Today we remember Antony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, who moved out into the desert alone to pray. When Antony emerged from the desert and learned of a great persecution of the church, he returned to the city and cared for those in trouble. Later he returned to the desert but many people came out to see him and hear his wisdom. Judges repeatedly called Antony down to the city to advise them in their rulings.
Solitude for prayer, for focusing on relationship with God, is key to our life and what we offer on retreat. Monasticism like ours is life shared together, a company of friends who prioritize friendship with Christ.
As with Antony, solitude builds community. From personal time with God, one is renewed and gifted for life in community, for loving others. In solitude we learn, Rowan Williams wrote: “not some individual technique for communing with the divine but the business of becoming a means of reconciliation and healing for the neighbor.”[i] Relationship with God empowers all our human relationships.
As humans relating together, we express: Thank you. I’m sorry. You’re wonderful! How may I help? Would you please … ? I’m concerned about … and I love you.
Especially with prayer, we call these forms: thanksgiving, confession, praise, oblation, petition, intercession, and adoration. They’re in tandem or interwoven, not separate. Adoration is prayer of loving presence. The catechism in The Book of Common of Prayer says: “Adoration is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[ii]
Adoration is love like close friends who enjoy being together, who honestly share the joys and concerns of their hearts, who explore questions and seek perspective together. Adoration is love like those who long to be in the other’s presence, who miss each other when apart and delight in being together again.
Jesus adored God whom he called Father and Jesus adored his disciples whom he called friends.
We Brothers “find a profound significance for our own lives in what the fourth gospel tells us of the beloved disciple’s friendship with Jesus …This is the man whom Jesus wanted to have closest to his heart at the last supper. The image of the trusted friend lying close to the breast of Jesus is an icon of the relationship we enjoy with the Son of God through prayer.”[iii]
Trusted friends are together in delight and sorrow, listening deeply, being compassionate and present. They are mutual and balanced, giving and receiving, helping and being helped, loving and being loved. Friends sharing their hearts and minds and enjoy each other’s presence. Our experience of human friendship, with its challenges, failures, discoveries and graces can inform how to be friends with God.
Let me suggest two ways to pray adoration in solitude with God.
First, flicking flame.
My parents light candles at supper every night. I learned this was a way to celebrate being together daily. At supper we share news, joys and concerns of the day. We share our hearts and minds, and enjoy each other’s presence with candlelight. In the chapel, we define space and objects set apart to be together with and for God by lighting candles.
At Emery House, most guests stay in hermitages each with a wood-burning stove. Many find building and gazing at a fire calming, centering, and engaging. This fall we added a gas fireplace to the Emery House dining room so flickering flames accompany us with a click of a button at any meal.
Flickering flames can express being here together is important, set apart, sacred. Flickering flames invite our attention. They are one form in which God chooses to come to us.God appeared to Moses as flames not consuming a bush. God led and was present with ancient Israel through the wilderness as fire by night. The Holy Spirit came as flames of fire.
Pray with candle or fireplace. Let the fire capture your gaze. Invite and notice God’s presence. Sit together with God before the flame. Perhaps in silence. If with words, then informal, open, and honest as to a close friend. With words or not, it’s mutual. Gaze at God and see God already gazing at you.
Second, soothing smell. Baking bread, lilies opening, salt spray. In descriptions of worship, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers often say incense offerings gave a soothing smell or pleasing odor to God. While burnt offerings of animals were for correcting impurity, incense offerings were for enjoyment.[iv] God is one who smells and enjoys.
We use incense here in part to signify again what is set apart as holy. During the offering hymn, first the altar and then all the people are censed. For we present to God not only bread and wine but ourselves, too, as the offering.
In her book Wearing God, Lauren Winner explores less common images for God including flame and smell. She writes that God as one who smells is not “just a bit of quirky anthropomorphism, but it is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection to us.”[v]
Pray with incense or a scented candle or spices or cooking. Pray with the memories of where scents take you. When reading scripture, imagine what you smell in the scene.
Flickering flames and soothing scents are just two of countless ways to build friendship with God and each other. As Antony and monasticism model, we seek relationship with God in adoration, lifting up our hearts and minds, asking to enjoy God’s presence. Doing so we find God is already here gazing at us, adoring us. God adores you. Pray your adoration. It will change you and inform your relationships. We are sent out as light to the world, as the aroma of Christ, inviting people to feast at the banquet, together enjoying God’s presence.
[i] Rowan Williams, Where God Happens (Boston: Shambhala/New Seeds, 2007), 32-33 as quoted in Chris R. Armstrong, Patron Saints for Postmoderns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 35.
[ii]The Book of Common Prayer, 857.
[iv] Deborah A. Green, The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) 75-76 as quoted in Lauren Winner, Wearing God (New York: Harper One, 2015) 69.
[v]Wearing God, 69.