From Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir
It is through prayer that one will be given the most powerful light to see God and self.(Angela of Foligno)
“To see God” is to care very little about anything lesser. But in prayer I see my own littleness most clearly. I know how cowardly I really am. My voice is but one drop of water in an ocean of oppression. It will not change the ocean. But it may put it in need of explaining the injustice it can no longer hide, perhaps. I cannot not speak what my heart knows to be true. (Joan Chittister, Journal, March 5)
The hallmark of a Benedictine community lies in its prayer life. The community gathers for choral prayer at least three times a day — morning praise, noon praise, and vespers. In Benedictine communities that devote themselves to the recitation of the more ancient Liturgy of the Hours, the times for communal prayer are even more often than that. To beginners in the life, the schedule can be a shock.
When we were in the novitiate, the old sisters delighted in telling us the story of the young postulant who came to the monastery full of zest for the life — and then, six months later, simply got up and left. “I like it here a lot,” the young woman is declared to have said, “but there’s never a minute’s rest. And every time I do get time, the bell rings.” Then the old sisters would bubble over with the kind of laughter that is private and personal. They knew why the story was funny. We did not.
It took a while before I caught on to the joke. The funny part was that the postulant had the ideas confused. She didn’t get it. She couldn’t understand why it was that every time the chores of the day were finished, just when she thought she wouldn’t have anything to do for a while, the bell rang to call the community to another period of prayer. Prayer for her was work, an intrusion into her private time. But for those whose life is centered in prayer, prayer is time for resting in God. It is the “work” of the soul in contact with the God of the heart.
Prayer is what links the religious and the spiritual, the inner and the outer dimensions of life. Every spiritual tradition on Earth forms a person in some kind of regular practice designed to focus the mind and the spirit. Regular prayer reminds us that life is punctuated by God, awash in God, encircled by God. To interrupt the day with prayer — with any centering activity that draws us beyond the present to the consciousness of eternal truth — is to remind ourselves of the timelessness of eternity. Prayer and regular spiritual practices serve as a link between this life and the next. They remind us of what we are doing and why we’re doing it and where our lives are going. They give us the strength of heart to sustain us on the way. When life goes dry, only the memory of God makes life bearable again. Then we remember that whatever is has purpose.
It took years of repetition, years of chant strung high as a wire, years of recitation droned into space for me to realize that like water on a rock, the words were melting into my soul, etching furrows in my mind, turning me into themselves, disappearing into the whispers of my heart. Prayer, the regular discipline of resting in God, had become a way of life.
But prayer has issues of its own. The journal raised one of them quite clearly. “The more you pray,” Angela of Foligno wrote, “the more you will be enlightened.” But I knew better:
The statement, as it stands, is both true and false. When we turn God into a vending machine, when we pray to “get” things rather than to get God — there is no “enlightenment” in that. When prayer is a journey into the mind and heart of God, into the nature of life, into the shaping of a holy heart, then it is necessarily enlightening. We come to understand ourselves: our fears, our darkness, our struggles, our resistance. Then we are faced with choice. That is enlightenment.
Prayer does not simply reveal us to God and God to us, I had come to know after years of apparently useless repetition. It reveals us to ourselves at the same time. If I listened to myself when I prayed, I could feel my many masks drop away. I was not the perfect nun; I was the angry psalmist. I was the needy one in the petitions. I was the one to whom the hard words of the gospel were being spoken. I was the one adrift in a sea of darkness and uncertainty even after all these years of light.
The round of daily prayer became the way I was brought to encounter myself so that the work of coming to God could really begin.
It is inside myself, in the cavern that is the soul, that prayer really happens. It is not a string of absentminded mutterings. It is confrontation with the emptiness of me. Then the God who reveals that void can come in to fill it. Without prayer, without conscious attention to the incompleteness in me, God cannot come in. Without that, I have no need of God. A magician maybe, but not God. There is a silent dimension to even choral prayer because then God is doing the communicating. “Praying brings us into the presence of God who loves us,” the journal entry read. And now I could write back,
But after a while, it seems to me, no words are necessary. We come to live in the presence of God at all times. Words are simply what tie us to the distractions between here and full immersion into the Energy which is God. If we pray long enough, we cease to pray; we become a prayer.
“I don’t pray,” people say to me. And I say back, “Neither do I. I just breathe God in and hope somehow to learn how to breathe God out, as well.”
The purpose of prayer is simply to transform us to the mind of God. We do not go to prayer to coax God the Cornucopia to make our lives a Disneyland of possibilities. We don’t go to prayer to get points off our sins. We don’t go to suffer for our sins. We go to prayer to be transfigured ourselves, to come to see the world as God sees the world, to practice the presence of God, to put on a heart of justice, of love, and of compassion for others. We go to become new of soul.
The irony of prayer is that the very act of prayer itself can delude us into thinking that we’re spiritual people. If prayer is recitation for the sake of ritual, then it is possible to pray and pray and never change at all.
If prayer is not a spiritual vending machine, it is also not meant to be an escape from life. Every spiritual faddist wants it to be so, of course. But if prayer becomes the way we give ourselves permission to escape life around us, it is not prayer. It is some kind of self-induced hypnotism, at best. Real prayer plunges us into life, red and raw. It gives us new eyes. It shapes a new heart within us. It leaves us breathless in the presence of the living God. It makes demands on us — to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and take care of the sick. It requires that we become the hands of the God we say, we have found.
A community takes time out for prayer every day of life in order to remember why they work as hard as they do taught me long ago to beware the kind of “rest” that prays in order to keep the world out. “Our prayerful listening to God softens the hard and busy paths that still crisscross our heart,” Wendy Miller wrote. And I answered her,
I like Miller’s concept — but I also question it. In my life, at least, the “hard and busy paths” are often the very voice of God I most need. “Prayerful listening” can be a temptation to ignore these other voices in order to escape into the holy magic of “prayerfulness.” On the other hand, without prayer, I doubt that I would ever have heard those voices at all. The psalms keep me real.
Our greatest mystics were our most real people, our hardest workers, our most feeling exemplars of what it was to live life fully. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Charles de Foucauld, Ignatius of Loyola, Elizabeth Seton, Martin of Tours, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., lived in God and wept with the people around them.
Maybe we are forgetting to center ourselves in the consciousness of the God who is conscious of all of us. Maybe that’s why the world today is in the throes of such brutal violence, such inhuman poverty, such unconscionable discrimination, such self-righteous fundamentalism. Maybe we are forgetting to pray, not for what we want, but for the sight, the enlightenment, that God wants to give us.
And if I pray, will I be able to change those things? I don’t really know. All I know is that the enlightenment that comes with real prayer requires that I attend to them, not ignore them.