Prayer is a Risk
Published this a few years ago and came across it in my files. Thought some would enjoy it. Peace, Rick
Prayer is a Risk
Rick Malloy, S.J.
(Printed in Review for Religious, Vol. 66 #2. 2007)
Are We Praying? When I was a Jesuit novice, I remember a community meeting during which someone asked our Provincial about the biggest problem he faced. His blunt and honest answer startled me: “Jesuits not praying.” As novices, our lives were structured in such a way that not praying was impossible. Still, once out of the structured life of the novitiate, I have learned, painfully at times, that the demands of the apostolic works can too easily crowd out the time set aside for prayer (although I always seem to find the ten minutes to catch Jay Leno’s monologue…). Why is it so difficult to engage in the demanding practice of deep and transformative contemplative prayer?
What is prayer? We know that many people pray, that prayer is something we as Catholic Christians ought to do, and we hear that prayer can change things. But many of us feel conflicted and confused when we go to pray. Does God really respond to our prayers? Does God really listen to, or care about, what we say? If we prayed some other way, or prayed more regularly and faithfully, would we be better people? Can our praying make the world a better place? In our age, which tends to elevate activism to ethereal heights, wouldn’t our time be better spent serving the poor, or doing something for somebody in need? Wouldn’t God be interested more in our doing something “worthwhile” than in our sitting in silence, trying not to pay attention to the random thoughts rumbling endlessly around in our heads? And when we get right down to it, don’t we all sometimes ask ourselves, “Does prayer really work? Does prayer really do anything?”
The way to move forward and avoid getting stuck in the spiritual whirlpool such questions generate is to realize that prayer is a risk. There is no science of prayer. Just as you cannot prove scientifically the worth or effects of real love, the day in and day out loving and caring and living with other persons, you cannot prove the worth of prayer, the day in and day out practice of paying attention to God. If we could scientifically prove prayer’s value, it wouldn’t be prayer. Prayer is a risk because prayer is a lifelong, life changing, act of faith. The word “believe” comes from the Geman belieben, meaning “to belove.” Prayer is all about the risks involved in loving.
Much of our reluctance and resistance to risk prayer is rooted in our fear of God’s really responding to us. On one hand, we fear God won’t take us seriously. On the other hand, we are quite afraid that God will take us very seriously, as seriously as we take ourselves and our loved ones. Prayer is a risk because the God who calls us to conversion and transformation takes us up on the invitation to get involved in our lives. And when that happens, the adventure begins.
To be Catholic is to be aware of one's involvement in a series of great transformations: the transformation of one's self over a lifetime into a person incorporated into the reality of God, the promise made to us all that we may “come to share in the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4. NAB). Our personal transformations are part of larger cosmic processes: the promised transformation of all human history and all creation (Rom 8:21) into the coming Kingdom of God, wherein God will be “all in all” (I Cor 15:28). Right at the beginning of Lumen Gentium, the great document of Vatican II that describes what the Church is and ought to be, we are told what Catholicism is all about. God's plan is “to dignify men and women with a participation in His own divine life” (Lumen Gentium, 2). This isn't some radical, unorthodox, crazy, Jesuit spin on spirituality. Back in the early days of the church St. Athanasius said the same thing I'm saying here: “For the Son of God became Man so that we might become God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #460). Prayer makes us aware of, and committed, to this transformation in Christ. The risk comes in refusing to cooperate in the offered transformations. There’s also risk in the yielding to the transformation, the freely accepting who and what God is making of us and our lives.
Prayer is Relational: All prayer is relational. By praying, we relate to God, our God who loves us passionately, consistently, challengingly. When we truly relate to one we love, especially when that one is Jesus, we may be called to change. The parent who loves a child suffering from cystic fibrosis changes in many ways. The son or daughter loving an aging mother or father makes many unexpected life changes. Such changes always call us to deeper, more active love. Knowing that extreme poverty in Africa can be alleviated, changes one who prays about it. Witness Bono and the ONE campaign to eradicate extreme poverty (www.one.org). When we pray we risk changing and being changed. Prayer may make us know that we need to change. Prayer may make us able to change things, from addictions to relationships to social problems. Prayer may make us willing and able to do something for God and others we never imagined doing.
Prayer is relational because we relate to God on both personal and communal levels of reality. We never pray alone. Always, and in all ways, you/we and someone else are praying. As soon as we try to pray, God takes us up on the offer. Prayer is not a competition, or a "goal" oriented activity. To pray is to already have "won." Prayer is much more like making love, or hitting a baseball, or learning to play a musical instrument (sometimes loudly and badly!), then it is like getting a promotion, or achieving a goal, or mastering a skill. Prayer is more like floating on water, than paddling stridently to get somewhere. Prayer is more “Letting Go” than “Holding On.” Prayer is a journey wherein we're simply “being there” while somewhat paradoxically always being “on the road.” Prayer is allowing our lives to be harmonized. Prayer is getting our lives and loves in order, and prayer is inviting God's ordering of our loves and lives.
We are all being divinized. Pray-ers know this truth. To be aware of and cooperate with divinization takes work. Real prayer is work, i.e., disciplined spirituality, as is Catholicism. We need to recognize that consolation is not always comfortable, and desolation is not always disagreeable. Being disciplined about prayer is essential if we want to see the benefits of prayer, just as regular physical exercise is necessary to get and keep our bodies in shape. The more in shape we are spiritually, the more we are likely to realize and recognize God in our lives. Prayer is the effort to consciously experience God. Praying is consciously paying attention to the central relationships of our lives, our relationship with ourselves, others and God. Our relationship with God is the one that makes all these other relationships possible. Prayer is focusing conscious attention on out relationship with God, and finding the whispers of God’s presence in the relationships of our lives. We speak to God in prayer and the word God speaks back is our life.
Prayer is paying attention to what is really real. Prayer isn’t just finding God in all things. It’s more than that. Prayer is seeking God in all realities, realities that were, are, and are to come. The awareness of God and the processes of divinization in our hearts and minds is evident in how we make choices.
On a moral level, prayer leads us to wisdom and correct choosing. When I was a little kid, in wintertime, my mother used to dress us up in those bulky, blue snowsuits that made us look like midget Michelin men. She’d let me and my siblings out along with the dog. As soon as I’d run out to play in the snow, I’d reach down and grab a mitten full of the cold, delicious snow and begin to eat. My mom would yell, “Ricky, don’t eat the yellow snow!” Prayer is learning what is, and is not, “yellow snow.” What is not good for us is whatever frustrates and foils our transformation in Christ. For serious pray-ers, life becomes a series of exercises wherein we discern what we truly and deeply desire. Such holy desires reveal God’s will for us, and prayer mediates the grace that helps us choose what we deeply desire and thus make the right choices.
Prayer, practiced regularly and faithfully, can become a centering fulcrum of our daily lives, keeping us on plan and focused. Prayer, even engaged in sporadically and frenetically, is valuable. Annie Lamott, one of the most refreshing if iconoclastic contemporary writers on prayer, says the two best prayers are “Thank You” and “Help.”
How to Pray: Prayer doesn’t have to be elaborate to function as a current carrying us through life to life eternal. There are many methods of praying: prayers of petition (probably the most common form of prayer), daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours; daily spiritual reading; systematically and slowly working one’s way through various books of the Bible; taking some time during the week to read through the readings for the upcoming Sunday; the Rosary; Eucharistic adoration; the utterly simple practice of Centering prayer. These are all valid methods of praying. Prayer groups are helpful for many people. The main thing is to choose freely a method you find agreeable. No one stays with a prayer practice they find tedious and frustrating. Experiment with unconventional methods that utilize and stimulate the imagination: See a movie with Jesus; write someone a letter while in prayer mode; create a dialogue with the Holy Spirit, draw pictures for God. The imagination is the arena wherein we can often most powerfully experience God. Ignatian contemplation of Gospel scenes is a tried and true example of using our graced imagination in prayer.
Prayer Guides: Many have traversed the paths through the forest of prayer. Don’t feel you have to reinvent the wheel. For the beginner, Jesuit Mark Thibodeaux’s Armchair Mystic is a great starter book. Pushing Jesuit works on prayer may seem too much like I’m pushing the family business, but anyone who knows about free and freeing spirituality will agree that anything by Tony DeMello, S.J., is worth reading and pondering. Franciscan Richard Rohr’s amazingly brief and deceptively simple Everything Belongs is the best book I’ve ever read on prayer. Rohr orients the 21st century person to what prayer is and can be. The Cloud of Unknowing is a classic on prayer, and is the inspiration for the contemporary Trappist method of Centering Prayer. Annie Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, is a wild zany take on everything from prayer to writing to parenting to eating disorders. Kurtz and Ketchem’s The Spirituality of Imperfection is a real jewel. There are many more good books one can read. Magazines like America and Commonweal are an excellent sources and guide for spiritual reading. The internet, where so many young adults spend their reading time, offers great sites like the Irish Jesuits' "Sacred Space" (http://www.sacredspace.ie ) to orient one to prayer.
What Does Prayer Do? Ultimately the practice of real and consistent prayer changes our desires. When we find ourselves wanting what God wants we are in right relationship with God, and that is the experience of justice on the personal level. Prayer practiced over time will lead us through the processes the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius aim to elicit: prayer will free us from, free us for and free us to be with. Free from all that frustrates our transformation in Christ, from addictions to personality faults. Free for service and the righting of relationships on many levels, which ultimately is the work of constructing social justice for all. Free to be with God as the Holy Spirit works our transformation in Christ, thus actualizing our freely being our deepest, truest selves in relation with others. Real prayer is much more about deep transformation and everyday mysticism than it is magic and cheap grace.
Prayer doesn’t do anything if we don’t pray. I go to the gym three times a week, once a year. The results, or lack thereof, are rather predictable. Regular, consistent, committed prayer is worth the effort, but we’ll never know it until you do it. Go ahead. Take the risk. Then we can authentically urge others to follow our example.