Daily Archives: January 30, 2014

Have you been praying with open hands or clenched fists?

Christ praying at Gethsemane

For the next ten minutes, I would like you to give yourself permission to let all of your to do lists wait. We all need to take mini vacations away from the stress of our lives.

May this video below reinforce in your spirit that no matter what you’re going through, your Lord is just a prayer away.

Have you been praying with open hands or clenched fists? I ask this question because as I reflect upon the horrific abuse I experienced from my schizo affective father and ongoing health challenges, I know there have been so many times I have come to God with clenched fists, not two open hands.

In the last year especially the Lord has put me on a more challenging journey of forgiveness. That’s a tough word for many of us who have been abused. Forgive? Why should I forgive? I’ve done nothing wrong. I have nothing to be forgiven for? I agree.

The kind of forgiveness I’m talking about is the grace God gives us to forgive ourselves. For over 43 years of my life from the age of five, I hadn’t taken the time to forgive myself, that I could have protected my Mom from her abuse. I could have stopped her wanting to commit suicide. I could have protected her from being beaten too many times to remember.

I am eleven.  My father is an independent operator of a taxi company. For the first time the other driver calls in sick the night before we are to leave the haunting terror of abuse, which has kept me awake every night for many years. Mom seizes her opportunity to escape our unrelenting torture. The night before we are to leave Mom comes to our bedroom. She says with resoluteness, “Pack one bag each of your clothes. Close the door as you do it, so your father can’t see you packing. When your father leaves in the morning, we will escape.”

That night seems like an eternity. Then, in the morning the moment Dad leaves we rush to the car. The paper bag with my clothes rips at the bottom, tossing the clothes out on to our gravel driveway. I scurry to pick up what ones I can in my hands.  Mom yells out, “Kevin, forget the clothes on the driveway. We need to leave now!”

Brian and I lay on the back floor of the car where no one can see us. We know if Dad discovers us it will likely mean our deaths. We flee to my grandma’s place. Dad finds out where we are. He terrorizes my grandma, running our car back and forth so fast the tires make a screeching sound on the dirt driveway. Dad brings the car closer and closer to my grandma’s legs. Mom yells out, “Mom, get out of the way! Jim is going to crush your legs!!” My grandma yells back at Dad, “Jim, leave June and the children alone. I’m not going to let you hurt them anymore!” I scream out to my father at the top of my lungs with tears streaming down my face, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!  I never want to see you again!”

Dad backs the car out of the driveway and speeds away. He will later be arrested and put in a psychiatric hospital for the treatment he should have received so many years ago.

The danger is over for now. We flee to Kitchener and then to Toronto. The journey to forgiving Dad and myself has yet to begin.

Hate. Anger. Fear. Unforgiveness. We have all experienced these emotions. We have felt helpless to change our situation. It is in these trying times that I have learned an invaluable lesson. We get greater blessings out of life by coming to God with two open hands, not clenched fists.

I can’t claim to have thought of this myself. This thought comes from Father Henri Nouwen. He was a  Catholic priest, professor  and in his last position he was a chaplain at L’Arche(The Ark) in Richmond Hill. He worked with those with developmental challenges there.

Henri taught me through his book Praying with Clenched Fists to come to God with two open hands and not a clenched fist. Yet, even as I would have times when memories from my abusive past would resurface, I found my hands closing into fists again. It took many years of continually coming to God and asking to be made willing to forgive Dad and myself. It was then that I was able to come to God more with open hands and not clenched fists.

I offer this excerpt from Henri’s book as you seek in your journey with God to pray to Him with two open hands.

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched. Why would you really want to do that? Perhaps you would let the other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something, but to allow the other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped—that is dangerous and calls for defense.

The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. A story about an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

 

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fist and give up your last coin. But who wants to do that? A first prayer, therefore, is often a painful prayer because you discover you don’t want to let go. You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.” Once you talk like that, you’ve already given up believing that your life might be otherwise. You’ve already let the hope for a new life float by. Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts. You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender.

You still feel bitter because people weren’t grateful for something you gave them: you still feel jealous of those who are better paid than you are; you still want to take revenge on someone who didn’t respect you; you are still disappointed that you’ve received no letter, still angry because someone didn’t smile when you walked by. You live through it, you live along with it as though it doesn’t really bother you…until the moment when you want to pray. Then everything returns: the bitterness, the hate, the jealousy, the disappointment, and the desire for revenge. But these feelings are not just there; you clutch them in your hands as if they were treasures you don’t want to let go. You sit wallowing in all that old sourness as if you couldn’t do without them, as if, in giving them up, you would lose your very self.

 

Detachment is often understood as letting loose of what is attractive. But it sometimes also requires letting go of what is repulsive. You can indeed become attached to dark forces such as resentment and hatred. As long as you seek retaliation, you cling to your own past. Sometimes it seems as though you might lose yourself along with your revenge and hate—so you stand there with balled-up fists, closed to the other who wants to heal you.

When you want to pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? Certainly not by violence. Nor by a forced decision. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway. Don’t be afraid to offer your hate, bitterness, and disappointment to the One who is love and only love. Even if you know you have little to show, don’t be afraid to let it be seen.

Often you will catch yourself wanting to receive your loving God by putting on a semblance of beauty, by holding back everything dirty and spoiled, by clearing just a little path that looks proper. But that is a fearful response—forced and artificial. Such a response exhausts you and turns your prayer into torment.

 

Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving. You must be patient, of course, very patient until your hands are completely open.

It is a long spiritual journey of trust, for behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless. Much has happened in your life to make all those fists and at any hour of the day or night you might find yourself clenching your fists again out of fear.

 

Maybe someone will say to you, “You have to forgive yourself.” But that isn’t possible. What is possible is to open your hands without fear, so that the One who loves you can blow your sins away. Then the coins you considered indispensable for your life prove to be little more than light dust which a soft breeze will whirl away, leaving only a grin or a chuckle behind. Then you feel a bit of new freedom and praying becomes a joy, a spontaneous reaction to the world and the people around you. Praying then becomes effortless, inspired and lively, or peaceful and quiet. When you recognize the festive and the still moments as moments of prayer, then you gradually realize that to pray is to live.

I end with Henri’s prayer.

Dear God,

I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!

Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?

Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?

Please help me to gradually open my hands

and to discover that I am not what I own,

but what you want to give me.

And what you want to give me is love—

unconditional, everlasting love.

Amen.

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