III. WHAT IS PRAYER?
‘During my prayer time, I read a lot, recite at least three Rosaries and then try to spend time uttering words of praise and thanksgiving’ says Sister Hilda from one of the convents around our parish at Mira Road (E). Nothing is wrong about it. We are all endowed with different type of capacity to spend time in prayer. But we also need to know what is true prayer.
Prayer is Awareness
Authentic prayer is basically a prolonged friendly awareness of the divine presence in the depths of our heart. This awareness is extended, enriched and strengthened each time we encounter God in prayer. God cannot be absolutely absent from our lives. Therefore we need to deepen the experience of God in our lives through awareness. God is creatively present in everyone at every moment whether we are aware of Him or not. But when we are in a state of silent gratefulness, we are aware of His presence either in a mysterious way or in a clear way through the grace provided. In this awareness of the divine we experience an elevation of life which we cannot attain by profuse words of thanks or praise; it can happen to us if we are gratefully open to it. In general, awareness in prayer is nothing but knowing, loving, and looking at God who loves us and ‘looks’ at us secretly in the depths of our heart (cf. Mt 6.6). The word ‘look’ should not be confused with the ordinary sense of the word, because God cannot be seen with the naked eyes; “no man can see Him and live” (Ex 33.18-23). For all those who ‘look’ with the eyes of faith, God is made visible in the very teaching and person of Jesus. “This is eternal life; to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” [Jn 17.3].
Experiencing God through awareness is authentic prayer. All are called to this awareness. However, this awareness of God is not exhaustive and it cannot be. Such awareness requires purified mind and heart. For Teresa of Avila, prayer was living in eternity while living on earth. Therefore she advises her sisters: “I am not asking you now that you ‘think’ about him or that you draw out a lot of ‘concepts’ or make long and subtle ‘reflections’ with your intellect. I am not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him” (Way of Perfection 26,iii). This signifies an added effort at awareness, tuning to the Divine when engaged in various activities in the material world. The author of the Acts writes “in him we have our being and live and move” [Acts 17.28]. We cannot become aware of God if we do not direct our actions and thoughts towards Him. Awareness of God becomes a reality when we begin to find God in all things of life with added interest in Him. Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of Him that surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere.
Awareness is becoming conscious of God in our daily life through the activity of our exterior and interior senses, as Jesus himself pointed out “So do not start worrying: Where will my food come from? Or my drink? Or my clothes? These are the things the pagans are always concerned about. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things” (Mt. 6.31-33). Awareness is nothing else but allowing our consciousness to expand spiritually to the maximum level of its capacity in its efforts to find God’s Kingdom at every moment, in events and circumstances, even in our difficulties, sufferings, defeats and sickness. It is a search for God everywhere with the maximum consciousness with all its reasoning and reflection. This allows us to be also fare to all the spheres of life where we are destined to take decisions. Through this awareness, we will never drift away from God; rather we become his friends, like Patriarch Job in the Old Testament. Awareness allows us to decide as God Himself would decide in a particular given situation.
The first step in prayer is always taken through the use of words. When we speak of praying, we do not always speak of the same thing. Anything from requests made to God to messages received from God come under the topic ‘prayer’. In the Christian tradition words like prayer, meditation, contemplation and mysticism are sometimes used interchangeably and at other times they denote carefully nuanced distinctions. Prayers are said at times without even understanding the meaning of the words uttered. Then we switch on to pious images, gazing at them and even forming in our imagination the replica of that image. This has led many to understand prayer as nothing but trying to imagine the holy and pious images. In my conversation with many people, participating in retreats and seminars on prayer, I have discovered that prayer has been understood as imagining an episode from the Gospels. This has led many to come to a stagnant stage where they felt absolutely helpless in producing these pious images in their mind and consequently leading to a sad conclusion, as ‘not making progress in prayer’. Such people know fully that prayer is nothing but “friendly dialogue with God” but they continue to be static in their imagination instead of dialoguing in a friendly way. Imagining is a monologue and cannot be a dialogue. In addition to this, when the use of imagination is not possible we resort to making reflections and considerations during prayer, at times even straining and squeezing our brains out for more ideas. Such a prayer can be described as follows: If one hour is available for prayer, the first step towards recollection is made by reading a Gospel passage, then this act is followed by reflections if not imaginations and finally it is concluded with certain resolutions. This has been the practice of many people for long years. Consequently prayer largely has been understood as merely an intellectual exercise or an exercise of the imagination.
Prayer and Detachment
The usual problem we face in prayer is that we are not able to continue our prayer experience for a long period of time. This is because quite often we are much worried about what we must do in prayer and are not actually interested in what God does for us. This is an attachment to our own conclusions about prayer. This worry has led many to regard prayer as tedious job. Often we are ignorant of Divine pedagogy of prayer. We never think of allowing God to shape our being, rather we want to shape ourselves according to our understanding of prayer. It is very true that many people are gifted with wonderful capacity for prayer but this has not been discerned well, due to lack of well-trained spiritual directors or lack of interest shown in spiritual direction. People often consider praying means ‘feeling good’, ‘satisfied’, ‘having no distractions’, and ‘enjoying plenty of spiritual entertainment’, ‘having good imaginations’, ‘fantasies on heaven, angels, saints’ etc. This is truly not prayer. This is what I call attachment and an attachment to experiences. Maybe these experiences can be regarded as just a preparation for prayer. In this connection St. John of the Cross warns such people saying: “They would be very foolish, who would think that God is failing them because of their lack of spiritual sweetness and delight, or would rejoice, thinking they possess God because of the presence of this sweetness. And they would be more foolish if they were to go in search of this sweetness in God and rejoice and be detained in it” (Letter of St. John of the Cross no. 13; Segovia April 14, 1589). Our prayer should be an experience of inner silence and solitude. It is being fully present to the Lord. God speaks to us in the night or in silence as he spoke to prophet Elijah on mount Horeb. Therefore, the education, control or training of senses and imagination/fantasy is an absolute need for ongoing genuine prayer. “Control” does not mean rejection, but becoming aware of them and educating them channelling their energy towards the Lord. To pray, we need the spirit of detachment.
Detachment is a big factor in prayer nurturing a sense of inner peace. Having things in life is wonderful, but depending on them is attachment. Having loving people in life is phenomenal, and it is important to value and celebrate them everyday, but owning or controlling them is attachment. If we are suffering in life it is certain that this suffering is tied up with some kind of attachment to how things should be going. An attachment is a state of clinging that comes from the false belief that something or someone is necessary for your happiness. Prayer requires stillness and this stillness can come when we are full. The ocean is always still with the exception of a small amount of surface vibration, because it is full. We can be continually open to new growth and remain still, unless we choose to be disturbed by all of the things that are perpetually entering our consciousness. The disturbances are caused by our attachment to an idea that somehow, things should be different than what they are. All human relationships and even God relationship can be happier from a position of detachment. We are when we attempt to determine for others what their spiritual choices should be, based on what we were taught to believe. We are attached when we determine for others what vocation they should choose, who their friends should be, how they should live, what they should wear, how they should speak, and even how the others should choose to think, are often determined by attachments to certain traditions we have nurtured. All these elements constantly disturb our prayer daily. Therefore, St. John of the Cross-says “a person attached to creatures/traditions is nothing in the sight of God, and even less than nothing, because love causes equality and likeness and even brings the lover lower than the object of his love. In no way then is such a person capable of union with the infinite being of God” (Ascent of Mount Carmel I,4,iv). Purity of heart is a condition for prayer; we cannot be intimate with God so long as we cling to unlawful attachments. The needed purity for prayer must be fourfold. First, purity of conscience so that we will never offend God; then purity of heart, so that we keep all our affections for God; then comes purity of mind so that we preserve a continual consciousness of God. Finally, the purity of action, that will lead to do the will of God always. There is a moment in every good prayer when God-life enters our life, and our life enters God-life in total purity.
Prayer, Place and Time
St. John of the Cross recommends that our prayer in no way should be restricted to one place or to certain time or to certain ceremonies; rather a regular practice of prayer is a ‘must’ to initiate us into authentic prayer life. But later this regular and external practice should not be taken as a guarantee for faithfulness in prayer. He writes: “our prayer should be made either in the concealment of our secret chamber (where without noise and without telling any one we can pray with a more perfect and pure heart), as Jesus said: ‘when you pray enter into your secret chamber, and having closed the door, pray’ [Mt. 6.6); or if not in one’s chamber, in the solitary wilderness, and at the best and most quiet time of night, as He did [Lk 6.12]. No reason exists, hence, for designating fixed times or set days or for choosing some days more than others for our devotions; neither is there reason for using other kinds of prayer, or phrases having a play on words, but only those prayers that the Church uses, and as she uses them, for all are reducible to the Pater Noster” (Ascent III,44,iv). The best and very effective method would be to resort to “praying everywhere” (Ascent III,41,i) without fixing any limits. This is what the modern spiritual theology recommends saying “finding God in everything or finding God in all things”. Thus we never lose sight of God who cannot be absent from our lives. The real problem with our prayer is that we are normally absent to God out side of formal prayer. Training ourselves to be always in the presence of God can lead us to quietude and the enjoyment of peace everyday and everywhere. It can take place in the garden, kitchen, in the classroom, office, bus stand, and railway station, anywhere and at any time.
Prayer is a Need
Prayer is not to be taken in the narrow restricted sense of formal prayer, but in the sense of intimacy and union with God through love that leads us to be His friends. When we do not have friends we feel the pinch of such an experience. God is always there and does not need any introduction. The moment we express our desire His presence is felt. He is the unfailing friend. We need friendship with God. In fact no need can be so acute as the need for God in our life.
Union with God, obviously, is not restricted to formal prayer; it can also exist in activity. Prayer is fixing our inward gaze on God who cares and loves us. In our relationship with God beyond all doing, talking and thinking, there need to be times when we are simply present to Him in the fullness of our being, experiencing the immediacy of his loving and life-giving presence to us. If the meaning of our life, of our whole existence, is to love and to develop a friendly relationship with God, then we need prayer more than we need food or sleep or anything else. It is essential if we are going to function in a reasonable way as humans in society. We need prayer in our daily life to improve the quality of our lives. It is a demand of our very nature, of our very being; it is something that has to be there. We can skip a meal more easily than we can skip prayer. If we are really in touch with ourselves, we will realise it is not only something we need - it is something we want. It fulfils our deepest longing and desire.
(to be continued…)