PRAYER: Prayers And Prayerfulness (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Prayers And Prayerfulness (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Making Prayers Prayer

May we presume that everyone knows what prayer is?  From one point of view the answer is, “yes.”  Every human being knows prayer from experience.  Have we not all experienced moments in which our thirsting heart found itself with surprise drinking at a fountain of meaning?  Much of our life may be a wandering in desert lands, but we do find springs of water.  If what is called “God” means in the language of experience the ultimate Source of Meaning, then those moments that quench the thirst of the heart are moments of prayer.  They are moments when we communicate with God, and that is, after all, the essence of prayer.

But do we recognize these meaningful moments as prayer?  Here, the answer is often, “no.”  And under this aspect we cannot presume that everyone knows what prayer is.  It happens that people who are in the habit of saying prayers at certain set times have their moments of genuine prayer precisely at times when they are not saying prayers.  In fact, they may not even recognize their most prayerful moments as prayer.  Others who never say formal prayers are nourished by moments of deep prayerfulness.  Yet, they would be surprised to learn that they are praying at all.

Suppose, for example, you are reciting psalms.  If all goes well, this may be a truly prayerful experience.  But all doesn’t always go well.  While reciting psalms, you might experience nothing but a struggle against distractions.  Half an hour later you are watering your African violets.  Now, suddenly, the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you.  You come alive from within.  Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up to you.  The watering and drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate your pouring of the water from the roots’ receiving, the flower’s giving of joy from your drinking it in.  And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together.  As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense.  You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God.  Which was the real prayer, the psalms or the watering of your African violets?

Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer.  That is a pity.  But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without any prayers.  And that should cheer us up.  In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers.  At least if we want to do what scripture tells us to do and “pray continually,” (Luke 18:1), we must distinguish praying from saying prayers.  Otherwise, to pray continually would mean saying prayers uninterruptedly day and night.  We need hardly attempt this to realize that it would not get us very far.  If, on the other hand, prayer is simply communication with God, it can go on continually.  In peak moments of awareness this communication will be more intense, of course.  At other times it will be low key.  But there is no reason why we should not be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned uninterrupted prayer at all.  The very thought may seem overawing and scare someone off.  Many of us might, in fact, say: “Praying at all times?  Goodness!  From where I find myself it would be a long way even to praying at those times when I am saying my prayers!”  All right, then, let us start once again where we are.  What is it that makes our prayers truly prayer?  If only we could somehow catch on to the secret of that spontaneous prayerfulness.  That would be the clue to praying when we are saying prayers.  Eventually it may even lead to praying at all times.

Those of us who have been saying prayers every day for many years and who have been trying to make our prayers truly prayer should have some answer to the question: What is it that makes prayers prayer?  When we try to put into words what the secret might be, words like mindfulness, full alertness, and wholehearted attention suggest themselves.  Those are, of course, the characteristics also of our spontaneous moments of prayer.  The difference is that the wakefulness which comes spontaneously at those special moments often costs us an effort at times of formal prayer.  The technical term for that effort and for the state of mind that results from it is, in the Roman Catholic tradition, “recollection.”

Most Roman Catholics know what recollection means.  At least they are familiar with the term.  Others might associate recollection with memories.  As a technical term, however, recollection means a special kind of mindfulness in prayer, a mindfulness that is identical with prayerfulness.  When I am fully recollected, my prayers are fully prayer.  As I get more and more distracted, my prayers run dry.  Finally, my prayers may be an empty formality.  When recollection is scattered by distractions, prayers are merely the empty husk of prayer.  If recollection is that important for our prayer life, it might be worthwhile to examine more closely what we mean by it, and how we can cultivate that special kind of prayerful mindfulness.

Mindfulness implies concentration.  Concentration is, therefore, an essential ingredient of recollection in prayer.  Those of us who have learned to concentrate on what we are doing are well on the way to recollection.  And yet, no amount of concentration will, by itself, make us recollected.  The reason is this: Concentration normally narrows down our field of attention.  It makes all our attentiveness converge on one focal point and, in the process, tries to eliminate everything else from our field of vision.  We could compare this process of concentration with focusing a large magnifying glass.  At first a good portion of the page might appear within its frame, but blurred.  As we bring one single word or letter clearly into focus, all else is eliminated from our view.  In a similar sense, concentration normally implies elimination.

Now, recollection is that full kind of mindfulness which T. S. Eliot calls “concentration without elimination.”  This is, of course, a paradox.  But shouldn’t we expect a paradox here?  Do not all opposites coincide in God?  How then could we encounter God in prayer and not be struck by paradox?

But how can there be a concentration without elimination?  Because concentration can remain itself and yet coincide with an altogether different attitude that makes it include all that concentration alone would tend to eliminate.  Recollection has two ingredients.  Concentration is only one.  The other one is what I call wonderment.  For lack of a better term, wonderment stands here for a kind of sustained surprise.  But our two ingredients of recollection do not mix easily.  Wonderment and concentration seem to run counter to one another.  While concentration tends to narrow down one field of vision, as we saw, wonderment is expansive.  That these two movements coincide in recollection is just another expression of the paradox.  Even the two bodily gestures associated with wonderment and concentration contradict one another.  When we want to concentrate, we wince our eyes.  We might think that this helps us focus our vision on something we want to look at with great concentration.  But watch what happens when we want to concentrate intently on a faint or distant sound.  We might also find ourselves wincing our eyes as we say, “I can barely make out what I’m hearing.”  Are we wincing our eyes so as to hear better?  Well, we can’t very well wince our ears, and yet our body wants to express the idea of eliminating everything except the one thing pinpointed for concentrated attention.

When you are filled with wonderment, however, your eyes are wide open.  Just think of the eyes of a child in the zoo looking up to the elephants.  Or think of your own eyes when you are standing under a starlit sky.  You might even find yourself opening your arms wide as if your wide open eyes were not enough for your body to express your limitless openness.

Recollection combines this openness with concentration.  How is my body to express this paradox?  Am I going to wince one eye and open the other wide?  I’m at a loss.  But my heart can somehow deal with this paradox.  That may be the reason why wholeheartedness comes closer to conveying the idea of recollection than mindfulness does.  Paradox boggles the mind.  But the heart thrives on paradox.  We said that to speak of the heart is to speak of fullness.  But only paradox can hold that fullness.  The child in us understands this.  For the child, too, thrives on paradox.

The little syllable “re” in recollection seems to imply the repetition of some previous activity, or the restoration of a previous condition.  The word recollection suggests the process of re-establishing a collectedness which we once had and later lost.  It suggests gathering together again the fragments of our original wholeness.  “Oh, now I know why I have a hard time with recollection,” someone might say.  “How can I be re-collected when I’ve never been collected in the first place?”  But no one has an excuse along this line of argument.  At one time we have all been whole in this sense, full of wonderment and fully concentrated: when we were small children.  That “becoming like children” which the Gospel demands as a condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven is closely connected, then, with recollection, with cultivating the original wholeness of the child in us.


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