05 April 2014

"How Can Someone Pray all Day?"

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a simple question. How can someone pray all day long? I mean is that even natural or healthy? I know it sounds like I am insulting your vocation or something. I don't mean to but I can't even begin to imagine praying all day.]]

Over the past several years I have described prayer in several basic ways. I have written that prayer is God's own work or activity within us. I have said that we pray when we are open and attentive to this ongoing activity. Similarly, I have suggested that prayer is that event wherein the question we are is posed and completed by the answer God is (though as I think about it, that is also not a bad description of redemption);  I have written about the human heart and what it means that we achieve singleness of heart where heart is that personal center wherein God bears witness to Godself.  In all of this I have said that human beings are dialogical by their very nature (just as the Trinity is a dialogical reality) and that prayer is an expression of this just as it is the expression of covenantal existence --- that existence in and with God we are all called to. 

In doing this I hope that one thing I have indicated is that many different activities can be truly prayerful or qualify as prayer. One has to be able to listen to one's own heart (again, where God dwells and speaks himself) and to the voice or Word of God as it comes to one from outside oneself. Deep speaks to deep. One learns to do this and does it in a privileged way in quiet prayer, lectio divina, journaling, praying Office (which builds on psalms, readings and canticles that both speak to and allow one to pour out one's own heart), etc. But beyond these things almost any activity can become prayer. As I think I have written before, some of my most profound prayer experiences have occurred as I enjoyed a hot cup of tea, washed dishes,  folded laundry, or took a walk. Conversations with friends can be profoundly prayerful as can meal times. The key in all of these is that we learn to listen both to and with our hearts and that we eschew distractions as much as we can or as is healthy for us. (Here I mean eschewing choosing those things which serve to distract us from the hard work of attending to reality; I am not referring to distractions that occur during prayer itself.)

Note well that I am not speaking of saying prayers all day long. These can certainly be helpful in listening to and expressing our own hearts, but they can also be a source of actual distraction and mere busyness.Thus, for instance, I don't pray more than three or four of the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours during a day because doing so is often more distracting and fragmenting than it is helpful to me in coming to pray my entire day. Nor do I simply fill my time with "saying prayers" instead of praying a pretty ordinary life. 

On the other hand, let's say I am out of the hermitage and the environment is noisy and distracting.  One of the things I do is to pray with regard to the people and events all around me. Here I ordinarily use beads and something like the Jesus prayer or the Hail Mary to help me as I look briefly at the folks nearby (say, on the train with me or in the doctor's waiting room) and pray for them.  Here rote prayers are really helpful in maintaining a connection between inner and outer dimensions of my attention. They help shape my attentiveness to others into something compassionate and generous rather than merely curious and distracted. The same is true when I am feeling distracted within the hermitage; then rote prayers serve as a means of maintaining focus and direction in my day. They also remind me of my own poverty in prayer, not only because of my own tendency to distraction per se, but because these words are "borrowed" from others and are a help when I am unable to pray otherwise.

How healthy or natural is all this? Given my understanding of the nature of the human person and especially of their relationship with and relatedness to God, prayer is the most natural activity we can undertake. I don't think that saying prayers all day is necessarily particularly healthy but praying our lives, doing all things together with and in God is both healthy and holy-making (because these two things are really one). Allowing our lives to be prayer means becoming truly or authentically human. It means becoming the dialogical realities real human beings always are --- both because of  and through our fundamental dialogue with God and because of and through our dialogue with others and the created world around us. We are made for this kind of life. It is essentially contemplative and serves as the the foundation of a compassionate life in which we can truly give ourselves to others and work towards the fulfillment of creation in justice. 

My question to you then is can you imagine living a life which is geared toward listening and responding to and from your own heart? Can you imagine allowing your heart to become "pure" or "single" in this way --- a single, focused, and compassionate "hearkening" to reality? Can you imagine living a life which is geared toward a love which does justice, that is, a love which makes all things right and brings them to completion or fulfillment? Do these things seem healthy to you? Desirable? If you say yes to these questions then you have affirmed what I describe as a prayerful life --- an essentially contemplative life in fact. If you add to these the affirmation that such a life requires one to spend time consciously listening and responding to the Love-in-act (God!) which is the source and ground of existence, and that one must do so daily as a very high priority in order to live  in the ways you have already affirmed to be healthy and desirable, then you have confirmed the place of a life of prayer as well  --- the very life whose naturalness and healthiness you questioned at the beginning of this post. Of course such a life is not nearly as common as a life of distraction and dissipation but I sincerely believe that it is upon such lives that our own authenticity and the future of our world depends.