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Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

Lynne Baab • Friday June 21 2019

Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

My favorite of the young adult novels by Madeleine L’Engle is A Ring of Endless Light. The main character, Vicky Austin, makes friends with a dolphin (always a dream of mine!) and has a sweet romance with an admirable teenage boy. In addition, she wrestles with what it means to be so full of self that there’s no room for God.

The vehicle for her wrestling is a poem by Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1685). The poem uses the metaphor of a shell, either empty enough that God can fill it, or so full of self that God cannot enter in:

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self, 
Like to a shell dishabited, 
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, 
And say, “This is not dead,” 
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity, 
That when He comes, He says, “This is enow
Unto itself– ’twere better let it be, 
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.” 

A Ring of Endless Light came out in 1976, and I read it soon afterwards. I have pondered the phrase “thou art all replete with very thou” for most of my adult life. A major part of my journey has involved finding my own voice. How can I discover my true self – created by God – and find my own voice if I believe that God wants me to empty myself of self?

I came across an interesting twenty-first century version of Thomas Browne’s words in a wonderful new book on the Enneagram written by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, her husband and two other authors. Calhoun wrote the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which I have used extensively in my teaching. In a series of appendices, Calhoun and the other authors propose numerous prayers and other spiritual practices.

They offer a prayer in four movements called the “Welcoming Prayer.”

  1. I let go of my desire for security and survival. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  2. I let go of my need for approval and affection. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  3. I let go of my desire for control and power. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  4. I let go of my desire to change this reality. Welcome, Jesus, welcome. [1]

I have no idea exactly what Sir Thomas Browne meant by being too full of “very thou,” but maybe he meant being too full of desires for security, approval, and control. I’m totally on board with relinquishing those into God’s hands and welcoming Jesus into our heart, into the space those desires usually occupy.

And I do love Browne’s metaphor of the shell in the ocean. We do need to welcome Jesus into our lives, and feeling like an empty shell is one vivid metaphor to help us make space for Jesus. I wonder, though, if we have the capacity within ourselves to make space for Jesus. Maybe our first prayer should be to ask God to identify and remove the desires that take up the space God wants to occupy in the shell that is our heart. I’m not sure we can do it on our own.

Next week: Returning Prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to get an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below (for cellphones) and in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

Two posts on this blog with themes somewhat similar to this post:

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 209.

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