Have We Known the Anguish of an Unanswered Prayer?

Perhaps we fell in love with the person of our dreams, but despite our yearnings and furtive requests to a higher power, our feelings remained unrequited. Perhaps we were watching the game of our favorite sports team—but they lost despite the collective energy of millions of fans. I know that may seem trivial, but a huge number of people pray for their teams to win. Perhaps we were confronted with the serious illness of a loved one, yet all our begging and bargains with God did not make them well. When I think about prayer it is hard not to remember that anguish.

And yet, for me, there are also other memories. There have been times when, to my surprise, strange and wonderful things happened after prayers. As if, despite my appeals, I never really expected a response.

Several years ago, my youngest brother in Michigan was getting married. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and we are scattered across the country. It is rare for my family to be gathered all together. At that time, our finances were very tight, but I really hoped that Margy and I could attend the wedding, since she hadn’t had a chance to meet most of my family yet. But then we found out that two tickets would cost $850. We knew we couldn’t afford that. So I prayed; and I also called my dad and asked him to pray. (No, he did not send us the tickets.) The very next morning, an email came, announcing special bargain fares from Southwest Airlines. The two of us could go for a total of $325.

Perhaps you may have had similar unexplainable experiences. A friend of mine just recently told me a story. She was having a particularly difficult night, with chronic pain that flared up keeping her from being able to sleep. She had never done this before, but for some reason, she reached out and prayed for help with the pain. And then, suddenly, all the pain went away. She was completely pain free for the first time in weeks. She was able to rest, and fell asleep in a deep peace. This prayer did not take away the pain for good. But it did remove it during several hours that night.

We pray when we face a challenge that feels bigger than we are. Praying is a way to appeal to the larger Mystery of the universe, the force for kindness or benevolence, to aid us in our smallness, our vulnerability.

All of this implies that there is something or someone to whom we are reaching out for help. Do we need to believe in God to pray? The answer is not as simple as yes or no.  I define spirituality as our experience of connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. We don’t have to understand God in a literal way. In fact it might be better understood metaphorically.

I am thinking of it like a flow of water. If we dive into and relax in a large body of water, we can float; we can also choose to draw water into our bodies by drinking, we can shape water, use it to cause change, create something with it. Prayer is like that. We connect to the larger reality through some kind of opening up or diving in. And if our connection to the larger reality is real, it is not merely an experience like going to the movies, where we can watch but not participate. Our connection creates transformation for our lives.

Swan in water MJ DSC09904

Prayer Links our Smallness to the Larger Kindness

You can only pray what’s in your heart
so if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg…
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.
                                          Elizabeth Cunningham

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The spiritual journey brings us into experience of our connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. But spirituality is not only about something we experience, something we receive with awe and gratitude. Spirituality is also about the power we hold to shape, to create, to cause change in the larger whole. Sometimes this power has been called prayer. I have also heard it called magic. But we don’t usually think of prayer as a power we hold. We usually think of prayer when we feel powerless, when we feel our need.

Why do we pray when we are in need? During our day to day lives, many of us often feel a sense of control over our lives, a sense that we are making choices, and things can be expected to turn out based on our work and our effort. But when things go wrong—when someone we love is ill, or we lose a job, or we face death, or a child is in trouble—we are confronted with our limits as human beings, we are face to face with our utter vulnerability. Think about the saddest or scariest or most difficult moments of our lives. In those difficult moments, we feel our smallness in this world.

Prayer is an appeal to the kindness in the universe, to the mysterious power of goodness and blessing that some call God. Prayer is a reaching out from that place of smallness to the larger reality in which we find ourselves. When we were very small, when we were children, we needed the help of someone larger than us. We relied on our parents or other caregivers for everything—our food, our shelter, our learning, our basic needs. That may have been a blessed experience or a painful one. And growing up in any situation, we feel a pull to become independent, to be able to do things for our selves.

As adults we are working out a balance: between giving and receiving, between helping others and getting help when we need it. But for many of us asking for help is difficult. Probably because we don’t really like to experience our vulnerability, our smallness. Possibly because we’ve had the experience of asking for help and not receiving it. In some settings in our world, to show our weakness might mean to be taken advantage of.

Prayer has this baggage attached to it. It requires that we face our vulnerability, and be willing to ask for help. Prayer is like letting go into a kind of floating—a hope that if we are in over our heads, the ocean will hold us up, rather than swallow us. Prayer opens a link from our smallness to the larger kindness in the universe.  The Sufi poet Rumi said,

Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking,
moving its head up and down.
Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helplessness inside.

Fractals Teach Us That We Matter

Oak MJ DSC03499There is another reason why fractals matter. Fractals teach us that we matter. By becoming aware of the fractal patterns throughout the natural world, we can see that all things are connected. The circulatory system of the human body branches out like the limbs on a tree. The patterns of waves on the shoreline are similar to the patterns of radio waves beaming through space. Even though we are infinitely small in comparison with the rest of the universe, what happens on a small scale reflects what is happening on a larger scale.

Some of these patterns may seem to be unchanging and eternal, but there is also unpredictability in the system. Scientists use the word chaos to describe this unpredictable behavior. Without chaos, there could be no creativity, because creativity means the emergence of something new and unpredicted.

Perhaps you may have heard of the “butterfly effect.” This phrase was used by Edward Lorenz to describe the impossibility of predicting the weather, despite creating complex computer models that looked at multiple variables. Lorenz found that a small change in the initial conditions would produce large changes when the patterned cycles repeated many times. It was expressed in metaphor as the butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can change the weather in Maine.

We have creative power as human beings. That means that what we do within our patterns has an effect on the rest of the fractal network. We are part of an interdependent web of all that exists. If we change a pattern in our lives, it reverberates through the rest of the web; it ripples out like a stone thrown into a pond. We have the power to create more beauty, more love, more truth, and more goodness in the web. We never really know what greater effect we will have on the future of the universe. We cannot control the ripples that flow out. But human beings for centuries have observed that acts of kindness multiply into more kindness in the world.

There is a fable told by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop:

A sleeping lion was awakened one morning by a mouse running over his face. The lion became so angry that he grabbed the little mouse in his paws and was about to eat him up. The terrified mouse begged for his life. “Please let me go,” he cried. “If you do, one day I will repay you for your kindness.” The idea of such an insignificant little creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the lion so much that he laughed out loud and good humouredly let the mouse go.

Then, one day the lion got caught in a snare set by a hunter and was unable to get himself free. The mouse heard and recognized the lion’s angry roars and ran to the spot where he was. He went right to work gnawing at the ropes with his teeth. Soon the lion was set free. “You laughed at me when I promised to repay you. But now you see that even a little mouse can help a lion.” So remember: no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

What we do matters. No matter how small we are, we are intimately connected to the vast universe. We are part of its beauty and its creativity and its love. The patterns in the stars live in the patterns of our hearts. We do not walk alone. These are the lessons I learn from the beautiful geometry brought into the world by Benoit Mandelbrot. May these fractal mysteries teach us ever to be mindful of our power.

What If God Is a Fractal?

What if God is a fractal? What if God is a pattern that repeats itself from the infinitely large to the infinitely small, a pattern of life and love and creativity?

Human beings have always used images to help us understand the mysterious. Some images of God are like bigger versions of human beings—the Nicene Creed says “I believe in God, the father almighty.” God has often been seen as a father, a king, a ruler, a judge, or a lord.

But when our understanding of the universe grows more complex than these images, some have been tempted to give up on the idea of God. For many people, it doesn’t make any literal sense to imagine a huge king up in the sky somewhere. And if our experience of these authority figures has been difficult, their images are more likely to inspire fear and guilt rather than help us live our lives.

Ferns Full grown DSC05279If I imagine God as a fractal–a self-similar pattern both infinitely large and infinitely small–it helps me to be a whole person—to bring together my reasoning and my heart and my spirit.  It helps my mind to fathom the larger Mystery, as well as to understand the link to that Mystery I feel within my heart.

I am reminded that it is not a new thing to compare God to a geometric shape. The Christian tradition has used the triangle to describe God as trinity. But while the triangle is a static, simple, and smooth figure, a fractal has multiple dimensions, and infinitely complex variations and expressions. That fits my understanding of spirituality—I believe that there are infinite variations in the ways we can experience the holy. As the Sufi poet Rumi has said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

There are other metaphors and images of fractal patterns that can expand our idea of God. For example, each cell of the human body contains the DNA pattern that shapes the whole body. If we use our imagination, we might say that human beings are like a single cell in the larger body of the universe and God is like the DNA within each cell, shaping it into its unique being.

Spirituality is a way of connecting our small selves to the mystery and grandeur of the larger whole of which we are a part.  If the larger whole is a fractal pattern, then in some deeply important way, we are already connected by the very pattern itself.

How Can a Mystery as Large as the Universe Connect to a Being Like Me?

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Another reason that fractals matter, and why I want to explore them, has to do with a very old spiritual quandary. Human beings have long imagined the possibility of an infinite being, a divine being, who is creator and sustainer of the universe, commonly known in our culture as God. Not all human beings resonate with this idea, and the details vary as to what God might be like, but most peoples have some sort of divine being or beings as a part of the stories and values of their culture. I have spoken of God as the larger Mystery of which we are a part.

Many human beings have also imagined that they can have a personal relationship with this divine Mystery. Most cultures have forms of prayer to entreat help from God, and forms of prayer to thank God for help given. Many people also directly experience the presence of the divine in their hearts, the intimate presence of the Mystery.

I know that I have had moments in my life when I felt held in the arms of divine love, that I felt cared for by a Mystery greater than myself. Those feelings are so tangible, that they help me get through my most difficult days. When I feel afraid, I can trust that all will be well, because of that tangible presence of love. When I feel overwhelmed, I can keep on walking forward, held in the memory of that love. But if God is infinite, or if the Mystery is all that is, how can that be? How can a Mystery as large as the universe connect to a being like me, small as a speck of dust?

Fractals have given me a new way to think about this spiritual dilemma. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself, from an infinitely large scale to an infinitely small scale. What if God is a fractal? What if God is a pattern that repeats itself from the infinitely large to the infinitely small.

Here is how I imagine it. The divine pattern is a pattern of life and love and creativity—it expresses itself in the creative unfolding of the universe. It repeats in the attractions of planets and stars, and in the evolution of life itself. Because fractals continue to repeat in self-similar ways at all scales of size, the same divine pattern emerges at the size of our own human consciousness. We can find that pattern in our hearts, the expression of life and love and creativity. Thus we can find the Mystery in our hearts, as well as in the larger whole.

In this way, fractals offer a solution to the old quandary of an infinite God relating to a tiny human being. By understanding fractals, my intellect can make sense of what my heart experiences of the Mystery. It helps me to make sense of the tender feelings I feel, and to welcome their help for the troubles that life brings. I feel less lonely, when I feel connected to the divine love. It becomes possible to believe that I matter, that I am not just a speck of dust in a vast uncaring universe. I have within me the fractal beauty of the infinite MysteryFerns More DSC03600

Facing My Own Attachment to Separation

Porcupine DSC05211

When I take seriously the interconnected web of all existence, when I begin to try to experience it, I also come face to face with my own attachment to separation. There is more to awakening than a mystical appreciation of the beauty of the larger whole. Something within me, and I believe within all of us, is afraid of opening the heart. I am afraid of feeling the pain of other people, I am afraid of feeling the pain of the earth. I am afraid of letting go of my illusion of control, I am afraid of being hurt by other people, or emptied out by other people. It seems easier to distract myself than to pay attention to the fear around my heart.

But this too is a part of the dance. We have to be aware of our separateness in order to come to awareness of our unity. Because here we are. Here I am in this moment, alive and part of the great circle of life. All the feelings I feel, including fear and separation, are part of the universe at this moment. And, what I have learned from many teachers, is that somehow the only task that matters, the only dance I must do, is to pay attention to the task of the present moment. I am asked to take one step forward, to make the one next choice.

There are many teachers of meditation, in many different traditions. I do not have a particular formula to teach you to use to experience the divine. But many of the mystical systems within the world traditions actually do teach practices, the purpose of which is to help us to work with our fear, and our attachment to separation, and to bring us to that experience of higher consciousness. The Buddha encouraged people not to believe what he taught, but rather to try it out and test it for themselves.  If you want such a formal practice, finding a meditation group with which to work can be very helpful.

Even without a formal practice, we can take small steps. If we can notice the thread of connection between ourselves and one other being, that is a step. When I eat a piece of bread, I might call to mind that I am joining this bread together with my own body—it is becoming human in me. Why do people pray before eating, in so many cultures? There is something about the process of eating that reminds us of our threads of connection.

Even as you sit here reading, notice the sounds that send vibrations across anyone nearby.

If you are outside or near a window, feel the sun on your cheek, and realize that you have a thread of connection across thousands of miles of space—its light is reaching you.

Notice the gravity pulling your body to the ground, attaching you to the chair and the floor beneath your feet.

Notice your breathing, the air going in and out of your nose and mouth.

When you go into the kitchen, and drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee, think about how your body is also a form of water—70% water, and imagine that your hand is pouring water into water.

When you talk to a friend or a stranger, imagine the divine spark inside of them and inside of you, and see how that affects the greeting you bring.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we use the word God, or God-ing, or light, or love. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What we are reaching for is larger than language, larger than thought. But it is already deep within us—closer than breathing, closer than a song, closer than the DNA of each cell of our bodies. The threads of connection already weave their way into the center of our being, and hold us one to the other. There is a blessing in it, when we can feel it and see it. There is a sense of coming home and a feeling of belonging. May it be so. May we awaken like the spring flowers.

 

Our Own Life and the Life of the Universe Are One

In many posts on this blog, I have been exploring the concept of God. I hope to help us to move past old rigid images of the big man in the sky with a beard and white robe, the judge, the king, these all too human inventions that people have created in the quest for understanding, or often, in the quest for power.

The mystics of almost every tradition tell us that our images cannot come close to what divinity might be all about. But the mystics also speak to us of something, or no-thing, that is not a being, but more like a process, more like an energy that permeates all beings, an energy of which we are a part, and of which we can come to greater awareness.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. He invites us to think about an object—it could be any object. He talked about a table, but I like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand.  

First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil. You can continue to let yourself follow in this line of imagination, or if you want to follow my imaginings, go to this link to an earlier post.

One could keep talking all day to follow all the threads of connection linked to just one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hanh would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.” Maple in Spring MJ DSC03502