Magazines 2017 May - Jun A continuous conversation

A continuous conversation

30 May 2017 By Carolyn Arends

Is it really possible to pray – and listen – without ceasing?

There’s a humorous bit that recurs on The Ellen Show. A celebrity is placed in a situation with unsuspecting citizens – Dennis Quaid ordering a coffee at a Starbucks, say, or Jennifer Lopez interviewing potential assistants in her office. Concealed in the celebrity’s ear is a tiny speaker, and he or she must say whatever Ellen – watching via a hidden camera – dictates through the earpiece.

As Ellen’s improvised "script" repeated obediently by the celebrity becomes increasingly bizarre, the hapless participants become progressively more confused, and the audience is wildly entertained.

I found myself thinking about the Ellen bit, oddly enough, reading a luminous passage from the Quaker devotional writer Thomas R. Kelly. In his 1941 work A Testament of Devotion, Kelly describes a transition he experienced in his prayer life.

At first he needed to practise "an alteration between outer things and the Inner Light." (The "Inner Light" is the way Kelly describes his experience of the active, directive, intimate presence of God.)

Eventually he was able to enjoy a state of "simultaneity"– the Inner Light became "the continuous current and background of all moments of life."


Kelly’s transition to simultaneity was clearly transformative – it fuelled his journey from a restless, ambitious scholar to a God-infused teacher, friend and advocate for social justice.

Kelly’s vivid description of this simultaneity leaves me longing. The Apostle Paul said we could "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and the language of simultaneity helps me to remember the exhortation to pray in all things is an invitation to dialogue – not monologue.

Praying without ceasing includes as much listening as speaking. It makes me wish I could have a speaker in my ear through which God would offer clear directions.

But of course the biblical witness is that while God does speak directly at times, He’s just as apt to be in the whisper. A constant stream of commands into a concealed earpiece might reduce ambiguity, but it would make God more puppet master than Father.

Simultaneity seems to be an invitation into the sort of communion that will leave me increasingly able to sense how the Spirit is moving – with or without a verbal exchange. Sometimes it only takes a bit of eye contact across the room for my husband Mark and me to know what each other is thinking. That sort of connection is the product of thousands of hours together and countless conversations.

If I long for the simultaneity Kelly so deliciously describes, the first step may be getting to know the Light better – in Scripture, in worship and in time together.

A second (rather giant) step involves an openness to the remaking of my heart, to be more in sync with His.

"I will give them a heart to know me," God promised through Jeremiah (24:7).

"Let it be so," I find myself praying. "Break and excite my heart with what breaks and excites yours – until I start to see the world the way you do."

I wonder if a third step in bringing together outer concerns and Inner Light might involve getting better at detecting the Light already present within those outer concerns.

If I began to see every human being as a sacrament of God’s presence, how much of my experience would become flooded in His light? If I realized there is an invitation from God (to lean in, to trust) in every circumstance, would there be anywhere I could hide from His presence?

I feel shy confessing this, but lately I’ve had fleeting experiences of the nature Kelly describes. It’s like I’ve put on 3-D glasses, or flipped the music from mono to stereo – so there is more than one plane of experience happening at the same time.

Sometimes it’s a simple pronoun shift. I notice where I typically might pray, "What am I going to do about this, Lord?" I find myself asking, "How are we going to handle this?" This simultaneity occurs only in fits and starts, but Kelly urges me to trust God’s good purposes in even my own slow progress. "Wait upon His guidance through the stages for which [you] are prepared."

No hidden earpieces. No parlour tricks. Just the Light of the World, gently, slowly reshaping us – making ever more room for His presence.

Carolyn Arends ( is a recording artist, author and director of education for Renovaré. Find more of these columns at