Monday

fasting, my iPhone, and prayer {guest post Morgan Guyton}

Somehow Morgan sums up most everything I learned in centering prayer and meditation from a completely different angle, which is so fascinating to me. Plus, he's a really smart guy, and I'm pleased to share his words here with you.


I fast on Mondays. It's my day off from being a pastor. When it's really hot, really cold, or rainy, I drive into Washington D.C. and spend the day at the Catholic basilica, the huge cathedral with about two dozen statues of Mary and one giant angry Jesus in the front. When the weather is nice, I like to be outside so I walk around a nearby lake or visit a waterfall I recently discovered on a creek that runs into the Potomac River.

I started fasting because I'm a radically undisciplined person and I thought it would help me to "conquer the flesh." I eat whenever I feel the slightest hunger pangs. I drink more wine than I should when I'm at social gatherings where I feel awkward. I have never accomplished more than three or four items on my to-do list on a given workday, largely because I've got ADD out the wazoo. Sometimes I try to rationalize my ADD by saying that I do whatever the Spirit leads me to do. Being a writer, I feel compelled to write whenever I'm "inspired," which means that my responsibilities are constantly getting pushed aside.

In any case, my fasting hasn't seemed to do a damn thing for my discipline, even on Mondays. This is partly because I always have my iPhone with me, and when I have my iPhone, inevitably I look at Facebook and get sucked into the latest blogosphere drama even sitting in a sacred room like the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the basilica (isn't that disgusting?!). It's been a sort of internal debate with me. How can I carry technology around with me on my day of prayer? Well, it has my lectionary app. And my Hebrew Bible. About two years ago, I started praying in Hebrew. And for some reason, that's become my most meaningful spiritual practice.

I learned Hebrew in seminary, but I started praying in Hebrew after I gave myself a challenge. I wanted to blog my way through the longest, boring-est psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119, because I'd read Christians like Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards claim that it was amazingly beautiful and profound and so forth, and I wanted to see if they were just being pious and full of crap. So two autumns ago, I would read a different 8 verse section of Psalm 119 each Monday and then walk around the lake to chew on it. And much to my surprise, it was actually beautiful and profound when I started to look at the Hebrew text for verses that stood out to me.

The example that stands out the most is Psalm 119:113, which says seaphim saneti, v'torecha ahavti in Hebrew. Most English translations make the word seaphim into "double-minded": "I hate the double-minded but I love your law." But when I looked in my little iPhone Hebrew lexicon, I discovered that seaphim refers to "dividing" because a seaph is a branch. And that caused me to visualize in my head the periodic table of elements and every other chart of categories I'd had to memorize in science class, which made me think of the division of truth into binary either-ors that is the hallmark of modernity.

These four Hebrew words stated nothing less than the epistemological curse of human existence that had bedeviled Heidegger. Torah is truth in its seamless purity, while seaphim is the perpetual inadequacy of our interpretation: "I hate opinions/ideologies/categories/interpretations, but I love your law (in its mysterious, unconquerable transcendence)." My mind was completely blown. And I started to say these words to myself as I walked around the lake. Seaphim saneti, v'torecha ahavti. It became a prayer. And over the last two years, I've wandered through the psalms, looking up other short Hebrew phrases that have become my prayers also.

There's elohim hashivanu vahaer panecha vanivashea ("God, restore us, make your face shine, and we will be saved," Psalm 80:7). I was saying this on my trail by the lake a few weeks ago, and when I reached a clearing, the sun broke through the clouds, and I about fell over. Another is hatot nouri ufshai al tizkor, kahasdacha zakar li atah lemayan tuvacha adonai ("Remember me not according to the sins of my youth and my transgressions, but remember me according to your mercy and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord," Psalm 25:7). That one has become a prayer not just for God's forgiveness, but for God to re-member me and help me forget the habits and addictions that I think I can't escape.

Somehow praying short phrases in another language does something different to my body than talking to God in English. Because I have to memorize the phrases, I'm not thinking about what I'm going to say as I say it. I'm noticing my breath, my footsteps, my hunger. My mind often wanders, and I'll start thinking about things that are completely unrelated that sabotage my prayer. But sometimes, particularly when I'm tired from walking and a little bit hungry from fasting, my mind empties, and I'm simply in the moment with God. For a neurotic, perpetually scatter-brained person like me, there's nothing more wonderful than those moments.

So I pray in Hebrew. And that's why I carry my iPhone with me even on my Sabbath day when I should be fasting from technology. To learn new Hebrew phrases for my prayers as they come up in the lectionary psalms. I know I'm weird. I also pray in Greek. When your mind is a constant train-wreck of words, I guess it works better to talk to God in languages that you don't really know.

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in BurkeVirginia. His wife Cheryl is also pursuing ordination as a United Methodist minister. They have two sons, Matthew (7) and Isaiah (4). Morgan enjoys growing really hot peppers in his garden and canning homemade salsa. Morgan wrestles with many topics on his blog "Mercy Not Sacrifice," such as how to live out his Christian anarchist values in the suburgatory of Northern Virginia.