Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.

God in the noise

Photo of Ukranian orchestra, circa 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

I am not the first and I will not be the last to observe just how noisy the world has become. There is very little silence in contemporary life and the spiritual effects of this are deleterious.

I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent this year. This book came out in 1969, yet the problem of noise was already apparent to Schmemann. He writes:

Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living in an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture… If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities.

The fact that Schmemann wrote this before the advent of the VCR, let alone the rise of social media, is instructive. In our own day, this deceptive sense that we are interacting with the world when we have not even left our couches has amplified to a proportion that Schmemann could never have imagined. Walk into a room filled with family and friends today and you will see four or five people staring at their phones, each in a separate virtual world, entirely disconnected from what or who is immediately around them. We imagine that “liking” someone’s post on Facebook is the same thing as maintaining a real relationship with them. In such a world, where everything we experience is constructed, curated, and constantly on, there is little space for an authentic encounter with the living God.

Schmemann’s solution is “that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent.” It is likely that Schmemann would have approved of the practice of fasting from social media that many modern Christians adopt as a Lenten observance. Undoubtedly, there is some spiritual good to this. Reducing our dependance on anything is good if it is accompanied by prayer and greater devotion to God. I know that my own life of prayer improves when I reduce my interaction with the virtual world. The Lord speaks to us all the time, but we only hear Him if we are listening. The biblical analog would perhaps be 1 Kings 19 when Elijah encounters the Lord not in fire or earthquake but in a “still small voice” speaking out of the silence.

All of that said, I wonder if there is something overly romantic about Schmemann’s vision of a tranquil past in which Christians spent their silences contemplating the presence of God. Perhaps in monasteries it was so, but the average Christian still had to contend with quite a bit of noise. As any parent of young children will attest, there is a constant noise that accompanies the endless busyness of parenting. So too, the mindless work of maintaining a home or working for our daily bread is rarely if ever silent. Life has always been noisy.

What these electronic media offer us that our ancestors did not have is a way of distracting ourselves from the noise of the rest of life with a different kind of noise. For those of us who tend to be a bit introverted and therefore easily overwhelmed by the world, having our own personal electronic culture that we can dip into at the touch of a button is a way of restoring ourselves. For the mother or father who just needs a moment’s vacation from unending parental responsibility, scrolling mindlessly for a few moments through a Facebook feed can be a real relief.

When I was in seminary, the SSJE brothers would regularly visit with us. During Mass one time, one of the brothers preached — I no longer remember which one — and he observed that even in the monastery, it was often easy to lose track of God amidst the busyness of the daily routine. He likened the Christian life to learning to hear a single instrument even when a whole orchestra is playing. “If you listen carefully,” he said, “you can learn to pick out the oboe. And if you learn to know God’s voice, you can also hear Him, even in the middle of a flurry of activity.”

This, it seems to me, is the great challenge for Christians today. God speaks at the same patient, constant level He always has—entreating us, inviting us, calling us into His presence. If we have the opportunity to shut out all the noise and just listen to Him, we should take it. But many of us do not have that opportunity. Yet still, if we attune our ears properly, we can hear Him just as clearly. Accompanying our busyness and noise with prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture, and the Sacraments orients us towards God. These things give us a feel for Him so that we know His voice anywhere, even when it seems faint.

So perhaps the biblical analog we need is not so much 1 Kings 19 as it is 1 Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel but Samuel does not realize that is what he is hearing. It is only after Eli coaches him and tells him what to say that Samuel is really able to listen to the voice of the Lord. God calls each of us, but most of us are frightfully bad at hearing Him. Even if we had silence, as Samuel did, it is not altogether certain we would notice God’s voice in the midst of it. We need more than silence. We need Elis in our lives to help us. We need to be taught what God sounds like so that we can tune in to hear Him, whether we are in a place of silence or a place of great noise. Even in silence, there is a noise in the rattling of thoughts through our brains that can be deafening. We need to learn the difference between God’s calling and the churning of our own minds.

What we need is not total silence, as ideal and desirable as that may be. What we need is to learn how to listen.

Sickness and nakedness

adamandeve
I am terrible at being sick. I realize that is not unique. Who likes being sick? But I mean that I am terrible at it as a Christian. It is one of my great failings in discipleship.

Over the last few weeks, my whole household has been going through what has become an annual visitation of the plague. At least three separate illnesses have overtaken us, one right after another, so that there’s been little to no break. Nothing life threatening, of course. An upper respiratory thing, a stomach bug, and a case of the Flu (and yes, before you ask, we were all vaccinated – it didn’t help).

It has been terrible, but far less than a life threatening crisis. Yet I find that I have been less and less faithful throughout the days of illness and recovery. In the beginning, I said little prayers, asking for God to relieve the sickness, but as it has dragged on, those prayers have faded, along with my reading of the Daily Office and my now defunct new year’s promise to pray the rosary daily. As I have felt worse, I have become more irritable with family and friends. I have also become more singularly focused on myself, constantly aware of my own “feeling bad,” and obsessed with finding comfort and distraction. I have ignored theology and Scripture, preferring instead to watch countless amounts of junk television.

In short, I have become a spiritual bum.

This is not how a Christian is supposed to face sickness.

In the Visitation of the Sick from the Book of Common Prayer, the priest at one point invokes the Lord while addressing the sick person, asking Him to “make thee know and feel, that there is none other Name under heaven given to man, in whom, and through whom, thou mayest receive health and salvation, but only the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same rite, the priest calls upon the Lord to “sanctify… the sickness of this thy servant; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance…” Sickness is not any fun, but it holds within it a great opportunity for a Christian. In the weakness of our sickness, we may come to realize our dependence on God alone. Our sickness may become a tool that God uses to make us holy, cutting away all that holds us back from faith and strengthening our sense that true health is only to be found in Christ.

I have said these prayers many times by the bedside of sick people. I have counseled people going through tremendous physical strain to rely on Jesus to make it through. Yet, when I encounter even the slightest discomfort in my own life, I run in the opposite direction.

Sickness is a clarifying agent. It is the sort of thing that holds a mirror up to us and shows us who we really are. It is easy to be pious when all is well. When our bodies are not working properly, the true condition of our souls becomes apparent. I have seen people walk through terrible illness with true grace and dignity. I have also seen people fall apart, allowing their fears and insecurities to rise to the surface. In myself, I have seen far more of the latter than the former.

Sickness exposes us. It unmasks the lie we live under that says that we are capable of caring for ourselves, by our own steam, with no need for anyone or anything else. Sickness is a kind of nakedness. I hide from God when I am sick for the same reason that Adam and Eve hid from God when they found themselves naked in the garden. The only way that we can maintain the illusion that we are good enough without God is if we never see ourselves accurately. When our wounded reality is revealed, we try to hide in the shadows, not wanting to admit the truth.

As this latest round of sickness slowly starts to dissipate, I find that what I need more than ever is to form a new set of prayer habits. I do not mean by this that I need more devotions to say. I have many of those already and I was quick to discard them when I needed them most. Rather, what I need is the habit of being exposed in prayer for the fraud that I am. I need a regular, constant reminder before God that I am wounded, selfish, and totally incapable of my own healing. I need the shock of that to set me free from complacency and to focus all the attention of my soul away from my own comfort and towards the heart of God.

When sickness comes again, as it always does, I want to be prepared to receive the only medicine that will actually do me any long term good.

Photo taken from the window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA. All rights reserved.

A Tale of Two Marys

lady-chapel-altar

Discerning the voice of God is one of the toughest parts of the life of Christian discipleship. This is not because God is hard to find. Every inch of creation echoes with His calling. That, in a sense, is what makes the discernment so difficult. God speaks all the time. It is literally God’s speaking that keeps the world spinning. But the question I often ask – the question we all ask from time to time – is what is His word for me? It is a bit of a narcissistic question, but it is one that somehow seems inescapable. Yes, God has spoken through the prophets and continues to speak in the Holy Scriptures. Yes, God speaks in the Sacraments. God speaks to me there as much as He does to everyone. But that doesn’t answer the gnawing questions I have about what I ought to be doing with my life.

In my experience, there is no way to cajole God into giving you that kind of a word. You simply have to wait for it. But it helps to do that waiting in His presence. This is one of the glorious things about reserving the Blessed Sacrament. At any time, I can step into the presence of God. Of course, I am always in the presence of God in a sense, but to kneel in prayer, in silence, in the presence of His Body and Blood is different. I do not have the words to describe it. His presence radiates through me when I do this. I feel like I am home.

Today, I happened to be downtown in Philadelphia and was able to attend the midday Mass at Saint Mark’s, Locust Street. I was there quite early and so I was able to make a holy hour beforehand. There are few places as stunning as the Lady Chapel at Saint Mark’s. The altar is made of pure silver and covered in jewels. Every inch is carved into something of magnificent detail. Sunlight streams in through the stained glass and makes the whole place shine.

As I knelt there praying, I tried to focus my attention on the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but I kept finding myself pulled to notice the statues on either side of the altar instead. They are both statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, both made of silver. The Mary to the left of the altar has her eyes closed and her head bowed, obviously praying. The Mary to the right of the altar is looking out into the room in such a way that it is hard not to think she is looking directly at you. Two Marys, one contemplative and one active. They seemed to speak to me out of the silence.

mary-prayingGod does not always respond to my prayers in the way I expect. I began speaking to God, but I heard the voice of Mary answering me, speaking to me sweetly as my mother. I was a little confused at first, but came to realize that she was not speaking alone or of her own accord. It was her Son who was in her, compelling her to speak. I could almost see a line moving from the Tabernacle up through the image of the Lamb at the pinnacle of the altar, over and out into both Mary statues. What she said to me is just between us, so I will not repeat it here, but I was absolutely struck by the way in which God was at work in that moment, answering my prayers in this strange, round-about seeming way, yet so clearly and truly in them.

The two Marys are emblematic of the life of God in the Church. Both Marys represent how Christ is at work, through the Mother of God, to sanctify the world. One Mary prays. Day and night, she is before her Lord and mine, offering up the petitions of the millions who love her and call out her name. Fueling her prayer is the prayer of her Son who offers His own petition, in the form of His very own Body, on our behalf without ceasing (Hebrews 7:23-25).

But the active Mary offers a word of hope and new life that is borne out of the Resurrection of her Son. She does not give easy answers. I wanted God to speak with fatherly finitude and tell me exactly what the path ahead would look like. Instead, Mary spoke to me with motherly love, assuring me that I can take steps in faith because she will always be there to catch me, to wash my bruises and wipe away my tears. She spoke, but He was speaking in and through her, joining all three of our hearts together, and telling me, gently but firmly, to step out in faith.

lambDo you want to discern the voice of God for your life? Go before Him and wait. But do not be surprised if He speaks through an emissary, be it angel or saint, or even someone entirely unexpected. However He speaks to you, if it is truly Him, It will be a word that both holds you and bids you to act. It will be a word that challenges you and also confirms the deepest longings of your heart. It will be a word that lays out a path that is truly frightening and thoroughly glorious. It will be a word that neither takes away nor adds a single syllable to the deposit of faith, but it will bid you to trust that the whole deposit of faith has been given to you through the sacrifice of the cross. God will delight in giving this word to you. Never doubt for a second that you are beloved of God.