How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time when you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest you relish? What is prayer for you?
The danger in answering questions like these is that we may answer them the way we think they “should” be answered rather than in an honest way. Many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery, and so forth.
The fact is, prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring, and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book; some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith can. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e., sinful nature), which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all throughout prayer.
Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, that all the little lies we like to tell ourselves and all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.
Praying out of what is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer. Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell Him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to Him. Tell Him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or when some crazy priest reminds you to pray, your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying … And do you know what you are doing as you tell Him all this? You are praying!”
Yes, this is prayer.
“But Father, but Father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that He can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly; talk to God about what is really going on.
The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain-spoken the psalms are.
Every emotion, every experience is grist for the prayer mill: joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger (even anger at God!), rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear, and despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to harm or kill our enemy (69, 109, 137). Even the beautiful Psalm 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we have from time to time and God wants us to talk to Him about them. If the Book of Psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to Him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.
And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe; it starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed, unbiblical rules about prayer and all the things we’re “not supposed to say to God” get set aside, the soul enjoys freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.
And little by little, prayer becomes not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doing. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to be refreshed by the simple act of being honest with someone who loves us and whom we are growing to love. Someone who, before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is the freedom to be honest, to rest from the labor of wearing masks, and to be relieved of the restless anxiety about what others think or expect of us. Prayer is a sigh of truth, a rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.
Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:
Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).
Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell Him what is really happening. If you need a manual to assist you, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms—one that gives a title or a brief sentence describing its content. Find one that suits you on this particular day and then read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by, you’ll find you are speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years, as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).
And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba). It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it. I have often thought of Gregorian Chant as a musical sigh to God, and it brings me great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant there.
So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, just sigh or sit quietly. But pray. Watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.
There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Note its lyrics and then answer these questions: “Is this how you think of prayer? If not, why not?” What if your prayer were less “rule-bound” and more just time you spent apart from this dreary world and with God? Pray these words and ask for their reality: