Seasons of Prayer
How to view prayer as a gift from God
Deacon James Keating 0
It is expected that we will struggle in our formal commitment to personal prayer. To make a commitment is to dedicate our will to that against which our ego drifts. Prayer is not difficult; choosing to pray and remain in prayer is difficult.
The ego always allures us with easy choices, behavior akin to laying back on a comfortable couch. Prayer, in its initial execution, can be more like a commitment to physical exercise: needed but not immediately chosen. Even once we are in prayer, it can take effort to remain there, vulnerable and eager.
Choosing to pray and choosing to remain in prayer is work. It is work because prayer does not normally pay immediate dividends. Unless we are in some perceived or real emergency, prayer does not initially serve our calendar. Often, especially for those new to personal prayer or beginning it again after allowing it to wane, to choose prayer is to choose pain.
Even the characteristics of prayer contribute to its pain. Prayer is mostly silence, the absence of consolation, and mostly an experience of time passing in its own slow way. What secures the possibility of a lifetime of prayer, then?
It is faith that disposes us to face silence, pushes us through any desolation and generously weds us to time passing. How can faith do this? Faith has within it this reality: The essential capacity to fasten us to a relationship with the living God, even as we suffer prayer’s accidental task of “killing” our ego. In other words, prayer in faith is the outstretched mind, will and heart of each man being received by the outstretched arms of Christ upon the cross. This reciprocal reaching out for one another constitutes the real dynamic of prayer. But this reaching, on our part, is an act of faith not guaranteed consolation.
Of course, I want consolation when I pray. Of course, I want insight or wisdom given to me; I want light. But in the end, what I mostly receive in prayer is the outcome of its only unconditional promise: time in his presence through faith.
Once I gesture, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” I am ushered into his presence and remain there, disposed to whatever he wills. He cannot be manipulated or cajoled or pandered to. He is absolute, self-possessed majesty. He is freedom itself, and whatever he wills for us in prayer is good for us. No matter what happens in prayer or after prayer, we know in faith only that we spent time in his presence. That is the only promise of prayer, and he infallibly fulfills it. Consolations come and go; apparitions appear and disappear; charismatic excitations are given and pass; but this remains: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He always answers the desire of the apostle’s heart, “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29).
How do we stay committed to remaining with him through the seasons of our lives, the development of our personalities, the disruptions of our ministries and assignments? He is the same, his presence always abiding. But is it ever appropriate for us to change the way we are present to him? To be open to new ways of encountering God may be a way around the pain of remaining in a prayer habit, which discourages us.
Saying No to Ego
First, we may want to practice the discipline of waiting, in patience, in and through the many occasions of our daily life and ministry. We need to “exercise our patience muscles” outside of prayer time so they are fit and flexible within it. Primarily, we need to enter acts of self-denial with resolve as we go through our daily routine.
Connecting these acts of self-denial with intercessory prayer for others releases, from our heart to God’s, an effective love of others. In this self-denial-for-others-become-prayer, we grow to see that waiting on the Lord itself is an act of love. His providence is to be trusted; and at times, to refrain from taking or controlling or choosing out of fear frees the heart to know such providence.
Each day, we should look for opportunities to say “no” to the ego and “feel the burn” of self-denial as an act of love for that one parishioner on our mind and heart that day. Here is one way to change our approach to prayer: to allow it to be an act of integration between the death of our ego and the earnest prayer of our pastoral heart for the needs of our parishioners.
Duty to Pray
Second, we all have the duty to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and, I would say, an additional duty of Eucharistic devotion, in some form, each day. Sometimes we allow guilt, by comparison, to stifle our desire for intimacy with God. We may compare our prayer life to that of fellow clerics or saints or the contents of spiritual books. In so doing we sometimes come up short.
Instead of comparing, can we simply allow our relationship with God to be grounded in our own identity? Can we become attuned to how God might be reverencing our individual personalities in his invitation to us to spend time with him? Can we welcome his presence in a way that is not always planned or formal or modeled on the “ideal,” but one that may be spontaneous and in accord with our present situation in life?
In the course of life, we experience personality development. Behavior that we once thought vital, we now let go of; commitments and attitudes that we once rejected, we now come to embrace. God wants to come to us always, even when we do not pray vigils like St. Francis of Assisi might have done. In the ebb and flow of our life’s development, there may be times when all we can muster in prayer is simply to lie on our beds and place a crucifix on our hearts in silence and say, “There. I am praying.”
Whether life weighs us down with emotional heaviness or elevates us to see him in our ordinary rounds and commitments, faith tells us he wants to be with us. So, we should allow him to come. No matter what condition our interior life is in, we should not shut him out because formal prayer is nonexistent or particularly burdensome. We should welcome him into the depths of the soul in silent availability or in the joy of daily ministerial rounds — but welcome him and refrain from comparing others’ way of prayer to our own at any stage of our lives.
Invitation by the Spirit
Third, we may be invited by the Spirit to let one form of personal prayer go and to take up another. This may be caused by the shifts and developments within our personalities such as those mentioned above, but such invitations may also signal a change of depth in our prayer as a result of our fidelity to it.
Lectio divina may serve us well over many years, but, perhaps, we shift to silent gazing at the crucifix in our parish church, or vice versa. We may find ourselves desiring pilgrimage of some sort (local or international), and upon executing this desire discover it filled with intimacy between ourselves and God. If these things happen, a move from lectio or contemplating the crucifix or pilgrimage or a range of other modes of prayer, then we should embrace those changes with joy.
There is no rule against experimenting with communication at different stages in our relationship with God. Of course, we need to discuss these shifts in prayer methods with our spiritual director as every apparent good desire may simply be that, apparent.
It is not that prayer is hard; it is choosing to pray that is difficult. Over the years, prayer may become more desirous, easier to enter into and a delight to choose. But for some, prayer as struggle may remain the norm until death.
The key is to stay with it and to watch for those times when he comes to us … and to let him. These times may be during ministry, while relaxing in the rectory, shopping, out for dinner or driving a car. No matter. We should ask for the grace to sharpen our awareness of when he is approaching and to let him affect us at that moment. If the moment is right, such hospitality on our part may open to a substantive time of prayer that was unannounced, unplanned and maybe unforgettable.
This hospitality on our part will continue to etch prayer in our will as a way of being. We should not judge ourselves on how we pray or that we pray. If we must, we should judge ourselves on how generous we are in welcoming him when, through grace, he moves us to communicate.
So much of our consciousness about prayer is about our moral failure or success at it. Instead, let us shift our understanding of prayer from strictly the moral realm to the realm of simply being.
In this, let us cultivate a vulnerable availability … a life of awaiting his presence. His desire to be with us is more urgent in him than our need to succeed at being good at prayer cf. (Lk 14:23).
Prayer is not our achievement to earn; it is his gift to receive. Let us do so.
DEACON JAMES KEATING, Ph.D., is a professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.