Marsha Sinetar, in her book Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, says that during the early history of the church, up to the 12th century, religious tradition encouraged contemplative personal religious experiences. During this time the “methodless” prayer of the monks wove prayer, meditation, and contemplation together. Then, in the 12th century, prayer began to be analyzed and categorized.
When I reflect on this, a certain truth about the organic wholeness of prayer resonates against the “categories” into which I’ve placed the routines of my own prayer life. Instead of wholeness to my prayer, I perceive it as various pieces. There is my morning and evening vocal prayer, the Mass, discursive meditation, these letters, and contemplative/centering prayer. I gather much information about prayer from books and various internet websites. What I conclude from them is that it’s true – most people do categorize prayer and analyze each category separately. And it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much of this categorization that | perceive it the same way in my own life.
But the truth that pops out of this, right from the very beginning, is that it’s all an error of perception. We give names to categories of prayer and so we perceive that they exist in reality. The categories generally describe an attitude, state of mind, posture, or level of consciousness, etc., but they are only descriptive of that – not of prayer itself. The act of placing oneself in the presence of God is an act that is substantially one essence with many attributes. There is not one idea behind vocal prayer, another behind meditation, and another in contemplation. All hold a place in the organic wholeness of our moment-to-moment relationship with You in the present.
So, the pre-twelfth century monks had it right. Our whole life is, ideally, the organic embodiment of prayer, We are prayer!
I revel in rapturous reflections upon the ways You choose to speak to me. I love to sit back and contemplate Your many voices and, with a delicious anxiety, to imagine ways yet to come.
In the car this morning I was listening to a minister talking about St. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians concerning charity and how our gifts, talents, preaching, teaching, and praying are all for nothing if we lack it. Somehow, concurrently, my mind took hold of another admonition to let our prayers be simple, not a lot of words, for the Father in heaven already knows our needs. This picture segued into the idea that “self” was behind everything that prevented us from loving and trusting as we should. Then, a bit later, while reciting the chaplet of divine mercy, You threw all this together into a mix out of which emerged insight. It’s absolutely marvelous, and I love to contemplate it! Thank-You for finding ways, no matter how obtuse, to touch me.
The “zinger” in this case was just this: thoughtful prayer abnegates self. I wrestle frequently with the length and quantity of prayers I say daily. I often feel compelled to say three Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Be’s plus a lot of sweetened hortatory rhetoric for an intention, then move on to another; all this despite the fact (and this is what I struggle with) that all I need to do is place it in Your hands. I have been leaning more and more toward doing this until this morning.
This morning I realized that something terribly important goes on during those lengthy and wordy prayers that would be lost by shortening them. The benefit to the object or motivation of the prayer would not change, but the benefit to me would be drastically altered. This is because when I pray with unneeded verbosity I lose my “self,” It was right before me all the time – I lose my “self.”
The blood, sweat, and tears of trying to erase my “self” in the relationships of my daily life dissolve completely when I pray attentively. That, all along, has been the beauty of prayer. It may be that times of thoughtful prayer are the only times of complete loss of “self.” At these times gifts, talents, preachings and teachings fall away with our “selves” - and we love.
How many times have I heard the cliché about someone “losing himself in thought” but have never stopped to ponder that the emphasis in that cliché should be on the word “self.” When we focus in our prayers on the needs, concerns and love we have for another, our personas dissolve. It would seem ideal if we were able to sustain this attitude of prayer from morning to night daily. If we prayed thoughtfully from waking to sleeping our “self” would be contained and our love would grow immensely. The fact that this is so difficult (but not impossible) to sustain outside a monastery is a good argument for the monastic life where each day is built around prayer.
So, while I may never achieve the loss of “self” so available to a monk, I am overjoyed at Your revelation of it to me.
In the integration of the sacred and profane I am struck by the relative ease with which we are able to pray when everything is going well for us. Prayer becomes a “chore” when we are down, in pain, or suffering loss. In the midst of the gray, unpleasant, and unwanted events of life prayer does not come easily. For that very reason it may be more powerful and transcendent at such times.
The full horror of what lay before You was transcended by Your will to pray to Your Father in the garden. The height of all that is profane did not overcome You but was overcome by You in a sacred moment of self-transcendence that would continue all the way to the cross. Our attitude itself in times of crisis can be a prayer when words are too hard to find. When we are “in control” it’s easy to pray. But when we are not in control of what’s happening to us, or what’s happening around us – when we are in chaos and cannot muster the ability to reach out to God because He seems, at such times, to be so distant, is when we should realize that prayer becomes the ability to “let go and let God.” What’s needed is not just to say, “I’m so upset that I just can’t talk to You now,” but rather to let it go and simply and trustingly say, “I put it all in Your hands.”
I believe that Your measure of our skill in prayer has nothing to do with the number of words we use or, for that matter, with skill at all. What You read in the midst of the profane, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of the toughest times, even when we don’t “touch base” with You, is our hearts. Our being and its direction are inscribed by our hearts. Our prayer is where our heart is.
I have gone through some “cycles” in my thoughts about prayer. Mainly, they have to do with my compulsions about words. In these cycles what happens is a realization that the quantity of words used has nothing to do with the quality of prayer and, in fact, may indicate a certain lack of trust. What happens in this cyclic scenario is that I feel the urge to simplify the prayers I say. Yet, over time, I am witness to their growing again more complicated and wordy. With this realization, I begin all over again. What I really believe is that prayer takes two things as fundamental: 1) trust; and, 2) a composure of the heart (disposition).
Words, whether in these letters, or read, or spoken don’t really have a lot to do with it. True, we are comfortable using words because words are what people use with each other to express need, love, or gratitude, but this human need for words is also what makes it difficult to trust that You don’t need words. What seems truly needed here is a natural and honest compliance with Your oft-repeated admonition to “fear not.” Don’t be afraid that you haven’t said enough prayers or used enough words, or prayed “hard” enough. If our hearts are disposed to Your constant presence in us, if we work on composing our hearts in conformity with Yours, and if we live this life in Your spirit, then what we “say” to You can be quite simple and filled with great trust – for You know our needs and You know what is best for us. I know in my heart that this is true, but I do not stop throwing tons of words at You. I do not trust enough. My lack of trust in people and my desire to “do it myself” comes into strong play here. “Letting go” without fear is very difficult. But “letting go” with trust may be the very best prayer of all. Persistence in prayer is not what I’m talking about here. Persistence is a given. You have told us to keep knocking on that door and our persistence will be answered. What we should understand is that, for You, trust and simple prayer is all that is needed.
A characterization of my life as one of listening and Yours as one of speaking is not a new concept, but it certainly is a key concept to spiritual growth. It seems most certainly essential to the contemplative style of life.
In the commerce of the marketplace we tend to be far more interested in putting forth our own thoughts and ideas than in listening to those of others. Why, then, might we think it so easy to shut off this proclivity when it comes to listening to Your voice? I think, as I grow older, one of the things I’m learning in this regard is that there is a direct correlation between my ability to listen to others and my ability to listen to You. This may carry with it the surprising discovery that contemplation begins with that attitude with which I approach other people.
Talking stands in direct opposition to the ability to receive. The whole idea of prayer is elevated when we become receivers rather than transmitters. Unity, empathy, synchronicity, and harmony, I believe, are only achievable when we are receivers – when we listen, ideally, in silence. If our minds and mouths are simultaneously engaged we stonewall anyone or anything else. Transmission is a vehicle of the self and the self always opposes oneness with another.
I find, much to my discomfort, the continual need to consider and reconsider vocal prayer as a viable medium for union with You. People ask me and I ask others for prayers. I pray vocally for others, for myself, and for Your kingdom to come and that Your will may be done. Somehow I think You want to hear these prayers like we need to occasionally hear the words, “I love you,” from people we already know love us. I can identify with the need to be asked for help by those we love. I think, likewise, that it pleases You to be asked for help by those You love. Our vocal prayer to You is based on our dependency – a dependency which seeks to fashion itself into love. At this juncture, between our vocal prayer and our efforts to perfect our love comes listening. This listening generates, deep within, contemplation, and this is why contemplation in silence is so sweet. But I think it rests in large measure upon the dependency we need to express in our vocal prayer.
Our spiritual primary education is based largely on vocal prayer and it is with this as a foundation that we move into the secondary levels of meditation and mental prayer which, in turn, are fundamental to the higher wisdom involved in contemplation. This evolution from outward to more inward forms of prayer characterizes my own growth in our relationship – a growth in silently listening for Your voice in the people and events around me each day. Such listening draws me closer to You.
Sometimes the things right under our noses, the habitual things, the taken-for-granted things conceal the simplest and, therefore, most easily overlooked insights. It struck me this morning how similar in many ways the Mass is to these letters. Through both vehicles I strive to nourish a special relationship with You. Both are very much centered on You and address You specifically. While the Mass is very structured, its content is very personal. The liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist elicit individual resonances within me. It is similar for me to the unique ways that these letters provide a kind of dialogue. It may seem presumptuous of me to assume that Your part of such a dialogue is more than my own creation, but I honestly feel that, for the most part, You control my pen. As You offer Yourself to me each day in the Mass, so too in these letters.
Much of what the Mass and these letters have to offer comes from the disposition I bring to each. My feeling is that my disposition should be closely akin to a sponge, just as in centering prayer. The three foundation stones of my daily relationship with You, the Mass, these letters, and centering prayer place me primarily in the role of passive receiver. What I do when I’m not engaged in any of these three, when I go about the mundane tasks of daily life, is, hopefully to refer back continually to what they have offered me. They are the embodiments of Your presence in my day. There is great potential in these three for me if I learn to use them to listen.
If we try to see through Your eyes and live according to that vision, then, when we look at some of the things we pray for, we might find that more than a few are on the peripheries of that vision. While they may seem important enough to us, they might be somewhat frivolous and self-serving when put in Your perspective. What would Your prayer be to me?
The truth is there is only one thing for which You could ask me that I am capable of giving to You: my love. I imagine that that would be Your prayer to me: a request for my love. If that is true, then such a prayer must be the essence of all prayer and, as such, should be my prayer to You.
So often what we pray for balances on ways we can manipulate You and we disguise them in such ways that we fool ourselves. You see through this and still don’t mind because You love us so much that You forgive us our many faults and weaknesses. You, I think, would pray that we just keep trying to love and keep trying to purify and center our love.
To pray for the sick, the living and the dead, etc., is acceptable because we rely on You with the love and dependency of a child for its father; of a sheep for its shepherd; of one saved for his savior. But we do this precisely because of the beings we are and because of the baggage such beings accumulate. You, I don’t think, would pray that we pray for the sick, the living and the dead etc., as a duty or obligation in need of fulfillment in order to prove our dependency. No, You would just pray that we love and, if properly understood, we would comprehend that opening ourselves to Your love cannot help but embody such other prayers. For as we grow spiritually we see Your love in all people and in all things. Then our love for You and the ways we express it are bonded to our human tendencies to identify with the plights of others who, in various ways, reflect Your love back to us.
One spiritual writer notes that we are often in the habit of praying for lesser gifts when God wants us to want the greatest gift – Himself. Direct from You, the answer to all our prayers is: “Here I am.”
As one grows in the life of prayer there is a peculiar twinge of guilt that resonates about our prayers of petition. When once we have entered even the outer fringes of contemplative prayer, there is something in us that wants to label the daily routines of life as more trivial than previously supposed, and we begin to think that if others realized this they’d not ask us to pray for their successful surgery, or whatever. But our petitions are motivated by our desire of the best for those we love, yet we lack a clear understanding of the fact that each of us already has access to the best and no one else can pursue it for us.
In a proper understanding of the nature of prayer it just may be that itemized lists of petitions miss the point. There is a world of difference between reaching out to touch You and reaching out to put the touch on You. I know I will not stop the daily mantras of my morning and nighttime lists of prayers. I know I will not stop when people ask me for my prayers. There are plenty of times in the relationship between lover and loved one that are moments of “small talk” or non-intimate conversation – conversation that is about daily life, about our health, our friends, what we did, and where we are going. Would we, with You, want less to engage in such conversation? I don’t think so and I don’t think You think so. You let us hear from You through Your life on earth and from things You whisper to us from time to time. We like to let You hear from us about our lives. A prayer life based totally on expectations of receiving something is a one-sided conversation - a monopoly of any spiritual dialogue, and a blatant assertion of our own selfishness. You are always there.
Faith and a sincere heart are all that is needed; not an understanding of deep spiritual mysteries. Our great human curiosity which moves us to probe and seek in order to know more, to understand more, is a wonderful and useful tool but one, we must expect, whose use will be perpetually frustrated because of our limited capacities. You do not ask us to try to fathom the depths of Your being. You have never said that Your love depends on how much we know. Church involvement and devotional trappings are nor guaranteed signs of our love for You. Faith and a sincere heart are all that is needed; all else flows from that. If we believe in and accept You we will want to seek You and know You through every means possible – it just follows; but it’s not necessary. All the baloney of popular culture and styles of life are pushed aside if our hearts are true and sincere in embracing You.
God must find it easier to forgive all our attachments to the superficialities of life when our hearts sincerely accept and believe in Him. Saying this may smack of reformist theology but it cannot be argued that the faith of a sincere heart generates acts of love, devotion and searching. This is at the core of every relationship with You. It is elemental. While love may be the single most important principle of Christianity, it sprouts from the seed of faith and a sincere heart. Love grows and blossoms from the openness and acceptance of a sincere heart.
The faults and sins of my life are many, but I hope You look at the sincerity of my heart when I say I believe in You and desire to please You even if I don’t.
Faith is a belief and trust in what we perceive as true. It is shown in not just what we say but in how we act. Therefore, if we have faith in something, we tend to speak, act and think in conformity with that belief. Our beliefs give direction to our lives. Thus we might say that obedience is a fruit of faith in the sense that we tend to obediently and willingly conform ourselves to that which we believe.
There is, it seems, in contemplation an element by which we conceptualize and energize the mode(s) by which we conform ourselves to what we believe. So, it is not without reason that we might say that contemplation is a fruit of the obedience which is the fruit of faith. This obedience is not a submission to a set of institutional commands but rather an urging that comes from the center of our being. It speaks to us and we contemplate its voice. Over time we trust it and want to submit to it. Its suggestions are gifts – a flood of various graces that urge us on and beg to be contemplated and obeyed as we obey that which we believe is truth. It is like a nutrient which courses through our spiritual veins that may, like the flow of blood, be easily ignored, but when attended to moves us to examine and meditate upon what we believe. It is as if once attended to, it must be obeyed. Such obedience is acceptance of a grace – a gift by which You draw us closer to Your embrace. Again, when attended to, there is something almost imperative about the progression from grace to faith to obedience to contemplation.