Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Prayerfulness of Rain

Man walking in the rain

I have become something of a rain fan. Celebrating rain is one of many poetic habits I have acquired from 30 years of living with my wife, Lynn, a writer of stories for children. She’s one of the world’s great rain enthusiasts, invariably announcing its arrival by proclaiming, “It’s raining!” She then goes to watch it from every window in the house.

Although I am usually aware of the rain, I know her announcement is really saying, in effect, let’s stop and appreciate what’s happening.

A good soaking rain means that no interruption can ruin the reverie created by the sound of water beating on the roof—drowning out other sounds and other realities, cloistering us in the timeless present. I am reminded of the old Chinese custom of happily listening to the sound of raindrops on banana leaves and my own experiences of losing myself in the sound of rain.

Sacrament of the Present Moment

One of my favorite descriptions of this type of rain comes from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and writer. He was fully attentive to the lessons to be found in the natural world and writing prolifically about what he saw and heard. One thing that Merton appreciated about the comforting Kentucky rain is that it allowed him to be fully present to the reality of the moment. He has been given permission to do nothing but listen.

In the Christian tradition, this practice of meditative attention to God’s presence has been called the sacrament of the present moment.

In the Buddhist tradition, attention to the now is called mindfulness. It is one of those key areas in which the great spiritual traditions converge, teaching us that focusing on the present is not only a source of inner peace, but also an encounter with the infinite.

Mindfulness requires a bit of practice; rain, falling naturally, requires no effort except our appreciation of what happens in the moment. But the challenge of being aware of the now—of finding contemplative time—is especially complicated by the fast-forward movement of our busy lives, with smartphones and tablets that so easily prevent us from truly being where we are.

Even a Beer Can

One way out of this dilemma is to slow down, be quiet, stop the flow of ongoing chatter in our minds, and pay attention to the ordinary realities that constitute our day.

Can we notice a beer can on the road without judging or analyzing it and be aware of nothing else? This is mindfulness. To keep the beer can from triggering our anger at the carelessness of motorists who toss things out of windows, we have to step out of our entrenched habit of noticing things that are problematic, as well as our habit of grieving for things that are gone.

Because we have been trained so extensively to focus on the future or the past—and to treat the present as if it doesn’t exist—I have to make a special effort to be conscious of that beer can and the way it gleams in the sun before I stop to pick it up, grateful for the chance to perform a simple, positive, wordless act.

And when nature cloisters us with a downpour, I can find inner peace and joy in not being distracted from savoring a moment out of time. The “comforting speech” of rain is the language of silence, the language of prayer.

Prayer, at its best, is utterly simple. No words are needed. In fact, the humility of silence is preferable. To connect myself to the divine presence beyond words requires, above all, conscious attention to something or someone other than myself.

Get Lost

Whether I find it through rain, reading, music, or movies (or even a beer can that catches my eye), I am able to lose myself. In this loss of ego, I can find my true self.

When we make our daily tasks a kind of prayer, we enter what the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has called “the now dimension of time,” the fullness of the unique, unrepeatable present moment where God is found. This type of prayer, as I have learned from Merton and others, is so much more than petition. If we think of it as attention to the reality of the present moment, we see how awareness of the most ordinary aspects of our lives, such as listening to rain’s comforting speech, can make almost anything prayerful.

Although, at times, the present is painful and something to be escaped, we know that God is there. If we believe that God is present to us in our awareness of the moment—whatever the circumstances—we can rest in God anywhere, using the most trivial things.

Yet this raises the question: If such ordinary experiences are sacraments of the present moment, is anything we encounter really trivial?

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