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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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.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).