Jane Vennard and Prayer
An abiding interest of mine has been prayer and what it might mean in this materialist age. As "spiritual" as I consider myself to be, and as devoted and regular as I am with my own practice of prayer, I am willing to admit that I frequently doubt the efficacy of such acts. I continue to pray, to keep prayer lists, to light candles and offer up blessings, but I have the occasional dark night when I think, "This is all just stupid wishful thinking."
People are surprised, and normally amused, when they discover I pray, and when I offer to pray for them, their loved ones, or their concerns. But one thing I have noticed is that hardened atheists and scoffers will sometimes approach me with prayer requests when times get really tough. I take on their requests unquestioningly, knowing that I may be the only avenue they have to explore the comfort of prayer. Many people can't bring themselves to do it, but they are interested in having someone else do it on their behalf. It was ever thus, I suppose. How else to explain the existence of contemplative religious orders that did the world's praying for it?
I have made the occasional exploration of what I call "Post-Modern Prayer," and have even spoken and given workshops on that topic. You can imagine how fascinated I was to go and hear the American writer and minister Jane Vennard while she was here on her Australian tour, speaking on the many meanings of prayer and how we might use it to enliven us and our spiritual understanding.
Rev. Vennard is a captivating person and an accomplished speaker and teacher. Though possessed of that wonderful American quality of outgoing-ness, she is also balanced by a reassuring earthiness, a lack of pretension that is certainly associated with her life-long quest for what she once called "groundedness." She has a capacity to excite and stimulate her students while constantly presenting her material in an unpretentious, accessible way that would put almost any spiritual seeker at ease, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
Her day-long workshop on 'Becoming Fully Alive' is an exploration of spiritual practice as a way of life. It is an incredible day - gentle, reflective, innovative and ultimately inspirational. Along with exploring some of the intelectual and mystical traditions of prayer, we also got on our feet and explored our bodies. Normallly such interaction leaves me cold, but Jane Vennard was able to encourage her collection of awkward Australians to overcome some of their characteristic shyness, and use their bodies to explore the limits of their spiritual worlds. Specifically, we created our own private dance based aroud our dichotomous propensities to hold on to tight and to let go too much. I closed my eyes and found myself moving and, ultimately, moved. It was an unexpected moment for cynical me, and one I don't think I would ever have experienced withut Vennard's gentle prompting.
Her own spiritual journey is one that I think many in Australia - indeed, throughout the west - have shared. A desire to experience things at a deeper level and to make more sene of life's journey saw her in her 30s investigating all kinds of activities at the fringes of religious experience. She named the goal of her journey 'groundedness', but ultimately realised that it was just one of the myriad words we might use for God.
And that, perhaps, is the secret to Vennard's no-nonsense approach to spirituality. She seeks not to impose concepts or vocabularies. She has been on her own varied journey, though these days she calls herself a Christian minister. A big part of Vennard's treaching is that we are all complex spiritual beings, and that the important thing is that we continue the quest and celebrate the questions. And a big part of the spirit's journey is the attitude we take towards our body. The body can be dininished, despised and tormented, not just in the spiritual life but in the more wolrdly existecne we all lead. Jane encourages us to recognise the inherent spirtuality of our skin, and to cherish and celebrate our bodily vessel, regardless of its shape, age or afflictions.
I was struck by her very honest description of her spiritual autobiography. There was much in her story to which I could relate, and I recognised the truth of her experiences in various religious traditions, East and West. She spoke at length about prayer, and that is when my ears really pricked up, for she spoke of the seeming human longing for prayer. We ache to communicate with the greatness we percieve. It is Jane Vennard's work to encourage that connection, and to reclaim much of our life as truly sacred. Our own journeys shift through changing seasons of being, and we must afford our spiritual lives that same flexibility of experience, preparing to change and grow as our bodies change and grow.
I have bought two of Jane's books and can't wait to get started. The first, Praying With Body and Soul is an exploration of the physical possibilities of prayer, alongside the more usual mystical connotations.
As a minister in the United Church of Christ in America, Vennard knows full well the traps and fustiness of much of the conventional Protestant Christian world. In this beautiful book she gives examples of a less conventional application of prayer, and a less rigid definition of it. She tells stories of the healing power of prayer, and the ways in which our bodies might be the perfect expression of that idea some are content to call God.
The other book I purchased was Embracing the World: Praying for Justice and Peace.
This is a much thornier issue for me, and a place where I feel less comfortable. All the more important that I should sit with it a little, and explore it more. Vennard is happy to identify herself as a passionate advocate of social justice issues, and this book seems to be encouraging a more meditative and contemplative version of that path. It is a self-help book in quite a traditional sense, encouraging the reader at every turn to really identify her motives, her inspirations, and the ways that God might be calling her to use her life in the service of spiritual realisation. I know that I am going to get a lot from this.
So from today, I think that one of my goals is really going to be to make myself feel more fully alive at every possible momnent. Jane encouraged us to make a list of 15 things which we recognise as life-giving. I have my list by me now. It is my work to consult it regularly, and be reminded of the broader definitions - and possibilities - of prayer in my own life.