Ask, Search, Knock… and Wait – Br. Keith Nelson
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Ask, and it will be given you.
But… what if it isn’t?
Search, and you will find.
But… what if I don’t find anything?
Knock, and the door will be opened for you.
But… what if the door just stays shut?
These are reasonable responses to this teaching of Jesus. The kind of asking, searching, and knocking Jesus is talking about summon us to a vulnerable stance. While we may recognize that vulnerability is necessary for any form of genuine connection, we will usually choose the least vulnerable way of getting our needs met whenever humanly possible. At its core, vulnerability is the experience of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.[i]What if I ask, and my request is denied – or even worse, met with a deafening silence? What if I search and I come up empty-handed, exhausted and looking like an idiot for investing myself in such a lost cause? What if I knock until my knuckles bleed and the door doesn’t budge? Thenwhere will I be?
These are supremely reasonable responses if we take our vulnerable human experiences of denied requests, fruitless searches, and closed doors and project them onto our life with God – particularly our life of prayer. These “what if” responses might cause us to entirely forsake asking, searching, or knocking for what we need. We might prefer always to pray for the needs of others. We might prefer to rest in a form of pseudo-contemplation that says, “Whatever youwant, God” rather than actively stay put in the excruciatingly particular vulnerability of our needs – until Godgives us the genuine freedom of contemplative detachment.
In the opposite direction, we might discover that we are asking, searching, and knocking for what we perceive to be our needs with an insistent and frenzied energy. On the surface, this might look like exactly what Jesus is commending to us in today’s gospel reading. But our petitions might just be so closely shingled that they block out the sunlight of self-awareness, or as reactive as the appetites of children. The spaces, silences or even pauses that God might use to breathe in us, to disclose to us our deeper needs, will be filled up with our persistent requests. We may even lose precious opportunities to examine what God has given, hasrevealed or has opened while we have been so busy asking.
God always responds to prayer. But sometimes the response is to gently lead us into a thick patch of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than a breezy clearing of clarity and certainty. Some of the gifts God gives us are much more subtle than bread filling our mouths or fish in our outstretched palms, yet they are just as necessary – and even more nourishing. These gifts may be as subtle as shadows or as all-encompassing as darkness. In one of the chapters from our Rule commenting on our vow of poverty, we read, “By our vow of poverty we recognize that in our own spiritual lives there will be seasons of shadow, experiences of dryness, waiting, obscurity, or the seeming absence of God. In the light of the gospel we know these are necessary, and that some of them yield more blessings than times when we are filled with devotion and confidence.” And in a chapter entitled “The Mystery of Prayer,” we read: “Our love must be purified and tested by many times of darkness, loss, and waiting.” Like a wise parent, God gives us what we cannot summon the vulnerability to ask for directly.
I close with words from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore – a prayer to the God who gives us Godself.
Time after time I came to your gate
with raised hands, asking for more and yet more.
You gave and gave, now in slow measure, now in sudden excess.
I took some, and some things I let drop; some lay heavy on my hands;
some I made into playthings and broke
them when tired; till the wrecks and
the hoard of your gifts grew immense,
hiding you, and the ceaseless expectation
wore my heart out.
Take, oh take – has now become my cry.
Shatter all from this beggar’s bowl;
put out the lamp of the importunate watcher;
hold my hands, raise me from
the still-gathering heap of your gifts
into the bare infinity of your
[i]This definition comes from the extensive research of social work professor and author Brene Brown.
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Thank you, Br. Keith. As I work slowly toward the end of my life to deal with the clutter of many years – physical, emotional, spiritual – God’s ‘uncrowded presence’ seems more and more like what I should be looking for, and making space for, in a crowded life. This homily is definitely a keeper.
Brilliant, simple, breathless clarity. Thank you Br Keith for explaining so succinctly what we all labour to express in homilies that don’t always sound genuine in the end…maybe because we aren’t certain ourselves. Elizabeth Hardy+
And to breathe. Even in the darkest most overwhelming tragedies around us, so close to us, yet our breath is closer still. And our God is even closer yet.
Thank you Brother Keith Nelson. Time and again you slow me down, so the openings that get filled up with rubbish can be emptied to be filled with quiet, listening and waiting.
I am so grateful to you this morning, every morning.
Blessings to you.
Thank you, Brother Keith Nelson. I am grateful to read such an insightful analysis of prayer and suggestions for those moments when feeling so busy and overwhelmed that it is difficult to feel God.
Thank you, Brother Keith Nelson. your message inspired & reminded me that in light or darkness our Father’s eternal presence within will always be enough in all aspects of our lives and especially in terms of answered prayer. And to God be the glory in Jesus Christ name I pray!