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On Treehouses and Prayer

Learning contemplative prayer is like building a tree house. The romantic notion of the house bewitches amateurs, but the pragmatic reality of the house bests them with complexity. The novice is soon distraught that the prefabricated plans you can buy are hopeless, a prospect made plain by a cursory walk around the betrothed tree with eyes opened for trouble spots, surveying the uneven ground, logging the arrhythmic placement of roots, noting the foolish task of measuring the massive trunk, gauging the bearing-weight of low-flung limbs, spying the lack of parallel branches, estimating the pitch and yaw of foundation pieces—such intricacies only the opening paragraph in a journal of troubles. The amateur shudders that his project—if not terrifying in its overt complexity—is further complicated by the fact that trees insist on growing, and a building project will not stop its permutations. A prefab will not do. Not at all. By their nature, a prefab reduces the complexity to such simplicity that the trunk merely serves as a single post among four—a bastard tree house, no more, an insult to the name, an indignity. Prefabs always disappoint us because a living thing resides at the center of the tree house. The builder will need to be a craftsman, an improviser, an artist, if he wants his girls to squeal at his creation—not a reductionist.    

When we move from the construction of tree houses to the offering of prayers, we acknowledge the tree—in its watchwork complexity—is an amoeba to God’s lion. The living thing that beckons at the center of prayer is more dynamic, more fierce, more primal, more feral. Do not trash your prefab prayers though, piling them up in the can on top of your crumpled tree house blueprints. Simply recognize them for what they are: blueprints, or if I might be allowed to mix my metaphor, prayers with training wheels. Even the Lord’s Prayer—simple, bold, and magnificent—is not a finished tree house. During his evening in the garden, during his days in the mountains, during his month in the wilderness, I suspect Jesus did not offer a rote “Our father, who art in heaven” eight thousand times and then retire. Instead, he climbed God’s trunk and sat in the crook of the branches, tracing the limbs with his eyes, noting the ones strong enough to support the comic lunacy of his gospel, recording the ones with heft enough to buttress his soul during the drear of Gethsemane, listing the ones—but God has a thousand low-flung limbs alone and to catalogue each makes weary prose.    

I do not wish to deter you from learning to pray, merely to state the most important truth I know about it (and about tree-house making as well): The foundation of prayer is contemplation. You must stop and ponder what you desire; you must stop and ponder the living thing. What sort of arboreal playground will you play with God in? Now, stay put awhile—do not be hasty—and imagine the possibilities: a playground? a hospital room? a chapel? a meeting house? a gothic cathedral? Your only mandate is this: the living thing at the center dictates everything. For this reason, we put away our prefab prayers and spend our construction time waiting in silence for the living thing to speak to us. With its help, our chapel, our meeting house, may be re-drawn a clapboard church, a theatrical playhouse.     

Listen for your building instructions.    

The soul-searching work ceases; the back-breaking work commences. The second most important thing I know: you must commit. Half-built tree houses are grim, a depressant to backyards, an embarrassment to the tree. Your tree will not take into account your scraped knuckles, hammered thumbs, achy knees, or minor concussions. In the same way, constructing a prayer house mangles your heart. If you commit to prayer, if you raise hands to heaven, if you kneel every day in supplication, if you breathe in and out and in and out the Holy Spirit, God drudges up everything that hurts in your life and turns it into construction material. Take the two-by-four of your broken marriage, God says; take the screws of your repressed vocation; take the shingles of your children’s heartbreak; take the rope of your father’s death. And later, if you’re looking for a more finished place: the balustrades of racism, the telescope of privilege, the bells of religious snobbery, the window frames of idolatry. Let me be evangelistic in my fervor, let me press it upon you in plain terms: you must commit to building your prayer house—a delayed house is disheartening; but an abandoned house is a curse. In prayer, we seek God’s comfort, but God seeks our pain. God hunts for it, so the house may be made of materials re-enforced by grace, not made of materials rotted by fear. Do not be afraid, builders. Unlike a tree house, a prayer house toils at us as much as we toil at it.    

The back-breaking labor wraps up; the soul-refreshing communion kicks off. Yes, maintenance beckons, repairs deplete time, and our construction continues, but you have established the retreat. Climb the ladder—which you may construct from ropes spun with gratitude or wood cut from desire, take your pick—and crawl into your prayer house. Sit in silence; relish the view. Listen. As you rest, recline against the living thing at the center of it all.

Posted by Casey Thompson at 3:00 PM
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