Read an Excerpt
Helping Teenagers Pray
By Mark Yaconelli
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Holy Leisure and the Love of God Most of the spiritual life is a matter of relaxing. -BEATRICE BRUTEAU
In August 2003, I took a bus full of high school kids to the coastal dunes two hours north of San Francisco. This diverse group of young people, gathered from across the country, was spending the week exploring Christian prayer. Each morning 20 to 30 students congregated voluntarily in the seminary chapel for 20 minutes of silent prayer. An hour later, they were joined by the other 70 to 80 students and staff for a morning service that involved sung chants, intercessory prayer, readings from Scripture, and 10 minutes of silence. Mornings and afternoons were spent in plenary sessions exploring the life of Jesus and the mystical and praying tradition of the Christian church. Each day ended with vespers that again involved sung forms of prayer, Scripture, and long periods of silence.
Midway through the week, the leadership decided to see how far we could stretch the capacity of these young people for solitude and prayer. We loaded them into buses and drove them up the Northern California coast to the deserted expanse of the Bodega dunes. Gathered within the folds of the rolling sand, amid clusters of native grasses and twisting cypress trees, we talked to the students about the history of silence and solitude in the Christian tradition. We talked about the early desert Abbas and Ammas, the development of cloistered communities, and, in particular, the many times Jesus sought communion with God in lonely and deserted places. We asked the youth to see this time of silence and solitude not as a time of emptiness, but as a time of presence, a time to fully welcome God's love and companionship. As patches of fog from the Pacific Ocean drifted over us, we handed out journals and blankets and sent the young people out to pray.
I remember walking through the dunes carefully observing the praying teenagers. Some students sat atop mounds of sand, looking off to the horizon; others preferred low places, clefts and crevices stacked with driftwood. Some students lay on their backs, heads resting on their journals, watching gray shrouds of mist creep over the blue sky. Other students seemed oblivious to their surroundings, their heads bowed as they scribbled intently in their journals. As the hours passed some young people rolled themselves up in their blankets and closed their eyes, while others stood and meandered slowly toward the sea.
When the prayer time came to a close, I gathered the students together in small groups. "What was it like to pray?" I asked. "What were you like? What was God like?"
At the end of the week we asked the students to evaluate the retreat: "What was the most enjoyable aspect of our time together?" Despite volleyball, game nights, talent shows, karaoke, discussion groups, outings to San Francisco, and plenty of free time, the great majority responded, "The afternoon praying in the dunes." When I asked them why, they said things like, "I've never had that much unscheduled time before." Or "It was so peaceful to be told that it's okay to just rest with God." Or "My life is so stressful. I've never had time to just chill with God."
Eight months later I sat eating lunch with a 17-year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio. Lauren had participated in the prayer week the previous summer. I told her how surprised I was that so many of her fellow students had found the extended time of prayer and solitude to be the highlight of the week. She listened, nodded her head knowingly, and then said, "Do you know what it's like to be a kid nowadays? There's no downtime." She sighed, turned and looked out the window, and then said quietly, as if she could feel the weight of her own words, "No downtime."
* * *
We minister among young people who are trained to no longer see the presence of God in the world. We minister among budding consumers, people who have been told, "You are your appetites." We minister among people who are only allowed to live within a narrow band of their humanity, people imprisoned within the material world. We minister among kids whose worth is based on what Marcus Borg calls the three "As" of Western culture: Appearance, achievement, and affluence. We minister among families and communities desperate for spiritual grounding. We minister among young people whose souls are malnourished and depleted by a culture that worships, not the God of Jesus, but a God of our own making-an anxious God who condones human greed, violence, and self-absorption. We minister within a culture that is putting the souls of our young people to sleep. Consider how Hillary Hunt, a middle-aged shop steward for the AFSCME union, describes the formation of her own soul within the North American consumer culture:
I know most of my fellow workers very well, and they are wonderful people. But many of us meet for a drink after work and talk about how dead we feel after a day in our offices. I sometimes remember what a lively little girl I was, how full of life and energy, and I wonder whatever happened to that girl. It's almost as if growing up is "coming down" from a high. Here I am now in a life where everything seems so mechanized and out of control. Sometimes I feel like I'm a zombie surrounded by zombies-everyone doing their assigned role, trying to fit in and be the way they are supposed to be, and even in the way that people talk to each other, it's so unreal and forced.
The young people we serve will all too soon join Hillary Hunt in a world of restless "zombies" if they are not given the space and time to allow God to expand within them. What young people today are in desperate need of, what Hillary needed when she was full of "life and energy," is a way to stay in touch with the source of all life and energy. They need a way to stay grounded in God. Hillary, and the young people we serve, long for ways to bring their hopes, failures, and hungry spirits to the God who promises to give life in abundance.
How do young people stay in touch with their capacity for love and wonder? What keeps young people from becoming "zombies"-detached from the love and energy of God? How do we help young people carry the sorrows and joys that accompany life? We need to develop ministries that help young people not only absorb the stories and beliefs of the Christian faith but more importantly cultivate the heart and life of Jesus. We need to teach them to pray.
The ancient understanding of the word pray within the Christian tradition is "to rest." Any experience of rest requires a release-we have to set down our work, our agenda, our worry and activity. We can't remain in control when we sleep; we have to lie fallow, allowing our bodies to be renewed, receptive, and restored. The fact that Jesus spent long periods of time resting is one of the most overlooked aspects of his life. He prayed and rested in the midst of suffering people. He prayed and rested in the midst of countless opportunities to do good. Why did Jesus rest? Why did he withdraw from crowds desperate for healing? We know from Scripture that Jesus rested in order to commune with God. For Jesus (even Jesus!), prayer was necessary in order to sustain and deepen his capacity for love. Prayer allowed Jesus to stay in touch with the deeper reality that God has always sought to express and embody in the world.
Like the students who spent an afternoon praying among the Bodega dunes, for young people today prayer is both a release from and resistance to the drivenness, overconsumption, and excessive activity that overwhelms their lives. Prayer gives young people permission to loosen the shoulders, relax the jaw, and soften the walls around the heart so God's love might make a way. Prayer, for most young people, is that increasingly rare opportunity to lie down in green pastures and rest beside still waters, despite the fear and worry that constantly assault us.
* * *
Most Christians have relegated prayer to a type of service or religious duty that we perform-we pray for peace, we pray for courage, we pray for others. These prayers of intercession are very important and intrinsic to the Christian life. Intercession is one way in which we seek to partner with God in spreading God's healing love. However, this is only one aspect of our prayerful relationship with God. The foundation of prayer, the fundamental expression of our humanity, and the basic expression of our life in God is found in what the early monastics referred to as "holy leisure."
Holy leisure is not the idleness and laziness toward which Western society is so disdainful; nor is it the sort of grasping escapism promoted by the tourism industry. Leisure, in the spiritual sense of the word, describes "a condition of the soul." It is a receptivity and gratefulness to the mystery and wonder of being alive in the world. Holy leisure is a spiritual attitude that seeks to behold the mystery of God's life and creation beneath the activities and roles we perform. It is an embodied trust in God. It is this holy leisure that we see in Jesus as he sleeps amid a stormy sea, teaches among resentful and antagonistic authorities, allows a repentant woman to wash his feet, or spends the night in solitude while people search anxiously for him.
This holy leisure is the experience of faith. It is the way we allow ourselves to be enfolded by God's life and presence in the world. This kind of rest allows a person to be a person-rather than a function, a role, or a résumé of activities. Leisure is experiencing the gift of being human; it is a willingness to be overtaken by God's grace and mercy. Sacred leisure is coming home to oneself-with all the goodness and brokenness that we contain. This leisure is stepping out from the boundaries of our work and relational roles, and entering into the wide mystery of what it means to be alive and in the world. Leisure is the relief and contentment that arise when we finally stop all our striving and bargaining and simply allow our real selves (and the mixture of sin and holiness that is each of us) to come before the real God.
As children we fall into this state of holy rest naturally. We lie in the grass watching clouds form and dissipate; we swing on a front porch without any sense of time; we sit on our mother's lap allowing adult voices to roll over us like wind through the trees. The psalmist writes, "I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me" (Psalm 131:2). It is in holy leisure that we experience autarkeia, the Greek word Paul uses to refer to a state of "contentment," "sufficiency," or "enough."
In the harried culture in which we live, young people are desperately yearning for holy leisure. They seek not the prayers of our faith as much as the disposition from which prayers arise. This state from which a young person is able to notice and receive God's prayer is what I am referring to as "downtime." Downtime is the holy leisure necessary to place ourselves at God's disposal. By downtime, I do not mean those moments when we escape, check out, or disengage from life. This kind of escape only increases our alienation and restlessness. I'm referring to a sort of inscape-a sinking down into the mysterious reality of life, a releasing of the unnecessary drivenness and amusements that cover up reality. In this sense, downtime is repentance-a returning to our natural dependence on and need for God.
In my experience it is often only when young people are given permission for "downtime" that they are able to step away from the anxious spirits that inhabit modern life and begin to discover and inhabit the presence of God. It is in these moments of spiritual rest and leisure that the communion of the Holy Spirit is received, and life within Christ becomes a sufficient reality. And it is in downtime that the false attachments of daily life are exposed and the love of God revealed and welcomed as the source of human freedom.
In a society gone mad with feverish activity, perhaps the gospel, the love of God, and the freedom of Jesus Christ are best communicated by inviting young people to rest and pray like Jesus. It's the life of prayer that will help young people resist the frantic consumption that afflicts us. It is prayer that will inspire young people to trust and follow God's hope. It is prayerful rest that will strengthen the spirits of young people so they will no longer fear difference or weakness or suffering. And it is prayer, much more than words, that will allow young people to feel the power and freedom of God's love.
* * *
When was the last time you allowed yourself downtime? Take a moment to withdraw from the busyness of your life. Find a quiet place where you won't be distracted-maybe it's outside, maybe it's behind a closed door. Then, like the young people on the Bodega dunes or the psalmist of Psalm 23, allow yourself to lie down. Spend a few moments just resting in God's love, in the same way you might enjoy the warmth of the sunlight on a beautiful day. If you feel sleepy, allow yourself to close your eyes, with an awareness that you are resting in God's love.
Consider these words from Meister Eckhart: "What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure? I think it is the hope of loving, or being loved. I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey to find its source, and how the moon wept without her lover's warm gaze. We weep when light does not reach our hearts. We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us." In quiet reflection remember the last time you experienced love, like the sun's "warm gaze." Maybe it was from a child or a spouse or a friend, maybe it was from God. Take a moment to savor this experience of being loved. Now imagine that this love is a reflection of God's love for you. What is it like for you to bask and soak in God's love? What is your prayer as you take in this love?
If possible, plan to take one day this month to drive to a deserted place-a forest, a riverside, an empty field. Bring nothing except a journal and a blanket. Spend an afternoon with God in solitude and silence. What are you like after a day of solitude and prayer? What is God like on a day like this? Who would you be if you set aside time like this each month?
Excerpted from Downtime by Mark Yaconelli Copyright © 2008 by Mark Yaconelli. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.