Revolutionary prayer: Merton and Barth

On December 10, 1968, two great twentieth century religious men died.

One, Karl Barth, was a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and theologian, who is renowned for his role with the German Confessing Church, which saw allegiance to Hitler as heresy and apostasy.

The other, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist monk, famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In his life of silence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote books and letters that shared his concern for deep love of God and his opposition to war, racism, and poverty.

Both these men shared a sense that prayer is essential for our spiritual life – and for real change in the world.

For Merton, prayer opens us to the new horizons that God is always revealing to us, if we would listen in prayer. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If your prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life—and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”—God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

In prayer, we can be vulnerable enough to lay aside our visions and open ourselves to the vision that God has for us and for our world. God opens us to what is possible – with God’s help and vision.

I think that is why Karl Barth saw prayer as important and wrote:

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.

When we pray we acknowledge that the powers of this world are ephemeral and often tied to fear and violence. When we pray we can see that allegiance to Hitler – and to systems of violence and racism – are apostasy, refusals to acknowledge a living God who call us to solidarity and nonviolence.

Prayer does not take us out of the world; prayer takes us where we can see that the world is not as God wants it; and prayer can change us so that we can be signs and agents of God’s vision for this world and for the Kingdom. Prayer can be revolutionary.

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