Polonius: What do you read, my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Clearly, Hamlet found his book quite unexciting.
Being a student of language, I am naturally drawn to the beauty and power of words, a power demonstrated by God Himself, by angels and even by humans
God said . . . and nothing became something.
There have been so many times in my spiritual life when I scramble to find the right words to use in prayer. After all, I have many people, situations and things to pray for!
Where are the words? Do I use some of the billions spoken or written by others to communicate to the Lord an urgent cry for help? Or even occasionally to express gratitude?
Sometimes I have an almost physical sense of being blocked, muted. Using the words of others seems so unauthentic then. Whatever word-prayers Saint X composed were surely just right for him/her, but somehow they don’t fit me. My struggle is like fighting my way out of a spiritual or mental strait jacket.
Words are how we communicate to one another, right?
Well, not always. Sometimes we might be so overcome with feelings that all we can do is hug someone we love or who is bereaved. Or we might find something lovely or useful to give them, or something lovely or useful to do for them. So words are not always the answer, as Jesus knew:
When you pray, do not babble on like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Once again, the words of St. Paul come to the rescue, convincing me that though I’m quite sure I don’t pray as I “ought,” the Holy Spirit will step in to save me by praying noiselessly within me, using not words but unutterable groanings. (Romans 8:26) Maybe it’s a sense of longing, of wonder, of delight, of admiration — or best of all, of love. Somehow, a connection is made. And no words were necessary.
Three Lenten practices: Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting
While waiting for Mass to begin, I saw myself in a cathedral of the middle ages: Notre Dame de Paris, now sadly defaced by fire; Rheims, where Joan of Arc witnessed the crowning of the Dauphin and the restoration of French supremacy; Chartres, where virtually no surface remains bare but is covered with intricate sculptures of saints and holy events. I remember being taught that statues and stained glass windows were meant to teach scriptural truths to the unlettered of that era. I wondered whether today’s faithful would find these adornments either distracting or inspiring.
King Solomon supervised the construction of a temple that would give due honor to the Lord their protector. The first Book of Kings provides details, but as early as the book of Exodus, the Israelites had completed phase one: the construction of the Ark which contained the two tablets of the Mosaic law. It was written in stone to be a permanent reminder of the agreement between God and his people: God would guide and protect his people always and his people would always obey God’s Law. The Ark was designed to be portable so that wherever the Israelites went, the precious Law would always be with them, scrupulously obeyed.Isaiah foresaw a time when the Temple would be open to all:
Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain . . . to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths. For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56.7)
Solomon was well aware of the huge distance between God and his creatures. He stretches his hands to heaven and says:
“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less the temple which I have built?”
Despite the physical splendor of the building, the God it praises remains elusive and inscrutable:
When the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. . ..The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud.
Indeed, a persistent cloud blocks our understanding of God. St. Paul repeats this metaphor: We see now as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Christ’s Teachings on Prayer In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. The prayer Jesus describes is contemplation. He invites us to seek intimacy with God by entering our private room, our temple, our heart, this private and sacred space. It is about opening our heart to God, joining God in a spirit of companionship.
Once we have welcomed the Lord into our quiet space, what do we say, how do we pray?
With few or even no words: “Do not babble as the pagans do.” How very different from the formal, showy, and formulaic prayer of the Pharisees! The mindless repetition of many words, whether ours or another’s, cannot substitute for one personal word of love that comes from the heart and is directed to the Lord.
To contemplate is to enter into the quiet and intimate temple of our very being. In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The important thing is not to talk much but to love much and to do that which stirs you to love.”
Contemplative prayer is a quiet, wordless connection with God within the temple of our heart, the God of our life.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? . . for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.(1 Corinthians 3:16, 17b)
It puzzles me to hear someone say they don’t feel at home in a particular church building. And yet, maybe that’s the way God wants us to know that he is not to be found in bricks and mortar, nor even in representational art, but in the human hearts of those within the building. For the human heart is the preferred temple of God, the House of Prayer where we do not know how to pray as we ought, but where the Holy Spirit comes to our assistance, praying within us with unutterable groanings. (Romans 8)
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
At a recent session with my spiritual director, I shared one more troubling issue. “Have you taken it to prayer?” she asked, certainly not for the first (or last!) time.
This question caused me to wonder once again about the different ways of praying and my reasons for praying. It also served as an invitation to learn what the Gospel could teach me about Jesus praying, especially as illustrated by the quotation from Mark at the head of this post. As usual, one question led to another.
When Jesus awoke “long before dawn” and went out to pray by himself, what was that like? What did he say? What did he feel, see, hear? Did he give himself over to the Holy Spirit? How? In his humanity, when did he realize that others who saw him saw the Father?
The fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he joined the crowd at the Jordan makes me wonder if he knew (humanly speaking) that his baptism would be the start of his mission.
He certainly had been living the life of a deeply devout Jew. Remember, he had been a spiritually precocious 12-year-old! Growing up in the religious atmosphere of his parents’ home, he must have pondered and prayed constantly.
Then, like countless others, Jesus heard of John attracting crowds of people who flocked to him to be baptized. Jesus must have sensed that the time was ripe for him and his teachings; that something special, something different – even revolutionary – was stirring in the land. His soul had been to such deep places through his prayer that he had a growing awareness of the world’s readiness for the Messiah. He obviously also knew that he needed to model holiness for the crowd at the Jordan, and everywhere thereafter.
He knew he needed to give an example of humility, of true humanity (for as God he knew, better than the rest of us, how to be more human than we did!). John, for his part, living an ascetic and spiritual life in the wild, was given the grace to recognize and proclaim this man as none other than the Messiah.
Jesus had traveled all the way from Nazareth to follow his unique destiny at this moment in the world’s history. John could recognize the ardor of this Man, because he recognized and felt it in himself. These two men were indeed soul mates, brothers under the skin. This was their most important relationship, their spiritual kinship, deeper than blood cousins.
So in spite of the protests from John, Jesus allowed himself to be counted among the sinful to be washed, though he was always without sin. It was Jesus’ mission to cleanse the masses, the rubble, from their sins — real or as imagined by fearful minds, or as thrust upon them by legalistic leaders.
What happiness for him to invite these timorous souls to the banquet of forgiveness! This was indeed the fruit of his prayer, that our sins were to weigh us down no longer.
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened
and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!
In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.
Remember the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.
I will go to the altar of my laptop As I compose this prayer.
I will go to the altar of my piano, Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.
I will go to the altar of the sidewalk That leads me to my neighbor.
I will go to the altar of my phone As I call or respond to a friend.
I will go to the altar in my kitchen, As I prepare what God provides.
I will go to the altar of my appliances That make light work of my chores.
I will go to the altar of my books That bring food to my spirit.
I will go to the altar in my prayer corner Where I find the grace to surrender … To love.
As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught basic truths in the Baltimore catechism. Question: “Where is God?” Answer: “God is everywhere.”
Of course, the class smart alecs (mostly the boys) pursued the subject with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.
As with St. Paul, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.
When we celebrated Trinity Sunday this year, our homilist offered up the phrase, “In him (God) we live and move and have our being.” So is God in us, or are we in God? And how is this possible?
The difficulty is that our words are so inadequate, so earth-bound: in, everywhere — words that have to do with location, our physical place in the universe. We exist, we are here. Presence has to do with both time and space: now and here. Since we humans are limited by both time and space, we can’t grasp how we can be in the infinite, eternal and ubiquitous God. What is more, we are taught to pray always.
It’s concerning when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, how wonderful that these folks want to pray, that they feel the need to pray, that they recognize the importance of connecting with this Person we know as God!
I certainly empathize with them. I used to envy monastics who were assured of a regular prayer life, being called to prayer several times during the day for recitation of the Divine Office. My schedule, on the other hand, was always so helter-skelter, so often interrupted by some household emergency or by the need for personal intervention somewhere. It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy, as the Gospel and Vatican II teach, one would have to live in a religious community.
Yes, I truly sympathize with those who experience this spiritual conflict and anxiety. Yet we know that it is prayer that connects us to God, prayer that joins us to the Infinite who is everywhere.
Fortunately, a wise spiritual director guided me to the solution. Not that I was able to arrive there in a single leap, but some books he recommended helped, and I share them with you who read this post.
One was Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. He describes how irritating situations can be transformed into peaceful acceptance. He speaks of mindfulness which for us translates to awareness of being with Christ, in the Spirit. Hanh writes:
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness become sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.
For us Christians, sacred awareness is being mindful of God’s presence in and with us.
Brother Lawrence lived in a Carmelite monastery as a lay brother who lived alongside the monks to provide various services, some of a very humble nature. Wouldn’t you know, he was assigned to a chore that he particularly disliked: washing dishes! A friend recorded Lawrence’s way of prayer in these words:
In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), he accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God… With prayer for His grace to do his work well upon all occasions, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.
Because Lawrence focused on God present in him while he performed this task, the mundane activity of washing dishes was transformed into an affectionate and personal prayer that connected him to God, more than what might have been accomplished in a mechanical recitation of the Psalms. This simple practice guaranteed that Lawrence would remain in a loving union with the Lord. [Click on this link for some quotes from Brother Lawrence]
The third book on finding God in the present moment is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. [Click on the link for more information.] Depending on the translator, it’s titled either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence.
This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness,” he writes. De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to manufacture penances or even difficult prayer practices. Merely set the eyes of your heart to recognizing every event in your life, both challenges and delights, as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.
These simple prayer practices help us to recognize the constant presence of God in our life and world. God is here; God is in us; God is in others; we are all in God and in one another.