Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries – Prayer
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
One version of the joke goes this way: an atheist is out for a walk in the woods, enjoying nature’s beauty. All of a sudden a grizzly bear emerges from the woods, and it looks quite intent on attacking the atheist. “O my God,” the atheist said. “I don’t believe in God and don’t want to believe in God. So let this bear become the believer. It’s not going to be me.” The bear’s attitude suddenly change; he pauses. He bows his head. Then, just before going after the atheist, we hear the bear saying, “Bless us O Lord, and this thy gift, which I am about to receive from thy bounty.”
This often-told joke shows, first of all, how instinctually we think of prayer as a formula of words that we say. Once I have the formula, and then say the words, the prayer will have its effect-almost like magic.
On a deeper level, this joke reveals something about human nature: even the atheist ends up talking to God. Our sense of being connected to God is something that a few scientists even claim is “wired” into our brains. God is not the conclusion of an argument; rather, God is the horizon of our lives. As the old saying put it: “In foxholes there are no atheists.”
So, prayer has to be more than a formula; and it means something more than a vague talking to God. In fact, prayer flows from the heart of our experience of discipleship. Once disciples have a sense of relationship with God, and once we let the Scriptures deepen that relationship, then prayer becomes a way for us to enter into intimate communion with God. We find ourselves open to the deepest levels of God’s presence; likewise, we sense God’s ever-ready openness to us.
Prayer, then, expresses the relationship that we have with God as we put that relationship into action, into the attentive posture of opening ourselves to God. Sure, prayer may happen spontaneously, for example, when we are in the middle of an emergency. But prayer has the most meaning when it flows from hearts that already have become familiar with God.
Remember when Samuel is called in the Scripture? The Bible says in Samuel (3:1) that at the time of Samuel’s calling “the word of the Lord was scarce, and vision infrequent.” Indeed, the human heart can grow indifferent to the presence of God, fussing about countless details and worries, and become progressively less aware of the divine life that encircles us. Perhaps this is often what people mean when they call themselves atheists or agnostics; their hearts have grown unfamiliar with God’s enfolding presence.
Prayer is that deliberate action we take to address, and listen to, the divine mystery—as God has become known in the Holy Scriptures, and in our centuries-old reflection on the Scripture. When God calls people in the Scripture, God engages them, and gives them a way to both conceive of God’s invisible being, and have conscious interchange with the God who is beyond all words. The Scriptures help us find a language and imagery to address the ultimate font of life, meaning, and love. The Scriptures help our language with God take meaning and shape.
What does prayer do?
Because prayer involves the deliberate attending of our lives to God, prayer opens human experience up to dimensions beyond the ordinary. Indeed, when we reflect on our usual attention to things around us, we experience only a tiny slice of human experience. We notice only a sliver of the information that comes through sight and sound; and we edit that information into patterns we can grasp relatively quickly. Aren’t we shocked, for example, when we go away on retreat to some silent place and begin to attend to those deeper thoughts and feelings that we regularly ignore?
How mysterious is every moment of our existence, surrounded by light that comes from endless space, by causal factors way too numerous to list, by events and people that have indelibly stamped us, even though we are not consciously aware of them. And how oblivious we are of the grace, beauty, and love that lies behind every second of existence. We rush around our little world, defined by our particular concerns, and miss most of life’s meaning. Our ordinary experience cuts short so much of reality—not only what we may be feeling, but certainly, all too often, what others are feeling, thinking or saying.
Prayer begins to open us up to these deeper and wider dimensions because we have allowed ourselves to become open to God. We have dropped the resistance that so readily controls our everyday consciousness. We have made our hearts vulnerable, in these moments of prayer, for impact from God’s love and grace. As a result, the ordinary can become charged with the extraordinary. Signs and wonders appear in what looked like an empty field. We “hear” God speaking not in language, but in relationships that change and transform us: God “speaks” peace, grace, hope, faith, generosity, and deeper life. We find these, miraculously!, as realities in our hearts.
No wonder the world was transformed “where Jesus walked”—as the old Negro hymn puts it. No wonder people responded to his invitation, the forces of darkness fled, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke out, the hungry were filled, the weary found encouragement, the searching saw truth and direction. In his self, Jesus is humankind’s deepest prayer, because in Christ we have communicated with God at the deepest point of human experience. Prayer brings us into this sacred space, a space that enfolds us though we attend little to it. In that space, wonders happen.
In this sacred space, two dimensions appear: adoration and petition.
Petition arises from the limitations of our being and our experience. It arises from the brokenness that we introduce into our lives, and the brokenness that comes to us from the world and relationships around us. We feel needs we are entirely incapable of responding to. The only thing we can do is cry out: Help! Need! Desperation! Please! This burst of prayer comes automatically to our lips because the pain and desperation we feel make it well up in us. No matter how we think about ourselves, the brokenness of our lives keeps reappearing. We cannot escape it.
Paradoxically, that cry for help is part of the next dimension of prayer: adoration. Our limitations and pain force us outside ourselves. When this happens, even apart from the way God responds to our hurts and limitations, we begin to see more fully the wonder of our universe, the beauty of our world, the sheer grace of our existence, and the limitless graciousness of God. And this leads us to praise—to affirm, as fully as our being allows, the wonder and love of God whose generosity spills over into everything we know.
In adoration, we want to stand “outside ourselves,” if that were possible, to project everything inside us—heart, head, soul, and spirit—toward this God on whose generous love we are totally dependent. In adoration, we stand outside ourselves (that’s what “ecstasy” means) in wonder at the mystery of self-less grace and love that we begin to see in God. The amazement we have at the vastness of the universe—opened so much more fully in the last century through science—only dimly reflects the astonishment we have in God. From this depth of human experience come so many sentiments such as we find in the book of Psalms: “Praise God in his holy sanctuary; give praise in the mighty dome of heaven. Give praise of his mighty deeds; praise him for his great majesty (Psalm 150:1-2).”
When we think about it, do not adoration and petition, the fundamental dimensions of our relationship to God, define us as human beings? And these fundamental dimensions run through the two forms of prayer in every disciple’s life: personal prayer and liturgical prayer.
Every disciple simply has to pray. Personally, daily, freely, and without reservation.
Even with the many different ways of praying—from meditation to contemplation, from reciting Psalms to praying the Rosary—every disciple has to pray personally and openly to God. This works best if prayer becomes part of our routine—without prayer becoming just routine, of course. The pattern of our every day has to make time for prayer.
Since prayer expresses a relationship of encounter, the purpose of prayer is to lead us to an encounter with God. With our different dispositions and emphases, we may individually prefer one or another kind of prayer. But all prayer has to lead to the same goal: opening our hearts to God in as direct a way as possible.
The value of structured prayer is that it is structured, and structure often provides the surest way to embed something in our lives. The businessman who puts on a CD of recorded psalms while driving to work; the teacher who reviews her students in prayer on the way to school; the retired couple who meander to Church for a quiet visit in the afternoon; the busy mother who uses the Rosary as company her while rocking her child to sleep: all kinds of people find ways to make prayer a regular part of their lives.
Here, most of all, while affirming the value of structured prayer, we most have to protect ourselves from basically “going through the motions” when we pray. Prayer can ground our daily routine, but we have to make sure prayer remains fresh and direct. We have the benefit of classic saints who spoke often about prayer. We can see from many of them that prayer was not always easy, consoling, or sweet; several of them talk about “dark nights of the soul” when God seemed silent or, even, absent. But all of them saw prayer, at all times, as a great act of faith, in response to God’s faithfulness. By working through these dark and dry periods, they found themselves even more open to God.
Scripture has always been an indispensable part of prayer, but much more so in the past century, when translations and renewals in worship have allowed us to hear it fresh in our own language. Scriptures invariably can lead us into that open dialogue which frees our hearts for direct interchange with God. A tradition called lectio divina is one way to use Scripture for very profound prayer. Other traditions of meditation have aided centuries of Catholics to experience that mental prayer in which we let God touch us deeply.
Prayer is the way relationship and encounter express themselves. It has the qualities of friendship because it reveals the shape of our relationship with God. Are we not open-ended, free, unconditional, accepting, growing, and faithful to our friends? Does not our prayer have to have these same qualities? However we pray, it should lead us to give ourselves again to God, and to see how God continues to give God’s love to us.
Every true disciple has prayer at the foundation of her or his life.
Mystics have the reputation of being in direct communion with God. But these experiences of communion with God may not be rare or exclusive. In fact, many Christians have a sense of union with God, which may come unexpectedly in the midst of personal prayer or as a result of celebrating worship.
Take twenty minutes and reflect on your life. Try to get to those moments when you felt “most religious” or “closest to God.” Try to define the feeling you had—or, perhaps, lack of feeling. Try to describe the effects such an experience caused in your own life, either immediately or at a later point. Explore how often such experiences came to you, and the locations where these events happened.
Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries. is an ongoing series on forming missionary disciples in our parishes and community. Follow the series here.