The perennial nagging concern of my spiritual life has been: PRAYER. What to say? How to do it? When to do it? How long to do it?
“Do” is the operative word here and one we need to un-do.
The prayer-by-doing-or saying attitude, along with so many others, became established in childhood. Thank God! Yes, I thank him that my mother taught me to say prayers, that my teachers enforced this habit as we prayed together a Morning Offering, learned the Act of Contrition, and other prayers in addition to the basic sacred three: Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.
However, as a result of these good teachings, I grew up in the conviction that prayer was something I was now going to DO. I would sit down or stand or kneel and say prayers or “do” prayers. In other words, I would be the one to initiate prayer. This may be frequently correct, but it doesn’t take into consideration the other and better half of prayer, which is letting God speak and listening to God.
There’s the Old Testament story of the boy Samuel, growing up in the temple under the tutelage of the prophet Eli. In the middle of the night, we’re told,
The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you,” Eli answered. “Go back to sleep.” So [Samuel] went back to sleep.
This happened a second time. By the third time, Eli realized that Samuel, a beginner in the spiritual journey, …
… did not yet recognize the Lord, since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
So finally Eli said to Samuel,
“Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3:4-5,7,9)
Samuel did not initiate anything. (In fact, being an adolescent boy, it’s a wonder he woke up at all!) When Eli, his spiritual mentor, realized what was happening, the mystery was solved. At the beginning of his spiritual life young Samuel lacked experience to know how to hear God’s voice. What to listen for? What does he sound like? The talking half of prayer is easy, because we’re always ready to ask God for something. We might even be ready to thank Him for his many gifts.
But to listen is a more elusive skill. To recognize God’s voice, to truly listen, takes much attentiveness and practice. Typically, we humans want instant knowledge and understanding, given to us in a way that is of our own making. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we can’t grow spiritually.
So following Eli’s experienced counsel, Samuel let the Lord know that he was alert to whatever the Lord chose to say.
How to cultivate the listening habit? We can’t expect an apparition, such as Moses had from within the burning bush or on the mountain top. Saint Paul tells us this about prayer:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. (Romans 8:26-27)
Groanings. Not necessarily words. The Holy Spirit’s praying within us may take the form of a sense of longing to be in communion with the Lord. Some days, the only way we can pray is merely by the desire to pray.
Ignatian spirituality teaches us to “find God in all things.” First, however, we have to look for God in all things. Furthermore, we must want and expect to see God in all things. For God speaks in various voices. This means that we need to be tuned in all day to what God might be teaching us through our surroundings: through contacts with others; the state of our physical or emotional health; the books and papers we read; the household chores and the jobs we work at; the music that moves us – all these thoughts, feelings, or activities carry some inner truth from God that will help us learn who he is and who we are in this world. This constant awareness is surely what is meant by “praying always.” Sitting in a lotus position for 24 hours and murmuring prayers is not what we’re after.
It’s what we quoted from Jesuit Father Arrupe in a recent post, about how love directs every one of our actions. (See the closing of “The Divine Romance,” Feb. 12)
To illustrate, let me share with you a recent experience.
It was one of those ho-hum days, gray sky, nothing special happening or speaking to me. I felt that I had failed in prayer that day. But by evening, reviewing what had happened and didn’t happen, and how I responded, here is what I was given to understand: my neighbor asked if I would drive her to Mass. I did. Later, a friend called to vent about some difficult household issues. I let her talk. A third friend texted me that his mother had died that morning; I called immediately to offer him condolences. Finally, another friend called to get my opinion on some job issues. I stayed with each friend as long as needed.
Here, then, were four situations where I was given the grace to help a friend. Was this prayer? I initiated nothing, but by the grace of God I was enabled to listen, which is part of the dialog of prayer — maybe even the more important part. Furthermore, what I was being asked to do was much better than anything I could have dreamed up on my own because it came from the needs of others and not from me, high upon the mountaintop of my self-initiated prayer.
Little by little, I’m beginning to learn that the heart of Christian discipleship is not always doing things we consider important. Rather, it’s being alert to the voice of God heard in the needs of others and given to them through our love of God.