September 6

The Senses of Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 7:24-37

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Be opened.  Ephphatha.  Be opened.

Jesus’ utterance today, in the swirl of two strange stories,

commands an opening of the senses, a new opening of the senses in prayer.

Today the Gospel asks you about your soul, about your inner life, about


Prayer is a kind of shadow boxing, the struggle of the soul for

one’s own life, over against all the forces outside arranged against us.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in Gift from the Sea, “Every

person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year,

some part of each week, and of each day.”

Prayer is the possibility of an inner life, of communion with

God—whether in the graveyard, the library, the symphony hall, the art

gallery, the study, the beach.  Or, in church.

A sanctuary is a place to be quiet, in order to reconstitute our

real life:  “the very best prayers are but vain repetitions, if they are not the

language of the heart.” (J Wesley)

The soul, personal or collective, is boxing with its shadow in


Before the firelight of a hard decision, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like fear

Before the blue haze of the computer glass, as your soul sees its

shadow lengthen into something like listlessness—acedia

Before the searching, searing floodlight of clear and painful

memory, as your soul sees its shadow lengthen into something like hatred

Prayer is one great battle, your soul locked shadow boxing in

combat with what maims and harms life.

What are the senses of prayer?


Prayer tunes out many of the frequencies of this world.  Prayer

is deaf as a post, stone deaf to the text beep, to the telephone, to the radio, to

the world around.

One older, beloved hospital patient, who had only one working

ear, found peace and healing at a fine medical facility by lying with his good

ear straight down, planted firmly in bedding, muffled in the starchy pillows.

He turned a deaf ear to the orderlies and nurses and heavy constant

dehumanizing noise.  Prayer is like Beethoven at the end.  So in prayer, if

you will steal away, you will hear another music.

The song of the soul

The chance for an inner life

The language of the heart

Ears to hear THE REAL YOU, your own-most self



Remember Job, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your

heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are

on earth, therefor let your words be few.”


Prayer has different taste buds.  An inner life makes room and

has a taste for even what is sour and bitter.  No sweet tooth for prayer, but an

openness to hurt, to empathy.  Such an unlikely taste in taste.

In prayer we can taste the grief of a husband’s death.

In prayer we can taste the anger over a co-worker’s cancer.

In prayer we can taste the emptiness at a mother’s passing.

In prayer we can taste the fury in conflicts of vision.

In prayer we can taste the ashes of defeat, which salt us all.

In prayer we can taste the sting of adolescent and adult

mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  No one is good at everything.

In prayer we can approach the sense of violation another carries

after vandalism, literal or spiritual.

In prayer we can taste the awful bitterness of lament.

So central, then, in worship, are the psalms, for they are, simply

said, of two types:  thanksgiving, or lament, thanksgiving, or lament.  To

them we return every Lord’s Day.


There is the smell of the desert in prayer, the arid and heated

dryness of the desert.

Some of you have traveled to Israel.  Do you remember going

to Qumran at the Dead Sea?  Down in the Dead Sea valley, 1000ft below sea

level, did you see the remains of that ancient Essene community, 100

degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Do you recall the scent of the desert—a

land stark, lonely, without any potable water, without any green, not a sign

of life.  Wind, sand, stars, heat.

Why in the decades before Jesus lived, would 100 men come to

the desert?  Why, they had that scent of prayer.  They smelled the difference.

They came to prayer, in secret, to the Almighty God who sees in secret.

They came to enter the closet of Palestine, and to shut the door.  They knew

about boxing with the soul’s shadow.  They knew that life is short.  They

came to struggle in mortal combat for the possibility of an inner life.  They

craved that “purity of intention without which none of our outward actions

are holy” (J Wesley).  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  God’s heart

is open to you there.  There is such a thing as inward holiness.  Prayer is its


Inward holiness prompts you right now to find and hold a

particular moment in worship, as God’s approach to you, and your response.

Mine is the hymn.  Hers is the prayer.  His is the sermon.  Theirs is the

offering.  In coming to worship we pray for, we anticipate, an experience of

the genuine.  Of beauty, truth and goodness in music, word, and prayer.


To be touched at the heart is to be forgiven.

The heart of prayer is forgiveness.  The point of prayer is

forgiveness.  The goal of prayer is forgiveness.  Yes there is much

else—entreaty, expostulation, confession, thanksgiving, recollection, praise,

adoration, meditation, intercession.  Still, the heart of prayer for the

followers of Jesus is forgiveness.  Jesus prayed, according to Matthew, at the

critical moments—in the wilderness, in teaching, in the garden of

Gethsemane, on the the cross—“Father, forgive them for they know not

what they do.”

Do you seek forgiveness?

Are you earnestly awaiting its touch?

Are you adept at its arts and ways?

Do you pray for it?

In specific cases?

Among nations and groups as well as persons?

In rumination this summer I wondered about the two phrases,

‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5: 44).  It

had never occurred to me before that they might, perhaps should, be read in

apposition.  Here is how you love your enemies:  you pray for them.


Did you ever wonder why now and then in the prophet Isaiah

there is the comment about seeing and yet not seeing?  There is a kind of

blind sight that is all too common to us.

Some years ago, we buried a man of faith and of sight.  He was

a photographer.  In his last year he wrote out what the sight sense of prayer

can be.  For those of us who see and see and yet do not perceive, this is a


“A photographer’s function is to see so clearly that others will

see the work that they have not noticed previously.  By analogy with guide

dogs for the blind, we can think of photographers as seeing-eye people.  We

are helping people that don’t see much.  Unfortunately, that’s most people,

because we don’t pay attention and see clearly much of the time.  We can

get a lot of help from photography, which doesn’t censor reality as much as

our unaided minds do, and forces us to focus.

“Practicing the art of seeing should become a habit in all of us.

In that practice, I soon learned that there is beauty in almost everything if we

only will look… In order to see God’s work, humans have to make

themselves “see” the detail in creation, to become aware of the fact that God

is truly around us all the time.”

It takes a practiced blindness to the rush and blur of the way we

live to sense the sight of prayer.

Perhaps this is why, at the end of his faithful, shared life, Oliver

Sacks wrote about Sabbath, and about his memories of Sabbath.  His mother

exchanging her surgeon’s attire to make gefilte fish.  The ritual candles.  The

fresh clothes.  The silver wine cup.  The chants and blessings.  ‘The

observance of the Sabbath’—he quotes Robert John—‘is extremely

beautiful…It is not a question of improving society, it is about improving

one’s own quality of life’. (NYT 8/16/15)

Call to Prayer


A Deaf Ear to Dehumanizing Noise

A Touch of the Heart in Forgiveness

There are Senses of Prayer

The Arid Scent of Inner Holiness

A Taste for Empathy and Lament

A Sight that sees the details

Be opened.  Ephpatha. May our lives be opened to the senses of prayer.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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