Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pointing toward Prayer

I offer here a few observations or personal recitations on the subject of prayer, based on experiences over the past couple years.

First though, I should confess that I have never had what many writers refer to as "trouble" with praying. I really don't know what that looks or feels like. It sounds like something that gets talked about a lot at seminary or in confidential conversation, or is applied as a kind of interior checkpoint: how is your prayer life? The Pauline admonition to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians: 5) is one significant factor, spurring us on toward achieving in this life what we hope for the next: perfect communion with God. And certainly the topic is a popular one. Most religious books I dare say are concerned with prayer in one form or another: what it is and how to do it being dominant themes. And, occasionally one hears advice, such as the suggestion I was offered once that prayer is "really just a matter of being open to the wonders around you." Isn't that nice? I wonder why the Lord didn't say as much in the garden at Gethsemane.

So into the ring I throw my hat, offering a few personal observations about prayer. I hope to move as quickly as is humanly possible out of the discussion I have brought upon myself about what prayer is to merely practical considerations, but perhaps it is best to take this in its proper order.

Prayer is, first of all, what Jesus tells us prayer is. He tells us how to pray and gives us the Lord's Prayer. "This is how you are to pray" he says, in Matthew: 6. I will not paste the Lord's Prayer into this article, as I have to believe that anyone who's reading this either knows the Lord's Prayer or at least can click on the link to Matthew, Chapter 6 to read it. And, if you want to read bout the Lord's Prayer, the long, short, and middle ground of it is handily rendered in the CCC or Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC Part 4, Section 2). This is not to say that prayer is only the Lord's Prayer as it is recited, as a devotional prayer, but it is founded on the dispositions expressed therein. Prayer can praise and/or beseech. It can be contemplative. Christian prayer recurs to the Lord's Prayer because it is foundational. When words desert you, one can pray the Lord's Prayer in whatever heartfelt state one is in at the time and you will be heard.

Therefore, all Christian prayer can be thrown up against the Lord's Prayer to see if it sticks, so to speak, and if it is from the heart, it will. And this is a condition that is much discussed. The short route might seem to be avoiding formulaic, devotional prayers (like the Lord's Prayer) for spontaneous, personal prayer; but even our spontaneous thoughts can be and often are preoccupied, or freighted with thoughts and feelings that in a certain light may not appear prayerful at all. Prayer is not a vending machine, as has been said.

So, if formulaic prayer can fall into dryness, and personal prayer suffer from distraction, what's the key? I would say it's one's disposition. The prayerful disposition precedes rewarding prayer. It may not even lead to prayer per se, but it will reward one all the same, because prayerfulness is a kind of prayer.

By this I mean to suggest that a person who goes through their day with a heart that is open to God has learned, in effect, to pray constantly. I have found that, in maintaining openness to God - in listening and in keeping my heart clear of anger or senseless preoccupation - I am capable at any moment of praying, either formally or spontaneously. That capacity - that readiness - coordinates nicely with the desire to be among those "servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival" Luke 12:35.

So far, so standard. But I want to go a bit further and suggest that prayerfulness or openness to God is not something that can be easily defined. We can all recite the Lord's Prayer together, but are our hearts identical in being open to God. Is it the same thing for all persons when they listen for His voice? Imagine a man or woman, after a hard day's work, just sitting in their car at a red light in the middle of traffic, empty of thought, their heart pleading for rest. Is this not a most articulate prayer and does not God heed our pleas for relief?

I could go on like this forever if I sought to touch on all aspects of what prayer is for all people - and maybe this is in part what we do when we pray. For now, I want to fulfill my expectations for this article and offer a few tangible, concrete points for the reader to consider, to use or discard as they wish.

1. The More You Pray...the More You Will Pray
Praying doesn't stop with having prayed enough. You may think you pray enough, but you will hunger for more. This principal leads to praying the Rosary on a daily basis, praying the Divine Office, etc. And all in good time. Everyone has a different interior and supernatural schedule for this sort of thing as for all things that matter (marriage, children, etc).

2. Praying is Over Here...the World is Over There
You can and should and will no doubt pray for the word and for things of the world - health, a job, peace, for yourself and others - but prayer is of God and the world as such resists God. The world too is of God but cannot know God except through prayer. The world is local and contemporary with the worry and work of the world and only prayer connects the world to God. Do you despair of the world? Imagine a world without prayer.

3. Pray Together When Possible
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20 Solitary prayer is well and good, but prayer in a group will put a big smile on your face. You will have accomplished more than you could individually and in the cooperative spirit that God wants for his people. If your church offers Rosary recitations or better yet the Divine Office, consider delving into group prayer on a regular basis.

4. Action is Prayer in Action
There is no point in drawing distinctions or opposite differences between action and prayer, when any meaningful action is in fact prayer in action. You would not act in such a way as is unsupported by prayer, would you? Is not all meaningful action a form of prayer in service? So, do not worry about prayer vs. action, action vs. prayer. Pray and act; act and pray, as we are told to do.

5. Prayer is the Language of Heaven
One does not become familiar with prayer, or expert at prayer, the way one might master almost any one of life's pursuits, but living one's life through prayer is a kind of irrevocable choice, a movement from which there is no retreat. There is, I think, no surer sign of dying to oneself. “Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” Mark 14: 36