How much of any situation do we think we see? We often act on the assumption that what we see is what there is. What we perceive is the way things really are. Thus, often our actions are doomed to disastrous effect.
The problem for human perception is that we are most likely to see only that which is already recognizable to us. One of my favorite phrases is: the mind sees only what it is already looking for.
We are trapped within the limitations of past experience. The brain, that amazing organ, still in evolutionary terms underused operates like a pattern mapping machine. All new experience, all new insight and dawning realization is, in the first instance, matched to previous experience stored as templates by the brain in the neural circuitry supporting the various levels of memory. It could be said that we only see what we can remember.
Now, by memory I don’t simply mean conscious memories. I am also including experience that has become forgotten. Memory is like the hard disc of a computer, nothing is ever lost, it just disappears from executive level recall. This is what we call the repression of unconscious memory. Repressed memory is what really is controlling our behaviors. Hence human beings are consigned to madness, i.e. madness defined as unconsciously repeating the same mistakes while consciously hoping for different results.
One of the most important prayers I know is: God, show me the pieces of the puzzle I don’t yet see. Is it possible that through prayer we might become open to the truly novel, the completely new? Could what we call prayer be one of the principle ways we escape from the limitations of our own individual memories? I want to let that question just sit for a moment.
Our suffering is highly formative. Why is it that most of us, and here I include myself, remember the painful experiences of life more than we remember the joyful ones? In risking to offer a tentative answer, I would suggest that this is part of what the Apostle Paul calls the experience of the flesh. Evolution has equipped us as animals to pay close attention to pain. In human beings, somatic pain (physical pain) breaks into our self-awareness as emotional suffering, and anxiety.
My guess is that most of us will either remember, or have seen pictures of an archaic instrument called a turntable. Turntables played shiny, black, Bakelite (a pre-runner to plastic) and then plastic discs, called records. The surface of the record was scored with grooves. Each groove was the physical impression of sound, imprinted upon the surface of the record. These grooves were referred to as tracks, and this word still is used to refer to units of music that are no longer physical groves in a plastic surface. The turntable played a needle across the grooved surface of the record converting the sound impressions back into audio sound.
When a favorite track was overplayed or the surface of the record became scratched, the needle would get stuck in the worn track or jump across the record following the line of the scratch, lodging in the damaged groove. When this happened it repeated a section of the music over and over again. The needle would then have to be picked up and moved over to the next groove for the music to continue.
Evolution has equipped a part of our brain to record painful experience in deeper grooves upon our memory. It’s a survival mechanism. So the child does not easily forget the experience of touching the gas flame, neither is the early experience of unmediated anxiety (panic) easily forgotten either.
The apprehension of Joy, on the other hand, seems to belong to another region of memory, more easily overridden by the deeper grooved painful memories. I am going to forget the 50 people who complimented me on last Sunday’s sermon and remember the one person who criticized it. That is because self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy has formed a gouge of insecurity in comparison to the shallow grooves left by a life-time of relative, success.
We easily remember the pain and forget the joy. Or, we are so deafened by the repetitive sound of our pain (the needle getting stuck) that we can’t hear the sound played by more joyful tracts of experience. To switch back to my first analogy, we see only what we most remember.
Could what we call prayer be one of the principal ways we escape from the limitations of our own individual memories? In theological language the question becomes does prayer work, can we be healed through prayer?
We can find Paul’s response to the question in verse 26 of Romans 8:
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how we ought to pray, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
The Spirit of God, working deep within us with sighs and groans too deep for words utters us into new experience. We begin to glimpse the pieces of the puzzle we have not seen before. Note that Paul says we not only don’t know what it is we need to pray for, but we can’t know what we really need to pray for. We simply open ourselves in prayer, trying to keep expectation to a minimum. Through the workings of the Spirit we begin to glimpse the outlines of the bigger picture within which our current living is unfolding.
If we can dampen the volume of the din generated by our painful memories, we loosen the grip that our current state of anxiety holds us in. But, how can we do this? Paul’s response to the question lies in the previous verse 25. As the Message (Bible) translates it:
That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
The answer is we sit, and we wait with an attitude of as much openness as we can muster. When we practice this kind of prayerfulness we discover the truth of which Paul speaks of in verse 28:
we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, and who are able to co-operate (collaborate) with God’s purposes.
Collaboration in prayer
Two elements seem necessary in becoming freed from the tyranny and limitation of painful memory.
The first element is love. We long for a deeper experience of love. This is love of God first and foremost. Yet, because love of God cannot be separated from love at the human level, we long for a deepening of the experience of both loving and being loved.
The deepening of love manifests as an increase in generosity. Yet, generosity doesn’t just happen. It is always first and foremost an experience of taking a risk. Generous living moves us beyond the barriers we erect for our own safety. Generosity reconnects us to the primary experience of gratitude. Gratitude is the first fruit of living spiritually.
The second element is co-operation or collaboration with God. Paul speaks of us being called according to God’s purpose. Theologically, God is omnipotent, yet because of free will nothing happens in our relation to God by dictat. There is a reciprocal process whereby God invites, and we must accept. This means that prayer is always our response to the prior invitation from God to come into relationship together.
The tension is to simply do that which is ours to do, without encroaching on the area of God’s autonomy. This can be such a simple process of simply noticing the memories while not acting on them. When we act upon memories we let them continue to define us by letting them have the last word on how we feel. Instead, we can simply watch the memories coming to the surface. As we watch we can quietly say:
I may have memories yet, there is more to me than these memories.
Waiting, watching and not acting opens a chink through which to glimpse that which we can’t yet see. Through this chink, the Holy Spirit with sighs and groans too deep for words, or even conscious thought, is enlarging our capacity for seeing and hearing and experiencing the more than, i.e. the new.
A parishioner sent me a wonderful email. In it she shared her experience of being a potter who is coming to see that what at the time she felt was a mistake or a failure in the glazing process now appears to be: highly beautiful and eminently, right. This discovery of the new emerging as she lets the earlier memories of failure be, is leading her to see something new. She recalled the lines articulated by the poet Wendell Berry in Traveling at Home:
Even in a country you know by heart it’s hard to go the same way twice. The life of the going changes. The chances change and make it a new way. Any tree or stone or bird can be the bud of a new direction. The natural correction is to make intent of accident. To get back before dark is the art of going.
The Apostle Paul in the 8th chapter of his Letter to the suffering and hard-pressed Christians in Rome draws a distinction between the life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit. I suggested at https://relationalrealities.com/2014/07/19/romans-8-viewed-through-a-seashore-prism/ that we translate flesh into appetite or desire, and spirit into intention.
Paul proclaims that through the cross and resurrection of Christ we are more than conquerors through him who loves us, because no experience, either actual or remembered has the power to limit the possibilities that emerge when God’s love for us finds echo in our longing to love God. Put another way ultimately, memory cannot limit what we are in the process of coming to see and hear, and to discover. Through learning to watch ourselves in prayer we collaborate in our liberation into a future that has already taken place (is predestined is Paul’s word) in the mind of God. Collaboration in prayer or collaboration as prayer is simply letting the words of Wendell Berry sound within our hearts:
The natural correction is to make intent of accident.