08 March 2014

On Drawing Prayer Circles

[[Dear Sister, have you heard of the books referring to drawing a circle around one's biggest dreams or needs and then standing there until the prayer is answered? They are based on the Jewish legend of Honi who drew a circle and prayed for rain. He stayed inside the circle until it rained and it did! God answered Honi's Prayer! I just wondered what you thought of this approach to prayer.]]

Hi there. I have heard of the books and seen them advertised on Amazon, but I have not read them. The legend of Honi, however is one I am somewhat familiar with. Honi, a first century BC scholar who is sometimes called the "one who draws circles", was faced with the need for rain during a drought. He eventually drew a circle and announced to God that he was not going to move until God sent rain. It was Winter, the rainy season, when he did this. When a smattering of rain came Honi announced to God that that was not enough and reiterated his intention to remain there until there was real rain. There was a downpour and at this point Honi told God he wanted (or the people of Israel needed) a quieter, less destructive rain; he said he would continue to stay in the circle until God sent that instead. At this point there came a quieter rain which the ground could drink up and which would not be destructive because of flooding, mudslides, etc.

What is important to remember however are the two responses this action drew from Jews. Some excommunicated Honi because he had indeed blasphemed God by his actions. Others (a Queen) excused him saying he had a special relationship with God. There is ambiguity in the story and both wisdom and very real danger in the lessons we draw from it about prayer. Sometimes the line between the two is exceedingly fine; I personally believe Honi crossed the line despite also showing us some of the things necessary in a life of prayer and despite his special relationship with God. So let me say something about that and what I believe the author of these books on "drawing a circle of prayer" as well as what his readers must be cautious about.

The positive lessons on Prayer Honi gives us:

All prayer is meant to allow God the space to work in our lives. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit we open our hearts to God so that God may enter those spaces, know us more profoundly (in the intimate Biblical sense), and accompany us in every moment and mood of our lives. That means opening ourselves in ways which reveal our deepest needs and dreams and doing so in a way which lets those dreams and needs be shaped, qualified, transformed, and answered by the presence of God and his own will or purposes. In other words we hold our dreams and needs open to God's transforming and fulfilling presence. We take them seriously; we claim and honor them, but we also hold them somewhat lightly because God's presence can cause us to reevaluate and even redefine these in light of his love and purposes. For instance, my own dream to become a teacher or to transform the world is rooted in gifts coming from a really profound place within me which I must hold onto and express, but I must also be open to the possibility that I am not going to be teaching in the ways I thought I might nor transforming the world in the way I dreamt I might. The Kingdom of God comes through our attentiveness to our deepest needs, gifts, and dreams; we must not ignore these, but at the same time, that Reign rarely looks like what we thought it might.

Drawing a circle around my desire to teach, etc, allows me to get and stay in touch with the profound gifts within me, while praying about this allows me to open these spaces to God and to collaborate with God in becoming the teacher (or whatever else) he may desire me to become. Standing in this circle allows me to remain trusting in God's love and determined that the best use of my gifts be made, but I am neither defining (drawing) nor standing in this circle in order that God might be "informed" about who I am, what I feel, dream, or need, nor that his will be shaped accordingly. I stand in such a circle so that I may consciously and faithfully bring these things to God and allow their potential and promise to be realized in ways I may not have even imagined myself. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to me because it requires 1) a conscious claiming of gifts, needs, dreams, etc, 2) a faithfulness and deep trust in their potential and in the power of God to bring all things to fullness or completion despite ostensible signs otherwise, and 3) a commitment to watch for the ways in which God brings things to fulfillment even when these are contrary to my own plans and conceptions. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to the degree it demands and facilitates attentiveness and perseverance in prayer.

The Negative or Dangerous Elements in Honi's Approach to Prayer:

However, as I say, it is my opinion that Honi crossed the line which the leadership of the Jewish People considered blasphemous and worthy of excommunication. He moved from persevering prayer to blackmail or extortion, and he did so by treating prayer and the drawing of a circle as a way of leveraging God. When I think of what Honi did with the circle it sounds a lot like a child saying to their Mother, "I want cake for dinner and I am going to lie here in the middle of the floor until you let me have that! Not only that (once mom pulls out the vanilla cake mix!), it had BETTER be a chocolate cake!" Despite the vast difference between this and what I described in the last section, the line between these two is often a very fine one indeed and we need to be very careful never to cross it!

Prayer is always about intimacy with God but it is not the intimacy of peers, much less of persons who can dictate to God what their needs are and the ways in which they expect these needs to be met. Honi crossed this line as well. He forgot that in prayer he was dealing with the Master of the Universe, the One whom he was called to serve  in persevering prayer, not one we can call on to serve us in a demanding and willful pseudo-piety. Perseverance is necessary in prayer, but stubbornness is a different matter. In prayer we do indeed open our hearts to God, but we do so in a way which allows our dreams and needs to accept the limitations of reality and shaped by that. We continue to hope, but the certainty of our hope allows a flexibility and demands docility as well; God's purposes and will always ultimately eventuate in a fulfillment of what we dream of and desire or need most deeply. We need to trust that that is the case even as we allow ourselves to be instructed in the fact that we cannot always see or imagine the how or the shape of this fulfillment. We do not EVER dictate terms to God. It seems to me that Honi forgot most of these things in his own prayer.

Similarly, it is important not to think that God is outside the circle. We must understand that drawing the circle of prayer circumscribes a space where God is intimately present with us in the very circumstances we ourselves are suffering. We draw the circle and say effectively that we will stand here WITH God and trust in his lifegiving presence despite all the difficulties and ridicule that may entail. Honi's actions seem very different to me than this. He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand (dust!) which separated himself from God and turned the situation into a "me vs God" struggle rather than allowing it to define Honi as an I-Thou covenantal reality. It is important in prayer to recognize that our truest needs and dreams are God's as well, and that we stand together as covenant partners committed to the unfolding and fulfillment of creation. Even so, this is never the same as allowing prayer to become a kind of martyrdom (witness) against a God who finally capitulates to our demands.

Further, we must take care that the drawing of prayer circles not be allowed to deteriorate into a kind of magical thinking where if we do x (e.g., draw a prayer circle around my child), then y (e.g., his safety) will be the result. One of the real dangers of the idea of drawing prayer circles is that we begin to think that we have done what we need and therefore the result is assured. While this is similar to the extorting-God mindset (in some ways it seems like a "kinder, gentler, version") it is as contrary to the true dynamics of authentic prayer as is the demanding, self-centered, blackmail version of things. Since the author of these books has a version for children it seems to me that parents need to be particularly cautious in being sure they do not contribute to notions of prayer that have more to do with magical thinking than with prayer. Children outgrow magical thinking but if it becomes codified in their approaches to prayer this becomes a huge obstacle to developing a mature spirituality later in life and it contributes to unnecessary disillusion with religion and the practice of prayer.

Risk and tension are always there in our Prayer:

Finally, it seems to me that the Legend of Honi the circle drawer reminds us that there is always risk and tension in our prayer. Prayer requires a boldness and a steadfastness which can easily deteriorate into presumption and stubbornness. It requires an intimacy which runs the risk of devolving or being distorted into actual blasphemyAfter all, it is one thing to say, "Here I stand, I can do no other" WITH and for God; it is quite another to do so as   though God was simply another person on the parish council who needed to be convinced and prodded into action. And of course negotiating this risky business is part of what it means to learn to pray and to live a prayer life. As we mature in this we become better at a kind of "holy boldness" and an intimacy which is never presumptuous but which instead reminds us of Mary's part at the Wedding Feast of Cana. There she spoke directly, even boldly, to her Son about the needs of the host and she clearly knew her Son could do something about the situation. But Jesus drew limits as well and while Mary stood back a bit in light of these, she continued to trust  in her Son and counselled others to do as he said. It seems to me that Mary's interactions with Jesus in that story are a more accurate image of the dynamics of prayer --- especially the "holy boldness"  required --- than Honi's legend itself manages to give us.

I hope this is helpful to you. You might also check out, On persistence in prayer and other posts linked to the labels found below.