Part 12 in a series; see other parts here.
The music of our lives often seems to demand the skills of a Franz Liszt to play, as though only the capacity to fly through a torrent of impossible notes with an obscenely graceful sprezzatura will do. Amidst our busyness a voice (the ghost of piano teachers past) whispers, “Keep time! Keep time!” and we promise we will, once we can exchange this molto allegro for andante. Too often, though, such promises end up obliterated by thirty-second-note runs tangled in a barbed wire of accidentals, and when we emerge on the other side, dripping sweat, the voice continues: “Keep time!”
Changing the key from D-flat to C could be a grace (although everyone knows that the best prayers are in E), but prayer does more than that: it takes the relentless timekeeping of our six-days’ world and brings it across a threshold into a new world, governed by a different kind of time. It’s not that we leave the ordinary world behind, exactly, but that prayer changes our experience of it. Time, after all, proves very difficult to keep. Proverbially, it slips through our fingers like the sand in an hourglass, and once gone means forever gone. Trying to keep it is a losing game, so our only hope is to transform it while we have it—remembering that we, too, are dust.
Prayer gives us a chance to gather the grains, if only in our memories, to reflect on and learn from their patterns, through the Holy Spirit. Grace rules the world of prayer, which frees us from judgment and enables us to look on our lives without fear. Sweet indeed is the hour when the hectoring voices that govern our six-days’ labors and their all-too-human economies go silent! Their silence tends to be dearly achieved, yet in it the soft but potent music of grace thrums, and we at last can let go and listen to the glorious melodies and delicate harmonies that God has picked out from the muddle of our cacophony, showing us, like John Cage, the music in our ambient noise. We may be the composers, but God is the arranger and orchestrator who takes our scribblings and turns them into a score for angels.
In prayers of such rapturous and musical silence we might echo to God what Milton has Eve say to Adam: “With thee conversing I forget all time.” The relentless tick-tock (replaced in our time by smartphone notifications) fades, and we begin to discern a deeper order to the cosmos. Never really hidden from our view, that order is manifest all throughout the six days, and yet it turns out that we need the discipline of the seventh to help us see it. We cannot really live in time—as we must, for each moment is precious—unless we learn how to step outside it in prayer.
Prayer of course takes time, no matter how timeless the experience itself can be, and making time for it tends not to be easy. This fact is what makes prayer ascetic—not a stripping-away, but an exercise, something we practice. Prayer is the thing we do in time to remind us what time is really like. It’s the anytime Sabbath, and just like keeping the Sabbath one week carries with it no guarantees for the next, each prayer only points ahead to the next movement, whether in this life or beyond. Behind the voice persistently telling us to keep time lies another, chanting the same words, but in a different key.