For most Christians, one of the most confounding spiritual disciplines is prayer. Who among us has not struggled with its practice? There's the difficulty of talking to an unseen Person, one who does not generally (or ever) audibly respond, giving you the feeling of a one-sided conversation. Then there's the sense that you are not really doing anything. And yet a vital prayer life is crucial to our Christian walk. Indeed, there are few admonitions more prevalent in Scripture than that to pray.
For those who struggle, I can recommend Cindy Crosby's By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer. In this short book of meditations (which I just finished) Crosby is observing parallels between the natural world (particularly the tallgrass prairie preserved as Schulenberg Prairie in suburban Chicago) and the inner landscape of prayer. This intrigued me right at the outset, and yet I wasn't sure whether she could pull this off. She does, and does well.
For those seeking some type of formula or process by which to discover a vibrant prayer life, this will be a particularly frustrating book. There's none of that. Rather, what Crosby does is take us along on her own journey of discovery -- discovering God in the process of discovering and understanding the life of the prairie, that prairie her theology professor described as "just weeds, Cindy, just weeds." Perhaps the following quote is a good key to what is going on here: "There's a skin of the landscape I'm beginning to peel back, and I'm finding a map of sorts in the world around me; a landscape of prayer, creation that cannot help but praise the creator. Symbols in the landscape beckon me further up and further in. When I'm on the prairie, the barriers come down." Yes, there's a touch of mysticism here, and yet it's the healthy kind, that is, meditating on creation, with scripture in mind, to understand what clues it may yield about prayer.
In the process, Crosby serves up some rich and delicious language (did I really say delicious?). It's almost too much at times. She also writes honestly. I had to cringe when I read this confession: "With age has come a loss of much of the joy I used to have about Christmas. I'm often depressed rather than anticipatory, stressed rather than excited, and anxious about the money we spend rather than focused on what's worthy of celebration. The Christmas season invites the blues." A Christian lacking joy at Christmas? Yes, it happens, and it's not uncommon. So, she slips away to the prairie and there, inexplicably, finds joy -- joy enough to carry her through.
One thing that emerges in Crosby's meanderings in the prairie is that prayer is much more about paying attention, about listening, than about speaking. Paying attention to the rich ecology of the tallgrass, she begins to listen to God, seeing Him all around her -- in the nighthawks, wind, dragonflies, paths, monarch butterflies, weeds, compass plants, prairie burns, and sandhill cranes. God is there, instructing, speaking, and pointing to Himself.
Nevertheless, in the end, she has to confess that much about the prairie and prayer remain a mystery. The more she plumbs the depths, the more she realizes how little she knows.
Ah, it's just weeds, Cindy. It's just prayer. Right?
[Follow this link to purchase a copy of Cindy Crosby's book. It's a telling indicator of what sells and doesn't sell in the Christian market that you can find a used copy of the book for as low as $.40. Don't do it. Support good writing by buying a new hard copy.]