August 20, 2017
In a religious environment like the first century, where gods and goddesses were in constant power struggles amongst themselves, the idea of a single, transcendent and absolute God was unimaginable. That is why Saint Paul writes to former gentile converts to Christianity: we do not know how to pray as we ought.
Today, we live in a world much like that of pagan Rome. We may or may not think or say that there are god’s called ‘economy’, ‘leisure’, ‘career’, ‘family life’ or ‘retirement’, ‘security’, ‘science’, but the fact is that these issues compete with each other for attention, time, energy and devotion. And much like the ancient Romans, we do not know how to pray as we ought — to the God of the whole universe; indeed, in many cases, God is reduced to being just one more competitor for our limited attention and devotion and resources — or worse, is rejected as irrelevant because he does not seem to serve the pursuit of these other goals!
At this point you may be thinking that I am going to tell you how to pray. Not! There are more than enough books and manuals and ‘schools’ and practices (think of poor Saint Joseph whom you buried in your yard).Adding my five-hundred words will do nothing to sift that through. Besides, since each of us comes to the project of spirituality with set of pre-determined attitudes and reactions, no one way will work for everyone!
Instead, I propose to offer some advice about how to think of prayer and, thus, how to deal with it in our own lives.
1) Prayer is truly personal to each and interpersonal to the individual and God. It’s not that each of us has a personal god, but that the contingent being of each of us means that our relationship with the absolute will be unique.
2) Prayer is not an un-natural — or even a super-natural activity. Our contingency calls out to the absolute — to God — who stands as the horizon of our being and the being of the whole universe. Of this truth Saint Paul says that the spirit of God intercedes for us; the quest for the absolute in natural to the contingent.
3) But, our focus on the absolute can be deflected or blurred by other matters. Here the distinction I have so often preached on comes into play: the urgent is rarely the important. But we can certainly become enthralled by urgency. As Jesus says: About all these things the pagans worry.
4) ‘Distractions’ happen in prayer because some contingent matter has not been properly situated in our scheme of values. If one is regularly distracted by a particular worry, the worry should be separately addressed so that the absolute can be attended to. Prayer is not a struggle against oneself. If you bring your gift to the altar and recall a problem with a brother, leave your gift.
5) Real expertise in prayer will not come right away. The uncluttering of our view of the horizon takes time, discipline and practice.
Really and truly and prayerfully yours,