During my Individual Silent Retreat a week ago, I chanced upon this poem in the library. I liked its rhythm and imagery so I decided to share it here today. Please have a read, enter the scene with the poet, and reread it more slowly again.
Love’s Bitten Tongue
Lord, Hush this ego as one stops a bell
Clanging, cupping it softly in the palm.
Should it make music, silence it as well,
For there’s no difference when one wants calm
Of silence from the ego’s loud tinnitus
Buzzing in spirit’s ear with no relief,
With every reverence a false hiatus
Which brings those moments I name prayer to grief,
By turning away from prayer as I did once.
So my thoughts, snared by their own strategem,
Like balls that children toss aside, all bounce
In my head back and forth until despair
Of praying may, in mercy, become prayer.
– Vassar Miller
This poem really resonated with me. Just like Miller, I was troubled with so much noise the first time I read the poem. For the poet, it was the ‘clanging’ and ‘buzzing’ of the bell; for me, it was my worries and concerns. Whenever I try to pray, I get distracted by a million of things. I check my phone, observe other people, mentally enumerate my to-do list. And this happens even when I go to an isolated and quiet room! It’s always a challenge to empty my mind and hear nothing at all. Yup, the outside world successfully occupies my mind.
Moreover, after reading Miller’s very long second sentence (seven-lines!), I couldn’t comprehend what he’s trying to say! What is he praying about? Can God understand him? And then it hit me – that that’s how I pray too! Similar to Miller, my thoughts are like balls bouncing back and forth. I ramble to God with an avalanche of unfiltered unorganised thoughts. There’s no beginning nor end. I mean, I have tons of worries to lift up, tons of complaints to rant about, tons of requests to ask. I have to get them all out and as soon as the thought comes into mind, before I forget it. Subsequently, after I’m done, I just stand up and walk out – sometimes, feeling better (Yay! I’ve let it all out.); sometimes, feeling worse (When will He answer me?) Surely, there’s a better and more effective way of praying…
But, how? I can’t figure it out! Why can’t I empty my mind? What’s the problem? So, I reread the poem again (and again) and realised that the clanging bell was symbolising… HIS EGO! And I pondered, is that how I pray too? Probably so. I make my prayer about me, not God. My self-centred prayers are normally full of worries, complaints, and pleas. How often do I praise and thank God? How often do I pause and bask in His Presence? So, as you can see, I’ve lost the plot. According to Billy Graham, “Prayer is spiritual communication between man and God, a two-way relationship in which man should not only talk to God but also listen to Him.” In other words, as much as I need my airtime, He needs His too. I have to learn to shut up and listen. I need to humble myself and heed what He has to say. Because with me ranting but not listening, I’m telling myself that my thoughts are better than His and that He is a spectator in my life, not the planner or provider. And this pride will eventually take me away from him.
And, what’s worse? After going to church and prayer, I pat myself in the back and take pride in it. I even tell other people, “Oh. I just went to the adoration room.” And that’s it! As soon as I step out of His holy room, I’ve fallen prey to the Evil One once again. That’s the total opposite of what the gospel says in Matthew 6:6 “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” And, I’m sorry for that. I want to remind myself that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone else aside from God. He knows what He needs to and we don’t have to justify ourselves to others. It’s not a competition of who’s memorised the most bible passage, attended the most number of mass, served in the most number of church activities. It’s about who has that intimate relationship with Him such that he/she is secure enough not to parade the “laurels” around. You just know.
But that said, I’m sure this is a difficult task. Despite our honest intentions, our myopic human capacity might let pride seep in again. And all I can do is rely in His grace. This brings us to my favourite line, the poet’s plea, “Of praying may, in mercy, become prayer.” I also hope that, with His help, I can learn to be humble. I hope that I can have a more open communication with God and that my life may eventually serve to glorify Him.