I love the sun. Something about it lifts my soul. My body too rarely gets enough of it. Against the advice of my parents, and now the doctors, I have always tried to walk in it mostly bare-skinned; despite the warnings.
Partly, I suppose, it’s for vanity, the tan, that I and millions of others do this, but there’s something else as well. Frayed ozone layers, medical prudence and some middle-aged girth notwithstanding, there is a sheer delight in feeling the sun on one’s body.
Recently I took a walk in the sun on a warm later afternoon. I was alone and back in a city, Edmonton, which I much love and where I have lived and taught for almost all of my adult years. I was checking out all my old paths, my old haunts, drinking in its familiarity even as I drank in the sun—and I was trying to pray, to lift heart and mind to God.
Trying to pray when you are nostalgic, overly introspective, and walking in the sun can make for strange feelings, especially if your senses are being titillated as well by scores of outdoor barbecues filling the air with a delicious aroma and when, on the surface at least, everything else and everybody else seem to be asleep in that non-reflectiveness that can sedate whole cities on warm late summer afternoons and can give a lonely walker the impression that, in this town at this hour, he alone is at prayer and in deep thought.
Of course, he’s wrong. He’s not alone in prayer and the city is not sleep-walking as he so arrogantly supposes, but, because he thinks so, his prayer will need a more radical intervention by God, and the sun, to dispel somewhat that kind of narcissism.
This lonely walker thought he was praying. As I took my later afternoon stroll in the sun, my head and heart were engaged in the task of prayer and many of the movements that the spiritual textbooks identify with prayer were indeed happening.
There was a sense of perspective, a relativism about the joys of this life, a feeling of centredness in something beyond my own agenda and pleasures, and a challenge to live less selfishly and more simply.
But this didn’t come in purity. It came with a heaviness which made it hard for me, at that moment, to say about this life, this world, and this city: “It is good; indeed, it is very good!”
Instead my prayer brought with it the automatic, unwanted and unwarranted judgment: “This city and these people are asleep to God, to what’s really important. They’ve been spiritually tranquilized by their heartaches and headaches, by their tiredness and pressures, by the demands of their mortgages, by their barbecues and by the sun on this warm summer night.”
Nietzsche’s Madman once made a similar judgment about his generation when he shouted: “God is dead and we are his murderers!” but he wasn’t praying. He was speaking as an atheist.
And that’s the trouble with atheism and bad prayer. It doesn’t make the proper connection between barbecues and mysticism. It doesn’t understand enough the sun—and what a good parent would want of his or her children on a warm summer’s day.
I’ve never had children but, if I were a parent, I don’t imagine that I could hope for anything more than to see my children playing in the sun. Surely that must be both the wish and the delight of any good parent—to see your children playing in the sun.
No parent, save God, is ever adequate to the task. All mothers and fathers cannot not disappoint their children. No mother or father can ever give to her or his children the joy that they would like to.
But every good mother and father tries to arrange times when, however brief that period might be, the children can play in the sun. Despite all their other inadequacies, all parents, I suspect, know they are good parents when they see their children playing in the sun. For that moment, furtive though it might be, there is nothing else a parent can do for a child.
God is a good parent. Nothing, I suspect, makes God feel better as a parent than when s/he sees us playing in the sun. There is a time too for the type of explicit prayer that relativizes the pleasures of this life and asks us to make more easy friends with our own mortality.
But on this particular afternoon, walking in the warm afternoon sun, I suspect that God was smiling, was basking in the smell of barbecue sauce and was feeling every bit the good parent as his children, at least in this one corner of the earth, played in the sun.