside there too, next to the flirt and the athlete, the musician and artist. We feel the presence of the abandoned child and the lover, the faithful friend and the cheat. The humble one exists there too, as does the one grasping for power. The golden child sits beside the family scapegoat. The fool and the clown compete for our attention. So do the peacemaker and the warrior. And the images continue to emerge into our conscious awareness by their own accord. Each image has its own need and gift that claim our energy and focus.
We know these dimensions of self exist when we open ourselves to the power of emotion, alive in these images. They come to us unbidden, from many different times and places of our lives, and sit on the doorstep of our prayer. They hover within sight and reach, wanting our embrace, yearning to be seen and held in the light of consciousness.
And we can welcome them into fuller awareness, accepting their existence within us, thus enlarging our unique sense of self. Taking in these estranged bits and pieces, learning from these self-images, loving them even, becomes a bridge to others. Our external community becomes larger as we see ourselves more fully in the face of strangers and friends.
It is at this point that Barth’s notion of seeing and hearing, and reaching out to the other in gratitude is needed. Not only have we practiced it in external relationships, it is precisely because of that disciplined activity, that we can extend that practice to ourselves. We need transferable skills that can help us build a sturdy practice of prayer. All too easy is the alternative option of premature judgment and inhospitality toward these formative living images within us.
We can deny these dimensions any entry into our consciousness. We still carry them inside us, but refuse to work with them, let alone love them. We repress or judge these images, disowning their very existence, pushing them away and projecting them onto others outside ourselves. In so doing, we diminish and make small our individual sense of self. We also limit and narrow our sense of community to the acceptable, more public aspects of ourselves that we choose to see in others.
Praying has to do with this interplay between who we know and imagine ourselves to be, and who we know and imagine God to be. To pray is to risk the possibility of learning something more about our very self and about God. To pray is to put our self in the position of being open and vulnerable to change at its most basic level: that of image and feeling.
Prayer is, at its heart, the experience of being addressed by the wild variety of our own otherness in the presence of the living God. And here’s where it gets tricky. For just as we have a kaleidoscope of changing self-images, we also live with different images of God. The variety of God-images emerges from Scripture and stained glass windows, from beloved hymns and sermons, from our individual and family experiences.
Isn’t this the risk of prayer? — that we engage our ideas and images of God’s power in the context of our life situation, with the dim knowledge that the reality of God may be different than the words we use to implore God’s help. At some level, we know that to trust in God’s favor and steadfast love, to ask for God’s grace and compassion is to wrestle with the living God whose reality is far beyond our images and ideas. If we cannot even know ourselves fully, our knowledge of God is even less than what we know of ourselves. Prayer teaches us that knowledge of self and God is a connected, never-ending journey of faith seeking understanding.
To pray is to risk disillusionment about who we are and who God is. To pray is to be iconoclastic. In prayer we engage in the ongoing play of our self-images and God-images, and end up with a far different picture of who we thought ourselves to be and who we thought God was. To pray is to risk changing perceptions of self and of God, and so be led further into the truth of who we are called to be, from which we encounter the objective reality of the living God, beyond all images. And for that difficult task we need the generous hospitality of which Barth speaks.