From Prayer Primer
Men and women everywhere are hungry and thirsty, voraciously yearning and seeking: rich and poor, wise and foolish, young and old, literate and illiterate, saints and sinners, atheists and agnostics, playboys and prostitutes. Some can explain their inner emptiness in words; most cannot, but everyone experiences it. That inner ache drives all our dreams, desires, and decisions — good and bad. Even your decision to pick up this book and read was triggered by this nameless desire.
Our abiding hunger for more than we presently experience does not have to be proved but only explained. Which is what we propose to do right now, before we even begin to think about what prayer is all about. Otherwise you and I cannot understand fully the splendid reality of communing deeply with our Creator and Lord and of our unspeakable destiny in and with him.
Mere animals do not and cannot have this inner aching need, for the simple reason that material things are satisfied with visible creation and their place in it. Because you and I have intellects and wills rooted in our profound spiritual core, nothing finite and limited does, or ever can, fill us. Deep in our humanness is an ache for fullness, for infinity. We are completely satisfied by no individual egoism, by no series of selfish pursuits: vanity, fame, money, lust, power, drugs. Always the sinner seeks more accolades, more control of others, more drugs. Never is he satisfied, never really happy and fulfilled.
Why is this so? As spirit-in-the-flesh beings, you and I burst beyond the material order, beyond what our senses can attain, beyond the cosmos itself. By its limited nature nothing created can satisfy us. God alone, the sole infinite One, can fill our endless yearnings. As Karl Rahner put it, we are oriented by nature to the Absolute. Or as John Courtney Murray expressed it, the problem now is not how to be a man, but how to become more than a man. Or as St. Augustine put it in his classic prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Kittens and giraffes do not have this problem. They cannot. You and I do.
Quenching and prayer
What does this have to do with a primer on prayer? Much, very much. Prayer is not merely a pious reaction to suffering or a means to get us out of trouble. We are the only beings in visible creation who cannot attain fulfillment without becoming more than we are, therefore without the divine. Ducks and camels, trees and stars need matter alone. In other words, you and I are transcendent beings whose needs go beyond this universe. That is why our destiny must be God and no one else. That is why prayer is absolutely basic. This is the divine plan, and no other plan comes close. At the heart of our human reality there must be a relationship and communion with the divine. Otherwise we simply do not make it; we do not and cannot flourish and attain our destiny.
Prayer, therefore, is both simple and deep — and, as we shall see later on, immensely enriching, leading to unspeakable love and delight. Prayer is not complicated, because there is nothing more natural than to converse with your beloved, and most especially with your supreme Beloved. If all grows normally it becomes deep, because, as we have explained, it is rooted in your profound human and spiritual reality, in who and what you are as a man or a woman.
The illness of boredom
But we need to look at all this from another point of view, the downside of our human situation. Among the saddest pictures we meet in life is a jaded face: the visage of one who “has done it all,” whose life through wanton sin is a shambles. It is a countenance that expresses no joy, no peace, no excitement, no enthusiasm, no interest, no hope, no love, no fulfillment. Behind that face is an inner desert of degenerate exhaustion, completely empty of lively delight.
Jadedness is extreme boredom, but there are lesser degrees, of course. But even lesser shadings are abnormalities. Human beings are meant to be alive and vibrant, full of wonder, love, and happiness — which is exactly what Scripture promises to those who embrace God’s word fully. This is what the saints experience, what people who have a deep prayer life know to be the case. They “rejoice in the Lord always,” not just some of the time (Philippians 4:4).
Jadedness and boredom and an absence of vibrant prayer comprise one reason among others that the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was right on target when he made the comment that “to live without God is nothing but torture.” Not everyone admits this, of course. One reason is pathological denial. Another is that when people are so submerged in self-centered pleasure seeking, they cannot see what some silence and solitude and honesty would make obvious to them. A third explanation for the denial is that bored people often use pleasures, both licit and illicit, as so many narcotics that tend to dull the deep inner pain of their emptiness. This human aching is always lurking in the center of their being, but it is faced only in honest silence. The print and electronic media offer endless proof day after day that Dostoevsky was right, but few care to see and to listen. Facing reality as it is requires honesty. As Jesus himself put it: We cannot serve both God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). If it is not the first, it will be the second. Nature abhors a vacuum.
This famous novelist went on to remark that atheists should actually be called idolators. Why? When one rejects the real God, he inevitably substitutes lesser things to fill his inner emptiness. Everyone, we should notice, has one or more consuming interests that occupy his desires and dreams. If we are not captivated by the living God and pursuing him, we will center our desires on idols, big or small: vanities, pleasure seeking, prestige, power, and others we have already noted. While the idols never satisfy, they often do serve as narcotics that more or less deaden the inner pain of not having him for whom we were made and who alone can bring us to the eternal ecstasy of the beatific vision.
Yes, if you and I are not seriously pursuing the real God, inevitably we will focus on things that can never satisfy us. We are chasing after dead ends. Prayer is the path to reality/Reality.
Quenching at the fountain
Scripture says it best of all. With a charming invitation the Lord shouts, “Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come. . . . Why spend money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy. . . . Pay attention, come to me; listen, and your soul will live,” (Isaiah 55:1-3). Nothing less can bring us to life. And Isaiah himself keeps vigil through the night as his spirit yearns for his Lord (Isaiah 26:9). He practices what he proclaims.
The psalmist is of like mind: his soul thirsts for the living God (Psalm 42:2-3). Like a parched desert he pines for his Lord, for only in him does he find rest (Psalm 63:1; 62:1). The inspired writer knows that God must be our consuming concern, for pursuing him, adoring him, loving him, being immersed in him can alone profoundly delight and fill us. Anything less than Everything is not enough.
The New Testament has the same message, for the Fountain has appeared in the flesh. He declares in the Sermon on the Mount that they are blessed who hunger and thirst after holiness (Matthew 5:6), and his mother proclaims in her Magnificat that the Lord fills the hungry with every good thing (Luke 1:53). Jesus explicitly invites all those who are thirsty to come to him for a quenching with living water (John 7:37). At the very end of both Testaments this same invitation is extended to everyone: let all the thirsty come forward to be forever quenched with the life-giving waters, that is, an eternal enthrallment in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seen face to face (Revelation 22:17).
Prayer life is therefore profoundly rooted in the needs of our human nature. Without it we are frustrated creatures. All the way from the beginnings in vocal prayer through meditation, which leads to the summit of contemplation, this prayerful immersion in the indwelling Trinity gradually transforms us from one glory to another as we are being turned into the divine image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Here alone do men and women become “perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 16:13-14). We can understand why Henri de Lubac was prompted to say that man is truly man only when the light of God is reflected in a face upturned in prayer.