Unlike New Age spiritualists, Merton doesn't miss the distinction between the human self and the indwelling divine presence. It is the third person of the Trinity--the Holy Spirit--who prays for and with me when I let it. I'm discovering more of what this means and am grateful for having had the chance to unlearn some of what I've long believed were the limits of prayer.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Prayer beyond words
I'm a man of the written word, of analysis, and a grasper after reality. My life has been lived immersed in the subtle meanings of language, and I value its application when done with precision and flair. Just in writing these lines I’m self-consciously aware of how they’re being crafted. I want to make sure the truest expression of my thoughts is being communicated just so.
And now I’ll go back and edit what I just wrote.It’s not only my writing that’s highly structured. My prayer life is similarly conducted, at least until recently. In those quiet moments when I talk with God, I usually come with my agenda. I let him know what troubles me, both in my life and in the lives of people I know, and invite his intervention. I spell it all out, mentally, as if there’s some chance he might get it wrong if I didn’t.
Furthermore, I find myself speaking to God in complete sentences. My thoughts tend to be fully formed and descriptive. He’s no doubt happy to hear from me, regardless of whether it’s by the equivalent of a Word document, tweet or anything in between, but I know it really doesn’t matter. As the one who literally spoke the world into existence, God is capable of handling any form of new media we might throw at him.While I believe prayer should be rooted in the reality of our existence, I’ve learned that too much introspection can lead to a cul-de-sac of the egocentric self. This is a real and present danger in my life. In writing this post, I seek to clarify this problem and grapple with it. Fortunately, circumstances can sometimes help us along, as cancer treatment has for me, slowing down my brain long enough that I had to find another way to be present with God. It’s been good for me that way.
There are also guides to whom we can look for other, richer ways to approach God. Among them is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author who talks about prayer like no one else. I can’t begin to identify with, much less practice, forms of prayer and meditation that Merton knew, but he’s nevertheless a good teacher about how prayer can open to us a deepening awareness of God’s presence, separate from whatever logical thought we might bring to the experience.Most Christians I know would agree that prayer is important. Most would also admit they devote little time to it. Merton correctly diagnosed our problem: that for most of us, prayer and meditation is of marginal and secondary importance; what matters is getting things done. We’re good Calvinists. We let our work become our prayer.
The kind of pragmatic prayer that I’ve long pursued is just that: getting things done, in a spiritual way. There’s lots of petition and intercession, but not much seeking after God’s heart and resting in his love and assurance. I find that even now, as I begin to feel physically and mentally stronger again, that I drift back into old habits. There’s a lot to be said about the spiritual depths into which one can enter when you’re at least partially incapacitated.Merton has written that our own suffering and the secret work of grace will teach us what to do in prayer when we sincerely come before the living God. In one of his journals, he has captured perfectly—in beautifully composed language, I might add—where I find myself at the present moment:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all what I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”Ultimately, prayer for Merton is not reasoned, but intuitive, relaxed—a collapsing into God. I came to sense some of this in recent weeks when I was unable or unwilling to marshal conscious thought and simply let God’s love envelope me. I gave up conceptionalizing what God should do for me and just left at his feet my simple pleas. The passivity of this contemplative prayer is new to me, but when mental prayer became impossible, it was a gift to discover that through no effort of my own, I was still able to be with him and receive his comfort.
Merton holds out the hope of knowing God by experience. The one who dwells within may actually make himself known to us. It helps when we slow down enough that we begin to hear his still, small voice.“…in the graces of contemplation he makes us realize at least obscurely that it is He who is praying in us with a love too deep and too secret for us to comprehend. And we exalt in the union of our voice with his voice, and our soul springs up to the Father, through the Son, having become one flame with the Flame of their Spirit.”