I don’t actually remember a time in my life when I didn’t have an awareness of God as the creator and source of being. A desire to be in relationship with this God seems always to have been in me. In addition to taking us regularly to church, our parents encouraged my two younger brothers and me to pray before bedtime using the traditional, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” They also invited us to add our own prayers for particular people as we felt a need, so a spontaneous and affective aspect to prayer developed in me somewhat naturally. But I first became conscious of having an active prayer life – realized that I was speaking to God and hearing God’s voice – when I was an adolescent. Keeping very much to myself in those days, I often took long bicycle rides around Nantucket Island. I’d stop on the moors or at the beach to commune with God, sometimes with words and sometimes without. The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist expresses what I grew to know in those years with these words from Chapter 27: “The gift of silence we seek to cherish is chiefly that of adoring love for the mystery of God.” From a very early age, I felt and sought this mystery.
Though the particulars of experience will differ for each person, as an individual image and likeness of God, I have come to believe that all human beings instinctively desire to seek and know God, and that God is drawing each of us into relationship through the Spirit’s gift of prayer. At the same time, I also know the human tendency to shy away from, even resist out of fear, the loving intimacy of and with God which is prayer. This paradoxical tension is articulated in Chapter 21 of our Rule, on “The Mystery of Prayer”: “There are many conflicts on the way into the experience of divine love… a deep wound to our humanity…hinders us all from accepting love. As the Spirit exposes it to Christ’s healing touch in prayer, we shall often have to struggle with our reluctance to be loved so deeply by God.” Just as the innate desire to be present to and with God has a unique character in each person, so does this wound, too, take a particular form in each of us. Even as our created nature impels us toward God, this primeval wound also causes us to resist being loved by God as deeply as we begin to perceive God loves us. The opening lines of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” vividly portray the internal conflicting emotions of yearning and fear:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed,
But with unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
We flee and yet wish to be captured; we fear being what we most desire. We seek to know God and desire relationship with God, while shying away and disqualifying ourselves as unworthy of God’s embrace, of the integration and wholeness found only in divine Love. At the point of encounter with God, we draw back, fearing the cost of – and yet yearning for – the transformation by which we may be made whole.
Jesus’ encounter at the Pool of Bethesda with a man who has lay there ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:1-18) is, for me, a paradigm of God’s unwavering pursuit of relationship with each one of us. Jesus approaches this man as someone who has already come to know him better than any other. And so Jesus’ first words are a question which cuts to the heart of the sick man’s predicament: “Do you want to be made well?” The man’s response is, to my ears, a litany of complaints and reasons why this hasn’t happened (and perhaps can’t happen): “I’ve been here all these years, waiting for the healing waters to stir; but when they do there’s no one to help me get there, and someone else gets there first…” It is as though the man is saying, Well, that might be a wonderful thing, but there are all sorts of reasons why this can’t (or shouldn’t) happen for poor me. The Lord seems, nonetheless, to hear not the man’s words, but the thoughts of his heart. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And the man does, thus giving his unspoken “Yes” to God.
Each of us, too, wants to “be made well” at the core of our God-given being. In spite of our reluctances, evasions, and sins, each human being deeply wants the health and wholeness that is possible only in the relationship with God which we call prayer. I speak of the prayer which is known in the simplicity of being present to Presence, just as God, Presence, is always so to us. All the diverse forms of prayer we might attempt – repetitive prayer, contemplative prayer, corporate prayer (and others surveyed at the end of this article) – have their root in the simple act of unselfconsciously being with God. Even when we “give up” on prayer or say we “can’t” pray, we do so having already been drawn by and known by this Presence. The Mystery who we call God has not left us, and is seeking us still, calling us to more authentic self and relationship. Any desire to pray, however feeble, and every attempt at prayer, however halting, is prayer, for it is always God reaching out to us. Every prayer, every desire, even our resistance is, in reality, our response to God’s kindling of yearning within us, in response to God’s own. We may seek to repress that desire, or try to shield or distract ourselves from it. But our flight in fear of unworthiness, in resistance, even in our turning elsewhere for meaning in life, God uses to draw us ever closer and deeper into the embrace of divine Love.
So what do I do to know and receive the prayer I need this day, the pray which the Spirit is giving me this day? Show up. Show up. To paraphrase Woody Allen, “90% of prayer is just showing up.” Enter into your daily prayer with the assurance that God is already there. If you’re showing up and giving yourself over to God during this time, then whatever happens is the Spirit’s gift of prayer for you today. Sometimes you may be drawn to meditating on scripture or to “sitting” with an image or word, to intercession or spontaneous petition, even to contemplative prayer and a wordless silence. At other times, we will experience distraction, which at its root is our resistance or shying away from what is being given to us. It may not feel comfortable, may even be painful, because it’s not what we were expecting or wanting to happen, but it is the prayer which God is giving us this day. If you feel even the feeblest desire to desire to pray, you already have received a gift of prayer. For that fleeting wish is God stirring your heart, kindling your soul with God’s desire for deeper relationship with you.
God gives us the prayer we need. Each day it will be the prayer for this season of our life. We receive each day, at each moment, what is best for us. God gives us what we truly need rather than what we think we need, and prepares us for the next thing gradually, according to our present capacity to receive. We can find an authentic peace in accepting the given-ness of prayer, even though what we are given is not what we may wish, even when what we receive disturbs us. Whenever our experience of prayer feels dry, dull or disappointing, the simple act of “showing up” day by day is, in truth, the opening of our hearts to God, by God. Even when we are not consciously praying or are avoiding prayer, still we are responding to the presence of God’s Spirit, deep within. Whenever we respond to love, to need, or to beauty, we are always responding to the Love, the Voice and the Presence of God within us. We are being made whole by God – in our showing up, our being attracted or repulsed – however we may be seeking the silence “of adoring love for the mystery of God.” God is not giving up on us. Let God give you the gift of prayer you need this day.
A few of Br. Jonathan’s favorite prayer corner resources:
The Hymnal 1982
From my first days as a junior chorister, the church’s hymns have been a source of sung devotion for me. Hymn 698, “Eternal Spirit of the living Christ,” which I frequently use to begin a time of prayer, also inspired this article.
Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion; ed. Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG
Saturated with the vocabulary of the Psalms, Anselm’s prayers often move me into a place of deep affectivity. In his prayer to St. Mary Magdalene, he asks “my most dear Jesus” for the “bread of tears” in order to come to the “everlasting sight of your glory.”
The paintings of El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
This native of Crete was a writer of icons in the Orthodox tradition and later influenced by Venetian painting. Meditating on the beauty of this artist’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (among many other works) moves me toward contemplative prayer.
The poems of Rabindranath Tagore
This Bengali poet’s lyrics speak to me about the “living God within” in an almost Christological sense. A favorite line: O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.
Devotional gifts from family and friends
A varied range of small objects, handmade or from nature, move me to prayer of gratitude, intercession, petition and, often, repentance.
Intercessory prayer – Keep a list or notebook of individuals and concerns. You might invite yourself to pray through the list over a set amount of time (once each week, each month, etc.), or allow the list to spur you to spontaneous prayer for the concern most lifting off the page for you at that time.
Repetitive prayer – You might use repetitive prayer – spoken along a ring of prayer beads, or to the pattern of your breath – as a way to prepare yourself for spontaneous prayer, or simply for your whole time of prayer. Choose a verse or two from the Psalms; pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; or speak the name of Jesus.
Contemplative Prayer – Sometimes we want simply to be in the presence of God. You might light a candle, gaze at an icon, or focus on your breath, to help still your mind and make you aware of God’s presence. Free yourself from language, and simply sit in the presence of the Holy One.
Embodied prayer – Do you do yoga, stretch, or enjoy taking long walks? Try praying with your body: Pray in the orans position, or make the sign of the cross; do prostrations to the phrases of a short prayer. Allow the movement of your limbs to punctuate and pattern your prayer to the God who formed you in your mother’s womb.
Lectio divina or meditation on scripture – Allow the scriptures to inspire your prayer. Choose a short passage of scripture, perhaps one of the readings appointed for that day, and read it through very slowly. What words or images jump out at you? Allow that scene or that phrase to become the focus of your prayer.
Praying with art – Know that God can take many things – not just formal icons – and infuse them with sacredness, making them sources of revelation for us. Go to a gallery or museum at an off-time, and allow yourself to sit with the work of art that is most speaking to you, praying to God through that object. Or take a book of sacred paintings out of the library and allow one of the images to focus your prayer. How does this image invite you to pray?
Journaling – It’s not possible for anyone of us to have encompassed the mystery of God; we can barely encompass the mystery of ourselves. Journaling about past experiences, about doubts and questions, about our daily life, can open us up to aspects of our own experience and personality that we may not otherwise be able to know, and that can help to reveal to us the graces and will of God in our daily life.
Prayers of Place – Burning bushes can appear in many places. God often comes to us veiled, so that we can approach, without being overwhelmed. You might try spending time with God in a place of great, moderate, or little beauty, and see how it inflects your prayer. To what prayer does God invite you on a beach, in the mountains, in the city?
Write a letter to God – Sometimes we can silence or censor ourselves in prayer. What have you kept unsaid in your relationship with God? Slowing down, taking pen in hand, can help us to open our hearts to God. Try writing God a letter, as honestly as you can, sharing with God your deepest hopes and fears, your innermost thoughts.
Prayer with others – The generous and listening heart of another often helps us to be able to understand experiences of revelation in prayer, whether the friend helps us to articulate them in words, or to know them wordlessly on a level of feeling and trust. Talking with one or others who are at a similar place in their experience is a way of authenticating our prayer experiences. It’s also a way of approaching the Ineffable, the Inexpressible, through the patient act of listening. Try praying with a close friend, in silence or with words; and try talking about your experiences of prayer together.
Distraction as prayer – Rather than struggling against distraction, return in prayer to those places where you repeatedly experience distraction or disruption, and ask simply, “What is it that you desire to give me?” Over time, by returning to prayer, even with its distractions, our unnecessary defenses and resistances can be broken down. Ask God to give you the help you need to stay faithful to your daily prayer.