The borderlands of prayer

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think [iPhones] are a pretty neat idea. Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

We like to talk about God as if ‘he’ were a person with human attributes. One of the ways of experiencing God is as human: in friendship, as a parent, as a beneficent ruler. This can be a truly life-enhancing and healing relationship. Clearly however, this is only one aspect of God, one we can more easily identify with.

God, the Universe, the whole of Creation are so unimaginably large and utterly beyond comprehension that if we saw it all we would be filled with terror. In the BBC Radio 4 series from the 80’s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagined an instrument of torture called The Total Perspective Vortex. A person put into the vortex gets a momentary glimpse of the whole of Creation and themselves in relation to it – the point being that if we had a realistic sense of proportion, if we ‘got real’ and saw things as they are, it would blow our minds. “Beauty,” as Rilke said, “is nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Perhaps naughtily, I wonder if this is why Creationists reject the idea of evolution. Creationism is a modern form of resisting the Copernican revolution. We like to think that we are the centre of the Universe, that Creation was done just for us. How comforting; how important that would make us. The reality is that we live very far from the centre – if there even is a centre – of a Universe that has been in existence for about 13.7 billion years, on a planet that has been around for about 4.5 billion years. There has been life on Earth for most of that time. Species have come and gone. We are Johnnies-come-lately to this scene and, as like as not, we will be gone pretty soon too, trailing in the wake of the dinosaurs. We are a blip in the space-time continuum.

What sense are we to make of all this? What sense are we to make of God and of God’s love for and care of us? What sense are we to make of our little lives? If, as seems more likely, we cannot make sense of it, how are we to cope? Mostly we don’t admit it, but it adds a necessary corrective to our usual way of thinking and experiencing our lives.

When we settle to pray, we stand on the borderlands of this territory. No wonder we avoid it like the plague.

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