Naked Before the Sacred
The check was for sixty-two dollars.
Rather than feeling crestfallen, I laughed, then whispered, "Perhaps I didn't quite make myself clear." While the check was small, that event finally wasn't about the money. My consciousness shifted; my concern, however valid, softened. Sixty-two dollars wouldn't even pay for the gas I needed on my next trip to Philly to see my kids. But the synchronicity of the check, following a heart-felt prayer, made a significant impact on me. The letter, a random note floating over the transom, felt like a little love letter from God. All will be well. Do not worry. You will get through this.
And, as a matter of fact, over the years following that day, I've slowly equilibrated my financial situation in and through much hard work and various personal and professional developments, some quite surprising and entirely unanticipated. I don't know what to make of that—or of anything good, really—in the face of immensely greater suffering in the world. But a proper response is gratitude, expressed in daily choices and gestures that reflect it. For example, registering the mysterious ways in which grace has visited us we might consider how we can offer, or even become, grace to others by what we do and by how we live.
I wouldn't presume to know what God looks for in prayer and meditation, but I might suppose that something honest, blunt, and real, might be part of it. The more direct, honest, "naked," the better. A very funny dinner scene in the film Meet the Parents is amusing because the protagonist in the film, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, seems utterly ill-equipped to pray grace before meals when asked to do so by his girlfriend's father (played, with great comic style, by Robert de Niro). Stiller's character nonetheless musters up a biblical invocation, "O Thou who smotes the enemy!" and eventually ends his labored rambling by repeating the song he heard earlier that afternoon in a pharmacy, a song from Godspell; so, he concludes his prayer by aspiring "to see Thee more clearly, to follow Thee more nearly, to love Thee more dearly, day by day by day by day."
While that truly is a funny scene, the heart of the matter is precisely that: our heart. Our prayer and meditation must above all be authentic—real and honest in the most bald-faced way, above all with ourselves. But it can include, especially in theistic traditions, expressing our difficult feelings toward and about God. God is not a china doll. He/she will not break.
Think about it. Many human relationships slip into pat and static functionality, with real intimacy and its risks slipping away. If we really want intimacy in our relationships, then we need to be "naked"—open, honest, real. The fruit is rich relationship. This holds true in our relationship to the divine. Indeed, the goal of Sufi mysticism was to become a wali, a friend of God, a relationship naturally marked by intimacy and authenticity. Sufi poetry typically reflects these characteristics and often amazes for its directness and intensity. Consider these lines from Hafiz:
All your begging bowls at God's door,
For I have heard the Beloved
Prefers sweet threatening shouts,
Something on the order of:
My heart is a raging volcano
Of love for you!
You better start kissing me—
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.