WHAT IS PRAYER?
Once Mrs. Agnes of our parish approached me and complained, ‘Father, I have been praying since 15 years. I am a bit disappointed because nothing is happening in my life’. I asked her, ‘what do you mean nothing is happening in your life’? ‘I mean, father, that I wanted to have a vibrant experience of God, but it is not happening’. That is the moment I thought, that there are a number of people in the Church today, praying and expecting something to happen to them. Can we say their approach to prayer is wrong? Or are they mistaken about their approach to God in prayer? What is prayer? How we ought to pray? What happens during and after prayer? Some of these questions will be answered in the following pages on prayer. The Archdiocese of Mumbai is gearing towards introducing people into Contemplative personal prayer. A team of specialized persons in this area of prayer and contemplation has been set up for the purpose and a lot of work has been done so far. Here, I would like to make a humble effort at clarifying certain notions of prayer through a few articles, and lead our people into understanding Christian prayer so that when we pray we know that we do not waste time.
What is the Goal of Prayer?
The goal of every prayer is union with God through love. We might ask, what is prayer and what is contemplation? Is it just being there hours together in the presence of God in a place of prayer? We know that every genuine prayer should lead us to contemplative experience of God. Do we perhaps at times have a wrong notion regarding prayer and contemplation? Mystics and Saints often define prayer as “dialogue with God”; “speaking to God”; “intimate relationship with God”; “friendship with God” etc. and contemplation as “just being there”, “gazing at God” or “being present to God”. Can this ‘dialogue with God’ or ‘just being present to God’ take place at any moment of our life or only at prayer?
In our catechism classes we have learnt that God is everywhere and he is present in every bit of creation, in every cell and atom. If that is the case are we present to Him who is always present everywhere and at every moment? In reality, rarely are we present to God in a concrete way because we are busy with our own daily affairs. We have an experience of this, that when we are busy with others we forget ourselves, and when we are busy with ourselves, we forget others. This is what happens in our search for God. Often when we approach God in prayer we search our own comfort and satisfaction even in our search for God. Genuine prayer in fact is, being fully involved with God always and everywhere who is always fully alive and active. This way of praying is nothing else than maximizing God’s presence in our day-to-day activity as much as possible. In prayer we try to magnify God to such an extent that we do not live; rather ‘God lives in us’. We let God live in us and He becomes the hub of our entire life. Thus, we never pray in vain but pray with God who is always within us.
Examine your Motives
At times, it is necessary to examine the motivations of our prayer to arrive at such an attitude. Genuine prayer always develops and matures our relationship with God and changes our attitude in life and never looks for personal enjoyment or satisfaction. Authentic prayer should be totally loving God and not trying to get something from God. If we truly seek genuine friendship with God we should never expects a thing from God, rather it should be our total self giving and surrender to the Other, because God knows already what we need (cf. Mt. 6.8).
Power of Prayer
Late Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic letter Fides et Ratio writes, “Driven by the desire to discover the ultimate truth of existence, human beings seek to acquire those universal elements of knowledge which enable them to understand themselves better and to advance in their own self-realization. These fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in them by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here, begins then, the journey that will lead them to discover new frontiers of knowledge. Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of life which is genuinely personal” (Fides et Ratio). This attempt at knowledge by human beings is a desire to deepen the purpose of our existence through prayer and God experience. Therefore, prayer should not be just an isolated activity in our daily life but it ought to be integrative, continuous and contemplative. Prayer becomes integrative when the effects of prayer are lived. It becomes contemplative when it is unceasing. Prayer is unceasing when its influence permeates the whole of our life. The qualification “unceasing” directly refers to the continuity or permanence of prayer throughout the whole life. But such continuity cannot really occur unless prayer permeates the whole personality, reaching to the spiritual depths and remaining there as a permanent attitude of the Spirit. If we could spiritually go down into the depths of our own being or of any being such as, a grain of sand, a leaf, a flower, we would come upon the eternal mystery of God. Beyond the molecules and atoms, beyond the protons and electrons, beyond the living cells with their genes and chromosomes, there is a tremendous energy, a force of life. Through prayer we begin to discover the power of God in every bit of creation. This energy or force is continually welling up from the abyss of being in the Father, continually flowing back to its source in the bliss of love. If we could be free from personal desires in prayer, we would see the majesty of the Creator in us through His grace. This mystery in fact is hidden in the heart of every one of us, but we fail to see it: “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17.21). But sadly we are often selfishly turned in on ourselves and consequently are not touched by the grace of the Creator. God experience is nothing but entering into this continuous flow of love in every bit of creation and within ourselves until we have a unifying experience of finding God everywhere. Such experience becomes more and more prominent at prayer. When outside of formal prayer (recitation of Rosary, Angelus, and other devotions prayers) we cherish this energizing experience and this leads us to discover the author of these manifestations, seen heard and sensed everywhere; and then we are ‘enlightened’ and therefore we remain attuned to the Divine source of energy that makes us instruments of God’s love on this earth.
II. WHAT IS PRAYER?
Mr. Hilary told me once that he had been to Vipassana course at Nasik centre and he found that course very interesting and helpful. Moreover, he also told me that the practise of Vipassana has made him to pray better and lead a tension free life. I appreciated Mr. Hilary for making genuine efforts at learning to pray and to live a life of fewer tensions.
Many people today have a keen desire to learn how to experience deeper and authentic prayer despite various and considerable difficulties offered by the modern culture. There is a felt need for silence, recollection and meditation. A lot of people have come to understand the worth of prayer leading them to serenity, silence and tranquillity. Of course, these values can give us orientation and true security. Ultimately, in all these deeper aspirations what we basically crave for, is God-Experience. It is not so much the activity of prayer that attracts us, but God, who can be contacted in prayer and can certainly saturate the unnamed infinite thirst in us, as St. Augustine cried, “Our hearts are restless O, Lord, until they rest in Thee”. It is a known fact that nothing can quench our heart outside of God. To whatever we cling to, material or spiritual, it is ultimately an inclination and constant desire to cling to God. God alone can satisfy our heart. All other things and beings available for satisfaction, company and pleasure are merely crumbs that fall from the Divine.
Prayer and Methods
Methods and techniques contribute to any successful outcome. They are needed for growth, achievement, success etc. For higher efficiency and effectiveness we have methods for study, work, art etc. Then do we need methods also for prayer? Since prayer is a means of communication and communion with the Divine we certainly need methods. Without a method we do not even succeed in speaking properly to a person. In our daily life we have certain implicit traits and methods such as language, expressions, gestures, postures etc. In order to learn to commune with God we need methods or at least an understanding of Divine pedagogy.
Now, considering the use of methods in prayer, do we find some methods not really functioning? Is prayer not successful because of the wrong methods we use? Is there a way out of our vicious routine that does not lead us to any change or improvement in our life? How can we pray well, so that our life becomes really worth living? Do we need to go back and examine the way we have been praying in order that our prayer becomes more effective and our relationship with God a means of living out our problems, our joys and sorrows in a deeper way? We need to ponder on these queries seriously.
First of all methods for the sake of beginning prayer are necessary. Without basic methods we cannot think of praying. The traditional method of prayer has three parts/stages: preparation, recollection and meditation. Preparation consists of remote preparation like: practising the presence of God, nurturing Christian virtues throughout the day, trying to be serviceable and loving; and the immediate preparation consists of reading a Biblical text preparing our minds and hearts for prayer. The Recollection consists of recalling to our mind again during prayer what has been read and trying to find source of prayer in that text. Finally, Meditation consists in the very act of prayer, where we praise God, present our requests and, give thanks to Him. These are the integral parts of the traditional method of prayer. Then there could be many other methods like silencing the mind, using our imagination, visualizing a particular episode of the Gospels, becoming aware of our body, concentrating on a holy image etc.
Methods of prayer are also known as partly techniques of prayer. Technique is good but it is secondary. The essential is the source and one must first look for the source and then the technique can follow. Techniques are good as far as they can take us closer to the essential and the source - God. They are dangerous when over emphasised, because we may forget the source completely and we may become obsessed with techniques. Techniques are good if we remain conscious that they are not the ends but only the means to the end. Too great an obsession with them is very harmful, because we can forget the source completely in the process. In prayer we can make use of techniques and methods but we need to be alert as to when the technique should be dropped to allow the spirit to take its course.
Of course, our life of prayer in one way or the other was initiated with little techniques of memorising or vocalising. These techniques later developed into reciting prayers and eventually became rather a sophisticated technique to satisfy our psychological need for prayer. Through a method we are accustomed to recite the breviary slowly, pausing on each word or verse. Can we say that we really pray? In any case we need to remind ourselves that technique kills the spirit of prayer. For instance, we never use a technique or a method to speak to our parents or our loved ones. We learnt the art of speaking through our parents, but we never use their technique. We are unique and we use our own personalised method spontaneously. That is why when we speak we are free in our communication and relationship. Why then do we need techniques and methods to speak to God who knows us better than we know ourselves? What we basically need is to look for authenticity and not the multiplication of words and methods because God will not talk to us as our companions and friends do. He has quite a different method of communication. He speaks to us in silence without words and gestures. Moreover, God-Experience does not mean aiming at satisfaction or enjoyment of spiritual favours in prayer. It is a moment of God’s mysterious encounter that is understood in absolute faith and hope. It is an openness to accept whatever happens during prayer and a challenge to understand, which cannot be understood, and it is a journey in the direction we know not.
Therefore, we must not concern ourselves too much with methods, techniques and preoccupy ourselves with what we do or with what is happening during prayer. We must turn our attention simply on God Himself and each time we are drawn to anything else, we must return simply, gently, to the Lord. This is one of the points we would like to emphasize strongly in the succeeding pages. The fruits of prayer are to be perceived and experienced outside the time of prayer and are perhaps the surest signs of the presence and continuing work of the Spirit of God in our prayer. In real prayer we do not seek ourselves or seek anything for ourselves. We seek the living God. In experiencing Him we experience all things and will posses all things. Learning to pray is learning to live and move with God. In prayer we seek to enter into the “now”; we live as fully as possible with Him who says “I AM who I AM” and “I will be with you always”.
Is Prayer Attractive?
The interest which in recent years has been awakened in people and also among large number of Christians in various forms of meditation associated with some eastern religions and their particular methods of prayer, is a significant sign of this need for spiritual renewal, recollection and attraction to prayer. A deeper and authentic contact with the divine mystery is always sought through moments of prayer in solitude and interior silence. Since prayer alone can lead us to that ‘living water’, it is attractive. In recent years psychologists and doctors of medicine have found a tremendous power in prayer through which operations have been successful, sickness have been healed and people have begun responding positively in so-called hopeless cases of cancer and Aids. Hence, prayer as such has become an attractive subject of discussion and practice.
Prayer and Life
More often than not we divide our life into two watertight compartments: one inside the prayer hall where we pray and the other outside of it where we are involved in our daily activities. Thus, quite often our prayer life contradicts our active life. There is no satisfactory blend between prayer and action. This has come to be realised through the years where we have seen or experienced no relevance of our prayer to our everyday life. We were taught how to pray. We learned the traditional methods of reciting long vocal prayers. We were satisfied with such prayers and perhaps drew a sort of psychological satisfaction out of it. Can we call such an act, ‘prayer?’ We do not deny that vocal prayer recited with devotion is prayer. We need to ask ourselves what actual change has this prayer brought in our life? Even a simple recitation of prayer should bring in some change in our mind, in our thoughts and actions; if not, that prayer has been nothing but a repetition of certain formulae and cannot have any relevance to our life (cf. Mt 7.21). Our life and prayer should not become two distinct spheres having no concrete point of contact.