The art of religious sunbathing: giving up trying to be in control
By Giles Fraser, Friday 27 July 2012 14.29 EDT
Rowan Williams once brilliantly compared prayer to sunbathing. “When you’re lying on the beach something is happening, something that has nothing to do with how you feel or how hard you’re trying. You’re not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and that’s it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change, at their own pace. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you.”
Too much prayer is seen as effort, as an attempt to make things different by some mental act of will. But the world does not revolve around you or me. And I can’t make it or other people dance to my tune by strenuously wishing things were other than they are. There is no magic involved. It’s not about mysteriously offering up some shopping list of proposals to an absent-minded deity who might not have thought about them had you not suggested them first. It’s not cosmic lobbying. The fundamental move is to give up trying to be in control.
This week I have been on my own a lot. Those I love have been away, in hot places elsewhere. And I have done a great deal of padding about the house. Making tea, reading books, smoking cigarettes, lying in the garden sunbathing. Yes, I know what you are thinking. That’s not much of a job. You ought to be going out, getting on with something useful, making a difference, changing the world. And it’s true that I don’t know how I would justify my week on any sort of time sheet or annual job appraisal. Even in the church, the grim jaws of administration seek constantly to quantify effectiveness and impact. This is the modern default: if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist. Well, sod that. The most important stuff in human life defies numerical quantification.
Even so, religious sunbathing – being where the light can get at you – is not without its own strict rigor. Time on your own, without the amusements of friends or work, means there are few distractions from the darkness within. Fundamentally, we face our demons alone. And not running away is the first discipline of religious sunbathing. Which is why religious sunbathing, unlike the beach variety, does not go well with a glass of chilled white or a cocktail with a cherry on the top. Anaesthetics are not allowed. Sunlight is a metaphor for honesty. Light is the ancient name for truthfulness.
So, lots of fancy words, but does it work? Certainly not when it stays trapped in self-indulgent navel-gazing. And not when it is all about feeling sorry for oneself either. Of course there are tears – a form of prayer that the writers of the Bible described as lament. But all of this has to drop away too. Religious sunbathing is a great deal about adjusting our eyes to the nature of how things really are, adjusting to reality rather than constantly fighting it. Plato had it right that when you escape from the darkness of the cave it is often not possible to see clearly as the brightness makes us squint.
We are unaccustomed to the truth, and acclimatising one’s eyes takes time. But it is only the truth that will set us free. I walk up to the corner shop to buy some milk. I notice more intensely the cars and the breeze and the blueness of the sky. The world as it is, in itself, has a more intense reality. It’s not all about me. For a few moments at least, I have given up trying to conscript reality into my own furious plan of action. And I glimpse that all will be well.
Photograph of Soviet Union sunbathers in Leningrad, March 1984, by Will van Overbeek. http://willvano.blogspot.com/2011/02/russian-sunbathers.html