My friend is turning 80 and getting a bit tired trying to do everything her prayer life has asked of her over the years. She always had a mountain of spiritual reading books near her ‘prayer chair.’ She could discuss the gurus like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, and any Jesuit currently flexing his muscle on Ignatian prayer. She read Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the salty, acerbic Dorothy Day. She prayed the Divine Office and peppered her prayer time with devotions and petitions for a galaxy of causes. Yep, my friend was a veritable prayer machine!! Daily Mass was and still is part of her prayer routine. Eventually, she advanced to scriptural prayer using the New Testament for Lectio Divina, a type of prayer in which one takes a reading and prays with certain words and phrases that jump out from that reading for moments of reflection.
My friend now says she just sits there, in the quiet of her room, and listens. “Is that prayer,” she asks. Wow! That’s arguably the highest form of prayer I tell her. The saint who knew this best was the Cure de Ars, the overworked parish priest in his French rural town who would go to his church at the end of the day slumped with fatigue and simply sit there. When a parishioner asked what he was doing, the Cure allegedly responded: “I just look at Him and He looks at me.”
Not much activity in that kind of prayer. No asking or pleading, no singing or praising, no reading or thinking, only looking. Rolheiser argues that in the simple prayer of being almost all mystics affirm that “…a certain deep level of relationship …takes place. We begin to know each other through presence.” We have experienced this when we attend someone at their death, when they can no longer speak or when we stare into the eyes of our newborn. Neither can articulate what our bond means to them, but our presence is our love at the moment, and they know that and are consoled by it. In fact, these kinds of moments become so rare and cherished that we feel sorry for those who have missed them before they became part of eternity.
I encouraged my friend to listen to her body when she sets out to pray. If you feel you just want to sit with God, do it. Ignore the temptation to be busy with that mountain of books and prayers and devotions making you climb the mountain of the spiritual life like the mythological Sisyphus only to get near the top and tumble down. God wants His presence surfacing from the deepest caves of our soul; He wants it to surface so we can delight in seeing that we have been made in His image because He loves abiding in that image. We can only do that through quiet sitting, hands open on our laps, inviting His presence to emerge. There is no need for a method or formula. Remember the words of Jesus: “Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private. Then your God who sees what no one else sees, will repay you.” (Mt 6:6) No one else sees you as God does, so enjoy the experience. Revel in the presence!
I encourage my directees to design a program for reading helpful books and getting acquainted with styles of prayer even borrowing from other religions because this would assist in learning more about prayer and move us out of rigid orthodoxy to a more wholesome awareness of the theology of prayer. Do not be afraid to read spiritual books. But when you are doing this reading, you are engaged in a different kind of prayer, so be sure to put time aside for the contemplative prayer, the prayer of simply being.
Our world has become saturated with informational technology that can envelope our psyches and even confuse, rather than clarify, our thinking. We need guidance. We need to close out everything and just be there. We need the prayer of simply being. Allow me to leave you with the words of a Franciscan Oblate, Robert Michel, for reflection:
“You must try to pray so that, in your prayer, you open yourself in such a way that sometime—perhaps not today—but sometime—you are able to hear God say to you, ‘I love you!’ These words, addressed to you by God, are the most important words you will ever hear, because before you hear them, nothing is ever completely right with you, but after you hear them, something will be right in your life at a very deep level.” Rolheiser, The Sacred Fire, p. 181.
Blessings to all my readers and Anonymous Angels.