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.

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Theo-babble

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a frequent employment of a sci-fi trope known as techno-babble. The actors were given highly technical sounding jargon to say in order to talk about how the ship worked or why a particular phenomenon was taking place. Scientists were often hired to help make this jargon sound more realistic, but it was still basically nonsense. The writers would use techno-babble as a way to get out from under a particularly difficult plot. They would give the actors lines like, “Maybe if we [tech] the [tech] then we can [tech] and we just might get out of this one!” The scientific consultants were left to fill in the blanks later with something that sounded plausibly futuristic.

In science fiction, this sort of story-telling technique, while artificial, can actually work if it is used sparingly. When characters speak in complicated jargon, we assume that they are doing something that would be almost impossible for us to understand. We can accept that this is so because we assume that the future will be full of unfamiliar things that yet unknown to us.

We can accept techno-babble in science fiction, but we should not have to accept theo-babble in theology.

Theology means words (logoi) about God (Theos). We cannot know God if He does not reveal Himself to us. True theology, therefore, always comes from God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, a revelation that is made manifest for us in Holy Scripture, the Holy Sacraments, and the tradition and teaching of the Church. We have theology because we have a God who wants us to know Him. He has given us the words with which we can think about Him, speak of Him, and thereby draw closer to Him.

Many Christians today are skeptical of theology though. In parish ministry, I ran across this attitude frequently. In the same strangely incongruent way that people used to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” a self-proclaimed Christian would tell me, “I believe in God but I don’t buy into all that theology nonsense.”

There are likely many causes of this antipathy, but at least part of the motivation is fear. Christians are afraid that if they do not understand what the experts are saying about God, they might not really know God at all.

In the last hundred years, the western Church has become more and more dependent on the academy, which has meant that theology has largely been farmed out to experts. During that same time period, the academy has become more skeptical of revelation and the truth of religious claims. This has resulted in a growing division between those who are theologically educated and those who are not.

Those who have been schooled, either through seminary training or Christian formation programs, in the historical critical reading of Scripture, the various source theories for how the Bible was written, and creative new theologies that find complicated ways of explaining away centuries of moral teaching, have become the brahmin of the ever-progressing, ever-shrinking western Church. Meanwhile, people who pray emotionally and simply, say rosaries every day, and speak about God primarily in personal, relational terms are considered simple folk who can be laughed at, pitied, or ignored. We are living through a new kind of clericalism in which the clergy’s supposed spiritual advantage over the laity comes not from a deeper life of prayer but from a greater access to secret knowledge that the simple folks with their backward faith can never understand.

None of this is to suggest that theology needs to be dumbed-down. Every discipline has its own grammar, and theology is no exception. Theology often deals with rich complexities. Theological language is necessary to talk about those complexities.

Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that the academy is not a proper place for theology. As Jordan Hillebert helpfully explains in a recent article on Covenant, “Christian theology may offer itself as one of a number of rival traditions — opening itself to rational critique but offering in its turn a critical rejoinder to other intellectual traditions. It may be that one’s theology ultimately folds under the pressure of such scrutiny. It might also be the case that theology finds itself capable of resolving certain tensions and contradictions in other traditions in a way that demonstrates its inner coherence and explanatory power.” As part of a whole, theology grounds our educational pursuits in something stable and grounded, God’s revelation, but it does so in a way that allows for a creative synthesis between all the other disciplines, all of which ultimately find their root in God’s design as well.

Theology needs its own language, but that language should not be used to create a barrier to theological reflection to keep out those who are less academic and cerebral in their approach. Padre Pio and Brother Lawrence are as worthy of the title theologian as Karl Rahner and Karl Barth.

Reading the early Church Fathers is a great way to break free from the grip of theo-babble. It is surprising just how accessible the Fathers are, despite the tremendous language and culture gaps that exist between their time and ours. The Fathers were largely preachers and pastors. They did their theology with an eye towards what was happening in their communities, always keeping in mind the need of the people to come to know Christ. This does not mean their works lacked sophistication. I defy anyone to find for me a work of theology more sophisticated than St. Augustine’s City of God. Nevertheless, even read now, their theology still feels fresh and close to the life of the people. Take for instance something like St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on marriage and family life. They are as relevant now as they were when they were written and with only minor adjustments they could be handed to any young couple preparing for the married life even today.

In some ways, the birth of theo-babble can be traced back to the scholastic period (roughly 1100 AD to 1700 AD). It was during this time that theology became an academic rather than purely spiritual pursuit. Critical thought, often in contradistinction to Scriptural reflection, became the dominant mode in many forms of theological exploration. Theological treatises often became long, weighty tomes.

Yet despite these generalized tendencies in the work of the scholastics, there is a genuinely mystical heart to medieval theology. While a St. Anselm or a St. Thomas Aquinas might be difficult to understand without a heavy philosophical background, the heart of their writing is clearly their own lives of prayer and their desire to move the reader, in an ordered way, towards a deeper realization of God through prayerful reflection. In this way, they anticipate great twentieth century theologians like Hans urs Von Balthasar and Vladimir Lossky, writers who require a bit more intellectual heft to read but who deliver as much divine poetry as they do scholastic prose.

Theology is unavoidable. Anyone who has ever said anything about God has engaged in theology. The question is not if we will do theology or not but whether our theology will be true or false, helpful in bringing us deeper into the mystery of God or a blockade that keeps God at arm’s length. Far too often today, what we hear in our churches is theo-babble, offered to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. Leaders in the Church, clerical and lay, have a responsibility to impart good theology to the world. Pastors have a responsibility to offer good theology to those whose souls have been entrusted to them. Parents have a responsibility to raise their children with the kind of theology that will ground them in the truth. Instead of building locked doors with our words, we ought to be giving the people we love words shaped into keys.

At the end of the day, all we have is theology – words about God. That is all that God has given us to know Him with and love Him. It is all that we need. God’s Word became flesh for us, that our flesh might be redeemed in Him. “I have decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our words may be made simple because the God who gave them to us is ultimately quite simple, even in the mystery of His unknowable essence. Simple, elegant, and beautiful. God spoke but one Word, and the world bent the knee and tasted the glory.

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.

Terrorism and the fear of God

FDC-embMy country continues to mourn after the horrible act of murder committed in Orlando this past weekend. Fifty people dead, many more wounded, and all because a man with a gun wanted us to be afraid. All the details have yet to come out, but the authorities were quick to label this atrocity an “act of terrorism.” By definition, terrorism is an act of forcing people to live in fear.

At times like this, many Christians wrestle with questions of God’s mercy and goodness, but what has struck me almost immediately is the contrast between the fear of God and the fear induced by terrorism. It has become something of an atheist trope in modern times to equate the God of the Bible with terrorist acts. Back in January, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–having been the victim of terrorism itself just a year earlier–released a cover in which God is depicted as the true assassin who causes all the world’s violence and who yet still runs free. Others have pointed to the texts of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, to justify the charge that the God Christians and Jews worship is nothing more than a brutal thug whose worshippers only follow Him out of fear of what He will do to them if they do not.

The Bible seems to speak two ways about fear. On the one hand, fear is something harmful. “There is no fear in love,” says John, “For perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). On the other hand, the fear of God is held up as admirable, even virtuous. The psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110:10). Jesus combines these two ideas when He tells us, “Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

If God is not a terrorist, than why would He want us to fear Him? Saint Thomas Aquinas addresses this at some length in his Summa Theologica. Reaching back to Saint Augustine, Thomas says that fear always begins with love because we only fear losing that which we love. If our lives meant nothing to us, we would have no fear of losing them. So the goodness or evilness of our fear is relative to the love which generates it.

What are we so afraid of? What is it that we do not want to lose?

When it comes to fearing God, Thomas identifies two different kinds of fear that we might have towards Him. The first is “servile fear.” This is our fear of punishment. It is the fear that a servant has for displeasing his master, lest he be struck. It is the fear that keeps us from mouthing off to our bosses, lest we be fired. This is often the first kind of fear that we have towards God. We worry that if we do the wrong thing, God will mess up our lives, perhaps even condemn us for eternity. This is the kind of fear that so many modern atheists decry as being equivalent to terrorism. We are good not for goodness sake but because we fear what God will do to us if we are bad.

Believe it or not, Thomas does not think that servile fear is all negative. In fact, servile fear can be a very good thing, at least in the beginning, if it motivates us to want to keep God’s commandments, which are ultimately for our own good. A child who touches a hot stove learns to fear it, which then keeps the child from burning himself a second time. If the servile fear of God keeps us from doing those things that are harmful to us and to others, than it has a worthwhile purpose.

But the servile fear of God can become distorted and even deadly if it is left alone. Thomas says that the second type of fear of God, “filial fear,” is the more excellent of the two. It is a fear that is based in love. When we care deeply about somebody, we fear that we will hurt them or let them down. We fear that our weaknesses will create anguish or displeasure for them. This is the filial fear of God, that we who are weak and easily corruptible may displease the God we love. This kind of fear is not centered on ourselves, on what we have to do to keep from being punished, but it is centered on God and on how perfectly good and perfectly loving He is. It is the fear that comes when we see God as He really is and we see ourselves as we really are, when the mask falls off of our eyes and we realize that God’s goodness and holiness so dramatically surpasses our own. We see how beautiful and wonderful God is and we long to please Him and be like Him, but we fear that we never will be able to do so. Ultimately, this fear is answered by God Himself who perfects us through grace, assuring us not only of the pardon of our sins but that we will be made like Him, infused with His love and His light. “The fear of God is the beginning of love: and the beginning of faith is to be fast joined to it” (Sirach 25:16).

Terrorism breeds a kind of fear that is useless. The motivations of terrorists vary dramatically. Some are simply mentally disturbed and wish to invoke fear for its own sake. Some have some greater purpose in mind, however warped that purpose may be, and they see the fear they engender as the first step along the path to convincing the rest of us to fall in line. But either way, the fear that comes from acts of terror is incapable of making anything better because it is incapable of producing love. It is a fear that can only work on that first level in which we worry about losing the things of this world: our wealth, our security, even our very lives. That may drive us into a state of panic, but it cannot do anything else. Terrorism is ultimately self defeating. It is an admission of failure.

So what should our response to terrorism be? I want to suggest, along with Saint Thomas, that it ought to be fear, but of a different sort than the kind that terrorists want us to have. At times like these, we absolutely need the fear of God to make us whole. Rather than giving in to a state of panic over what we have lost and what we might yet lose, we can look into the very heart of God and see a perfect love there that will shatter us with its beauty. We can look at the cross and see the immeasurable love of God that is poured out there, a love that is bottomless, a love that is so powerful that it can redeem every suffering, wipe away every tear, and forgive every wrong. That kind of love is so big that it ought to scare us, because we are fooling ourselves if we do not realize that even the very best of us do not love so perfectly. Yet it is that same love, of which none of us are worthy, that will ultimately perfect even weak and fearful people like you and me, making us into something far more glorious than we could possibly imagine. The terrorist can do a lot of damage. He can take many things from us. But he cannot take God’s love from us. Even when all the world is in flames and everything we have is loss, that is a love that cannot be taken away from us.