20 June 2008

Self-centered vs God-centered Prayer and Spirituality: Some Questions

Not surprisingly, my posts over the last few days have raised several questions. The first ones are requests for where I got the information I used for the reflection on Matthew's text in "To turn the other cheek."

For those interested, I always use commentaries when preparing for lectio and doing reflections and there are three which I use regularly and like very much. The first is the Sacra Pagina series for the NT (Berit Olam for books of the OT). While this is a standard commentary series it is less technical than some and is readable even for those who have no Greek. The second series is the Interpretation Series which is meant for preachers and general teachers of Scripture (not exegetes or Scripture scholars per se). Finally, I ordinarily look at Tom Wright's,[Matthew](or whomever) for Everyone. Now, I have talked about this text in Matthew before so I am not sure which of the three has the most information right off the top of my head, but Wright's work is excellent for capturing the realities of the world Jesus lived in (not least Jesus' Jewishness and relation to Judaism and Rome) and the Interpretation series is good too. For those interested, I would start with Wright's books (they are more readable, cheaper, and can be used for lectio as well), move to Interpretation (a bit higher priced, available in hardcover --- the softcovers by the same name are a DIFFERENT SERIES), and finally, to Sacra Pagina (which is especially helpful if you are asked to do reflections for your community or are a preacher/homilist). SP is more expensive (though available in paper now, and used (but usually available in "as new" condition!) on Amazon); it is the more comprehensive commentary series of the three.

The next questions I received were not at all surprising and had to do with the post on the Lord's Prayer: [[ Aren't we supposed to bring our sins, concerns, etc to God in prayer? How can this be called problematical and self-centered? What do you mean when you say there are ways to pour out our hearts to God without being self-centered? Also, in spiritual direction, how can we talk about our prayer without being self-centered?]]

Let me try to explain some about this because I knew my comments would raise these kinds of questions. The only one I anticipated that was not included was, What can we say about, "What kind of experience" our prayer was for God?? We can't read God's mind!! First, as I noted, we will and SHOULD pour out our hearts to God. We should certainly bring our sinfulness, brokenness, weaknesses, foibles and failings before him. However, sometimes we are so focused on these things we forget WHY we are doing this, why we are opening our hearts to God -- not to mention WHO is empowering us to do so if we are at all successful (and even when we are NOT)! We are looking for forgiveness and healing, for comfort and strength, for nourishment and challenge as well, but WHY are we doing these things? Quite often we stop at the answer that "WE need these things" if WE are to become holy, or make it to heaven, or however we understand or state the matter. Sometimes we are so focused on "becoming detached" or "losing self" or "becoming humble" that we think that that is the whole purpose of our spirituality. When we fail, a session of spiritual direction can become a recital of our own projects, our own goals, our own purposes, inadequacies, and the like, and when the director asks about our prayer, this is all she will hear --- a litany of complaints which is a paean to self.

Now, it is important, of course, to be in touch with these things and be able to recount them to one's director; the director needs to hear them, but it makes all the difference in the world if we are considering them because of the way they affected God's plans for us, God's purposes in our world, God's needs for himself and his determination to love us with an everlasting love, or simply because we have in view OUR OWN goals, plans, aspirations, failures, incapacities, and the like. That is why I will sometimes ask a directee who seems to have lost sight of God in her prayer, "What kind of experience was this for God?" She will NOT usually be able to tell me what God felt (that kind of awareness, though possible to some limited extent, is a gift and occurs rarely).

Instead she will tell me again about her own lack of openness, her own resistances, her own fears, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, or whatever, but this time she will do so because she is concerned about God and his purposes and love first of all --- or at the very least because she is now considering these first!! Instead of an egocentric soliloquy about self, her account will cover all the necessary matter for direction, but from a much more other-centered perspective! Further, when she returns to prayer once again, she is more apt to be able to get out of her own way so that the Spirit can really work in and on her! She will pour out her heart, but she will do so in order that God might enter it more completely and transform the world with his love. She will do it because God wills to dwell there exhaustively and the completion of Christ's mission with regard to creation requires it. She will do it because God himself URGES and empowers her to do so, and because she cares and is attentive enough to respond to HIS needs and desires.

It is the difference between recounting one's own failings (and, sometimes, successes) in listening to a friend because one is primarily aware of the friend's desires and needs and the way they were met or disappointed , and recounting those same failings and successes because one is simply aware of and concerned with oneself and one's own performance. It is the difference between seeing with our hearts and navel gazing. Sometimes in our spirituality we become so focused on an abstract goal (becoming humble, losing self, becoming detached, becoming holy, being healed or reconciled, etc) that we really don't consider God in the picture except to the extent that he is the one we must turn to who is supposed to "make us" these things. Unfortunately, from this perspective it is all-too easy to treat prayer as our own accomplishment, God as OUR SERVANT and our project as HIS OWN WILL, rather than understanding we are to be HIS SERVANTS and our goals are meant to allow HIS PURPOSES to be realized in our world. Of course humility, selflessness, detachment, reconciliation, and healing are important goals but WHY is it we are intent on their achievement????

There is a vast difference between seeking these things because we are self-centered, and seeking them because God wills them if he is to accomplish his own purposes in our world. (And of course, a self-centered way of seeking them will actually lead to our greater entrenchment in their opposite and thus be self-defeating in the profoundest and truest sense!) Matthew's Gospel touched on this question of motives this week as well in the Gospel lection prior to the Lord's prayer, (Matt 6:1-5f). It is not surprising he follows up his discourse on hypocrisy and distorted or inadequate motives with the Lord's Prayer.

Unfortunately, it is all-too easy to kid ourselves in this matter: for instance, we read a book on spirituality and it tells us we should be humble so we begin a self-improvement regimen to become humble. We read a Saint's life that recounts this Saint as a paradigm of detachment, or holiness, or whatever, and we institute a self-improvement regimen designed to make us these things thinking they will please God and get us to heaven (or whatever!). But really, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? When we meet with our director we recount how miserably we failed in all our goals, how we failed at prayer, how we were bored, how we failed to be anything but self-centered, etc, but again, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? And when the director tells us, "It is NOT all about you" we acknowledge this and proceed once again to speak about our SELVES and how miserable, sinful, and inadequate we are! And again, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? Has he really been absent this whole time? Has he really made no overtures, done nothing for which we should be grateful, called us in no significant ways we can note with awe and appreciation? Are his own plans, purposes, and self really unaffected by our failures, and can we legitimately remain unaware of this?

Thus, I suggest there are ways to pour out our hearts to God which are self-centered in an especially problematical way (this qualification is important!!!), and those which are not. Yes, we should pray for humility or selflessness, but not PRIMARILY as a project of self-improvement. Instead it should be a piece of our enthusiastic engagement on behalf of God and his reign. Again, it makes a huge difference if I point to my own lack of humility and my goal to be more humble because my failure has served to hurt God and his plans for the world, or another person --- or instead, because I am on a private and self-centered quest for personal "holiness". While the shift required is a small one in some ways (humility, etc, remains the goal), it is also as vast as eternity since the way to achieving the goal and the reason for adopting it are vastly different, as is the overall focus of our attention and concerns.

Talking about these things in direction without being self-centered depends upon how aware of and concerned with God one really is. One can focus on self without being self-centered in a problematical way. Actually, to make progress spiritually one MUST focus on self without being self-centered, but rather because one is truly God-centered. One's director should be able to help one find their way in this. My question about God's experience in our prayer is not meant to have directees reading the mind of God, but instead to stop them with the realization that God was THERE in their prayer but that they only had eyes and ears for themselves. Further, it is meant to indicate that in telling me about their prayer they have completely missed talking about God's presence, purposes, will, gifts, comfort, etc, etc. It is a rhetorical question in some senses meant to shock and wake a directee (or myself) up.

I hope this answers your questions to some extent and clarifies what I meant in the earlier post! Thanks for emailing.