Prayer as Transcendent Experience
John’s gospel begins with a majestic prologue, in which almost anybody who has ever cracked open the Bible will hear an echo of the very first words of the very first chapter of the very first book. “In the beginning.” That is, in fact, what Genesis means. And genesis—the genesis of Jesus, the genesis of creation, the genesis of life, the genesis of regeneration, the genesis of faith, the genesis of knowledge—is very much the central theme of the fourth gospel. “In the beginning,” begins John, and with one gesture he pulls aside the curtain of time and steps into a world behind the shadows and scenes of the present. Like the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we follow John through the wardrobe into a strange and yet somehow more real world than the one in which we daily live.
John did not invent that world. But you won’t find it sketched out in some other part of the Bible either. The cosmos known to the writer of Genesis in the sixth century before Christ looked very different from the cosmos that John understood. Sometime around the beginning of the Christian era, a Jew named Philo who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, came up with a blend of Hebrew and Greek thought. Among other things, Philo talked about a “logos,” which to him meant “creative principle.” Greek philosophy tended in the direction of seeing matter as imperfect. Hebrew tradition, on the other hand, saw God as the creator of everything. “Logos” for Philo was a way of bridging the material world and God. The Logos was God’s creative power that brought the world into being. If you have ever heard the Prologue of St. John’s gospel, and most likely if you have ever heard a sermon on it, you know that “the Word” is that Logos. It is that creative power of God that was with God in the beginning. When Philo heard God speaking, “Let there be light,” he was hearing the Logos, the Word.
So John pulls aside the curtain of the present and lets us see what is happening outside time and space. Now the interesting thing about the Logos is that, although it is beyond the world that we see and live in, it is responsible for the whole shebang. All things came into being through the Logos. Not one thing came into being without the Logos. And, like Philo, John sees that what has come into being in the Logos was life. The Logos has brought the world to life, in other words. Not only that, but the Logos is the light that enlightens every person. Don’t miss the importance of that. All persons, not just Christians or Jews or intellectual or spiritual persons, are enlightened by the Logos.
Imagine that right now you could step inside the space, as it were, where the Logos lived before being born in Jesus. Suppose you could just slip right now between your pew and the one in front of you and just disappear to the rest of us while finding yourself in another dimension. What do you think you would call where you were? Heaven, perhaps? All right, maybe not. But would you say that God was there? And, if so, then it really is what we call “heaven,” isn’t it? Would you be aware that if you could do this right now you would not have had to die to go to heaven? You would have simply slid out of this world and into another world. Or, to put it slightly differently, your body would be right here but your consciousness would be elsewhere.
Now some of you will not believe that that is possible. Others will say that even if you do fancy things like this with your consciousness, you have by no means “left” the ordinary world, because anything that the human mind does is by definition in the ordinary world. Fair enough. I’m not here to quibble. But what I am driving at is, first, that there more to reality than we commonly suppose; second, that God is everywhere and everywhere accessible; and, third, that you are perfectly capable of an experience that transcends your ordinary bodily existence. There is a common word to denote that transcendent experience. That word is prayer.
Most of us are used to a couple of notions about prayer. One is that it is a matter of asking God for one thing or another, or telling God something of which we think God might not be aware. Occasionally it is telling God thanks for something wonderful, and from time to time it is telling God that we are sorry for something we have done or left undone. Well, all of those can be prayer and often are. But at its heart, prayer, whether here in church or somewhere else, is not talking to God as if God were a great big Ear somewhere out in the universe, but actually entering heaven—which I am using as shorthand for the presence of God.
In one of Charles Williams’ novels some of the characters are looking for a London address. They go to the street where the building is located, but they do not find it. There is the number before and the number after. But the building is on neither side of the street and is nowhere to be found. Others, however, are able to find the building and enter. There is nothing particularly mysterious about it at all. They simply happen to be attuned to a dimension of existence that others are deaf to. It is not at all unlike the situation in the Harry Potter novels where to catch the train to Hogwarts one has to step courageously into a space between platforms 9 and 10. Muggles, oblivious to the world of magic, do not see Platform 9½. I don’t think that these images of Williams and Rowling are a bad way of understanding prayer. Prayer is stepping into that dimension where the Logos lives both prior to and after the Incarnation.
The whole story of the Incarnation of the Logos is the story of the Word becoming human that humanity might become divine. The Logos bridges heaven and earth, God and humanity. The point of the Incarnation is not to leave us interminably separated from God, but quite the opposite: to unite us to God. The Word joins together things earthly and things heavenly. As John puts it in the Prologue, “as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God.” What the Word, or Logos, is by nature—child of God—we become by grace—children of God. Baptism brings us into union with the Logos. Eucharist keeps us there. Prayer is the practice by which the bonds of the union get stronger and stronger. Remember that prayer is not just “saying your prayers,” but entering that dimension where, as one of the collects of the Prayer Book puts it, the Spirit might lift us to the Presence of God, where we may be still and know that God is God.
As you know if you were here two weeks ago or again on Christmas Eve, my focus for preaching over the next number of months is going to be prayer. So there is no way and no need for me to unpack all that this might possibly mean right now. I hope you will be a part of the ongoing conversation about prayer as we explore it.
Some of you already have forgotten more about prayer than I will ever know. I do not pretend to be a master of prayer. But I do believe that we are created to be in tune—united in purpose and spirit—with the deepest truth of the universe. That the Logos would become one of us is magnificently wonderful. It is even more wonderful that the Logos would unite us to himself so that we can be as authentic, as real, as loving, as grace-filled as the Logos is. Don’t think that it will never happen. The most stunning thing of all has already occurred, namely that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Coming into his presence through prayer is not impossible. It is exactly what happens when we are born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of human will, but the will of God.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2010