WISDOM: Prayer by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light

Abba Poemen said: “The nature of water is yielding, and that of a stone is hard.  Yet if you hang a bottle filled with water above the stone so that the water drips drop-by-drop, it will wear a hole in the stone.  In the same way the word of God is tender, and our heart is hard.  So when people hear the word of God frequently, their hearts are opened to the fear of God.



here is only one thing wrong with the traditional definition of prayer: it misrepresents God.  “Prayer,” the old teaching said, was “the raising of our hearts and minds to God.”  As if God were some regal, distant judge outside ourselves.  But science – with its new perception that matter and spirit are of a piece, sometimes particles, sometimes energy – suggests that God is not on a cloud somewhere, imperious and suspecting.  God is the very Energy that animates us.  God is not male humanity writ large.  God is the Spirit that leads us and drives us on.  God is the voice within us calling us to Life.  God is the Reality trying to come to fullness within us, both individually and together.  It is to that cosmic God, that personal inner, enkindling God, that we pray.

Prayer is a long, slow process.  First, it indicates to us how far we really are from the mind of God.  When the ideas are foreign to us, when the process itself is boring or meaningless, when the quiet sitting in the presence of God in the self is a waste of time, then we have not yet begun to pray.  But little by little, one gospel, one word, one moment of silence at a time, we come to know ourselves and the barriers we put between ourselves and the God who is trying to consume us.

The contemplative does not pray in order to coax satisfaction out of the universe.  God is life, not a vending machine full of trifles to fit the whims of the human race.  God is the end of life, the fulfillment in order to be open to what is, rather than to reshape the world to their own lesser designs.

The contemplative does not pray to appease a divine wrath or flatter a divine ego.  The contemplative prays in order, eventually, to fall into the presence of God, to learn to live in the presence of God, to absorb the presence of God within.  The contemplative prays until wordlessness takes over and presence is more palpable than words, more filling than ideas.  One prayer at a time, the hard heart melts away, the satiated heart comes newly alive, the mind goes blank with enlightenment.

The contemplative is the one among us in whom prayer, deep reflection on the presence and activity of God in the self and the world, has come little-by-little to extinguish the illusions of autonomy and the enthronement of the self that make little kingdoms of us all.  The contemplative goes beyond the self, and all its delusions, to Life itself.  One prayer at a time, contemplatives allow the heart of God to beat in the heart they call their own.

The contemplative is the seeker who can go down into the self, down the tunnel of emptiness, and, finding nothing but God in the center of life, call that Everything.  Most of all, the contemplative is the one who, looking at the world, sees nothing but the presence and activity of God everywhere, in everyone.  How can this be possible?  Because to be a contemplative, prayer is the key to the dialogue and, eventually, to the Silence that is Everything.

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