Pensieve Prayer

My family is reading Harry Potter books together. More accurately, my daughter is racing through the Harry Potter books while the rest of us struggle to keep up with her. In the fourth book, I encountered a magic device that reminds me a lot of prayer. It’s called a Pensieve. Here’s the passage where the wise headmaster Dumbledore explains it to Harry.

“What is it?” Harry asked shakily.

“This? It is called a Pensieve,” said Dumbledore. “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”

“Er,” said Harry, who couldn’t truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.

“At these times,” said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, “I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

Dumbledore drew his wand out of the inside of his robes and placed the tip into his own silvery hair, near his temple. When he took the wand away, hair seemed to be clinging to it — but then Harry saw that it was in fact a glistening strand of the same strange silvery-white substance that filled the Pensieve. Dumbledore added this fresh thought to the basin, and Harry, astonished, saw his own face swimming around the surface of the bowl.

I know how Dumbledore feels. Life gives us so much to work through, so many hardships to shoulder, so many questions to sort out. And prayer feels the same way. Often, I don’t know where to begin. The load feels so heavy that I’m tempted to skip the effort of prayer altogether, as if to say, “Lord, isn’t the burden obvious? You see this heavy load on my back so you know what I need help with. Do I also have to kneel under this weight, or can I just keep walking with it?"

Another book I’m reading is called The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers by David Hansen. It’s a terrific book. This morning, it reminded me of what I already know but don’t want to pause to acknowledge: prayer is my Pensieve. Kneeling under the burden is hard. It feels shaky and unwieldy. But it’s the only way to lighten the load. Hansen writes:

Our friendship with God, what we call our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, has its experiential reality in those moments when God is present, listening for our prayer. Our lives are drawn out weak and disjointed and given back to us whole. 

Like Dumbledore’s magic bowl, prayer lets us unburden and rebalance our burdens. It helps us see from a different perspective. This is best done in what Hansen calls "wandering prayer," that is, prayer that doesn’t have an agenda. For Hansen, this means literally wandering through the forest in the Bitterroot Mountains where he lives (note to self: repent of jealousy). For me, it more often means sitting with a pen and blank page and meandering through the faces and issues of the people I pastor. 

This isn’t ticking off items on a prayer list or praying through the psalms (though those are good things to do). This is reaching into the dark mouth of the sack we carry on our backs and bringing out things for Jesus to see and reorder. This is drawing out our thoughts and concerns, putting them in a more visible form, and watching them swirl in the bowl of God’s grace until they make more sense and take less energy to carry. 

In wandering prayer our minds are emptied, understood, recorded and set right. It is our consciousness and conscience unpacking cargo in the presence of God for his repacking under the terms of the gospel. 

I doubt this is what J.K. Rowling had in mind when she conceived the Pensieve, but it’s encouraging to find a Christian practice that meets this deep need that is, apparently, shared by pastors and wizards alike.