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We are not, by choice or ideology, a culture set against solitude, interiority, and prayer. Nor are we, in my opinion, more malicious, pagan, or afraid of interiority than past ages. Where we differ from the past is not so much in badness as in busyness. Most days, we don’t pray simply because we don’t quite get around to it.
Perhaps the best metaphor to describe our hurried and distracted lives is that of a car wash. When you pull up to a car wash, you are instructed to leave your motor running, to take your hands off the steering wheel, and to keep your foot off the brake. The idea is that the machine itself will suck you through.
For most of us, that’s just what our typical day does to us—it sucks us through. We have smartphones and radios that stimulate us before we are fully awake. Many of us are texting friends, checking Facebook and e-mails, watching the news, or listening to music or talk radio before we even shower or eat breakfast. The drive to work follows the same pattern: stimulated and preoccupied, we listen to the radio, talk on our cell phones, and plan the day’s agenda. We return home to television, conversation, activities, and preoccupations of all kinds. Eventually, we go to bed, where perhaps we read or watch a bit more TV. Finally, we fall asleep. When, in all of this, did we take time to think, to pray, to wonder, to be restful, to be grateful for life, for love, for health, for God? The day just sucked us through.
Moreover, prayer is not easy because we are greedy for experience. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen put this well: “I want to pray,” he once said, “but I also don’t want to miss out on anything—television, movies, socializing with friends, drinking in the world.” Because we don’t want to miss out on any experience, prayer is truly a discipline. When we sit or kneel in prayer, our natural craving for experience feels starved and begins to protest.
Ironically, most of us crave solitude. As our lives grow more pressured, as we grow more tired, and as we begin to talk more about burnout, we fantasize about solitude. We imagine it as a peaceful, quiet place, where we are walking by a lake, watching a sunset, or smoking a pipe in a rocker by the fireplace. But even here, many times we make solitude yet another activity, something we do.
Solitude, however, is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough.
How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?
The first step is to “put out into the deep” by remaining quietly in God’s presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer. If it is your first time doing this, set aside fifteen minutes for prayer. In time, you might be able to manage thirty minutes. (See the appendix for simple guidelines to help you begin to rest in God’s presence.)
Remember: Your heart is made to rest in God. If St. Augustine is right, and he is, then you can count on your restlessness to lead you into deeper prayer—the kind of prayer that leads to profound transformation, the kind of prayer that will not leave you empty-handed.
Struggling with Boredom
Prayer has a huge ebb and flow. When we try to pray, sometimes we walk on water and sometimes we sink like a stone. Sometimes we have a deep sense of God’s reality and sometimes we can’t even imagine that God exists. Sometimes we have deep feelings about God’s goodness and love, and sometimes we feel only boredom and distraction. Sometimes our eyes fill with tears and we wish we could stay in our prayer-place forever, and sometimes our eyes wander furtively to our wristwatches to see how much time we still need to spend in prayer.
We nurse a naïve fantasy both about what constitutes prayer and how we might sustain ourselves in it. What often lies at the center of this misguided notion is the belief that prayer is always meant to be interesting, warm, bringing spiritual insight, and giving the sense that we are actually praying. Classical writers in spirituality assure us that, though this is often true during our early prayer lives when we are in the honeymoon stage of our spiritual growth, it becomes less and less true the deeper we advance in prayer and spirituality. But that doesn’t mean we are regressing in prayer. It often means the opposite.
Here’s an analogy that might encourage you when you are struggling with boredom and the sense that nothing meaningful is happening:
Imagine you have an aged mother who is confined to a nursing home. You’re the dutiful child and, every night after work, for one hour, you stop and spend time with her, helping her with her evening meal, sharing the events of the day, and simply being with her as her daughter or son. I doubt that, save for a rare occasion, you will have many deeply emotive or even interesting conversations with her. On the surface your visits will seem mostly routine and dry. Most times you will be talking about trivial, everyday things. “The kids are fine.” “Steve dropped in last week.” “Mom, your food really is bland. How can you stand all that Jell-O?” “No, we didn’t get much rain, just a sprinkle.” Given that you’re busy and preoccupied with many pressures in your own life, it is natural that you will sneak the occasional glance at your watch.
But if you persevere in these regular visits with your mother, month after month, year after year, among everyone in the whole world, you will grow to know your mother the most deeply and she will grow to know you the most deeply. That’s because at a deep level of relationship, the real connection between us takes place below the surface of our conversations. We begin to know each other through simple presence.
Prayer is the same. If we pray faithfully every day, year in and year out, we can expect little excitement, lots of boredom, and regular temptations to look at the clock. But a bond and an intimacy will be growing under the surface: a deep, growing bond with our God.
False Notions of Prayer
Why is it so difficult to pray regularly?
Some reasons are obvious: over-busyness, tiredness, and too many demands on our time. But there are other reasons too, suggested by monks and people we think of as mystics. The problem we have in sustaining prayer, they say, is often grounded in the false notion that prayer needs to be exciting, intense, and full of energy all the time. That is impossible! Nothing is meant to be exciting all the time, including prayer and church services, and nobody has the energy to be alert, attentive, intense, and actively engaged every minute.
Like eating, prayer is meant to respect the natural rhythms of our energy. As we know from experience, we don’t always want a banquet. If we tried to have a banquet every day, we would soon find coming to the table burdensome and we would look for every excuse to escape, to sneak off for a quick sandwich by ourselves. Eating has a natural balance: banquets alternate with quick snacks, rich dishes with simple sandwiches, meals that take a whole evening with meals we eat on the run. We can have high season only if we mostly have ordinary time. Healthy eating habits respect our natural rhythms: our time, energy, tiredness, the season, the hour, our taste.
Prayer should be the same, but this isn’t generally respected. Too often we are left with the impression that all prayer should be high celebration, upbeat, with high energy. The more variety, the better. Longer is better than shorter. No wonder we often lack the energy to pray and want to avoid church services!
The solution is not so much new prayer forms and more variety, but rhythm, routine, and established ritual. For monks, the key to sustaining a daily life of prayer is not novelty or the call for higher energy, but rather a reliance on the expected, the familiar, the repetitious, the ritual. What’s needed is a clearly delineated prayer form that does not demand of you an energy you cannot muster on a given day.
There are times, of course, for high celebration, for variety and novelty, for spontaneity, and for long ceremonies. There are also times—and these are meant to predominate just as they do in our eating habits—for ordinary time, for low season, for prayer that respects our energy level, work pressures, and time constraints.
It is no accident, I suspect, that more people used to attend daily church services when these were shorter, simpler, and less demanding in terms of energy expenditure, and gave people attending a clear expectation as to how long they would last. The same holds true for the Office of the Church and all common prayer. What clear rituals provide is prayer that depends precisely upon something beyond our own energy. The rituals carry us: our tiredness, our inattentiveness, our indifference, and even our occasional distaste. They keep us praying even when we are too tired to muster up our own energy.
False Feelings in Prayer
Prayer, as one of its oldest definitions puts it, is “lifting mind and heart to God.” That sounds simple, but it is hard to do. Why?
Because we have the wrong notion of what that means. We unconsciously nurse the idea that we can pray only when we are not distracted, not angry, not emotionally or sexually preoccupied. We think God is like a parent who wants to see us only on our best behavior. So we go into God’s presence only when we have nothing to hide, are joy-filled, and feel we can give proper attention to God in a reverent and loving way. Because we don’t understand what prayer is, we treat God as an authority figure or a visiting dignitary—as someone to whom we don’t tell the real truth. We don’t tell God what is really going on in our lives. We tell God what we think God wants to hear.
Because of this, we find it difficult to pray with any regularity. What happens is we go to pray, privately or in church, feeling tired, preoccupied, perhaps even angry at someone. We bracket what we are actually feeling and instead try to crank up praise, reverence, and gratitude to God. Of course it doesn’t work! Our hearts and heads (because they are preoccupied with our real issues) grow distracted. We get the sense that what we are doing—trying to pray—is not something we can do right now and we leave it for some other time.
But the problem is not that our prayer is unreal or that the moment isn’t right. The problem is that we are trying to lift to God thoughts and feelings that are not our own. If we take seriously that prayer is “lifting mind and heart to God,” then every feeling and every thought we have is a valid and apt entry into prayer, no matter how irreverent, unholy, selfish, sexual, or angry that thought or feeling might seem.
Simply put, if you go to pray and you are feeling angry, pray anger; if you are sexually preoccupied, pray that preoccupation; if you are feeling murderous, pray murder; and if you are feeling full of fervor and want to praise and thank God, pray fervor. Every thought or feeling is a valid entry into prayer. What’s important is that we pray what’s inside of us and not what we think God would like to see inside of us.
What’s so unfortunate is that, most often, because we misunderstand prayer, we stay away from it just when we most need it. We try to pray only when we feel good, centered, reverent, and worthy of praying. But we don’t try to pray precisely when we most need it; that is, when we are feeling bad, irreverent, sinful, emotionally and sexually preoccupied, and unworthy of praying.
But all of these feelings can be our entry into prayer. No matter the headache or the heartache, we need only to lift it up to God.
False Expectations in Prayer
What does it mean to be holy or perfect?
There are two classical concepts of perfection, one Greek and the other Hebrew. In the Greek ideal, to be perfect is to have no deficiencies, no faults, no flaws. Perfection, to the Greek mind, means to measure up to some ideal standard, to be completely whole, true, good, and beautiful. To be perfect is never to sin.
The Hebrew ideal of perfection is quite different. In this mindset, to be perfect simply means to walk with God, despite our flaws. Perfection here means being in the divine presence, in spite of the fact that we are not perfectly whole, good, true, and beautiful.
Our concept of holiness in the West has been, both for good and bad, very much shaped by the Greek ideal of perfection. Hence, holiness has been understood as a question of measuring up to a certain benchmark. In such a view of things, a view with which many of us were raised, sanctity is understood as achieving and maintaining something—namely, moral goodness and integrity.
Such a view is not without its merits. It is a perpetual challenge against mediocrity, laziness, giving in to the line of least resistance, and settling for what is second best. Such a view of perfection (and the spirituality it engenders) keeps the ideal squarely in view. The flag is always held high, ahead of us, beckoning us, calling us beyond the limits of our present tiredness. We are always invited to something higher. This can be very healthy, especially in a culture that is cynical and despairing of ideals.
But such a concept of perfection also has a nasty underside. Nobody measures up. In the end, we all fall short, which leads to a whole series of spiritual pitfalls. First of all, we beat ourselves up with the false expectation that we can somehow, all on our own, through sheer will power, fix all that is wrong with us. Will power, as we now know, is powerless in the face of our addictions. Because we don’t recognize this, we often grow discouraged and simply quit trying to break some bad habit. Why try when the result is always the same? The temptation then is to do what we in fact so often do, namely, split off holiness and project it onto a “Mother Teresa” type of figure. We let her carry holiness for us because we believe we are unable to become holy ourselves.
Worse still, when perfection means measuring up, we find it hard to forgive ourselves and others for not being God. When the dominant idea of holiness is something that only God can measure up to, it is not easy to give others or ourselves permission to be human. We carry around a lot of discouragement, guilt, and lack of forgiveness because of this.
Hence, despite the positives that are contained in the Greek concept of perfection, we might well profit from incorporating into our lives more of the Hebrew ideal. Perfection here means walking with God, despite imperfection.
All on our own, we can never measure up. We can never be perfect in the Greek sense. But that is not what God is asking of us. What God is asking is that we bring our helplessness, weaknesses, imperfections, and sin constantly to him, that we walk with him, and that we never hide from him. God is a good parent. He understands that we will make mistakes and disappoint him and ourselves. What God asks is simply that we come home, that we share our lives with him, that we let him help us in those ways in which we are powerless to help ourselves.
Our Shame and Nakedness
Shame on you! You should know better! How often have we heard those awful words? How often have we seen them, unspoken, real, in another’s eyes? Perhaps there are no words, but the message is clear: You should be ashamed of yourself! That’s raw hurt—a whip on bare flesh!
Shame is part of life. Most of the time we connect it to a particular quality about ourselves. We are ashamed of something. Something about us is not quite right: our ignorance, our selfishness, our sexual darkness, our laziness, our loneliness, our past, our poverty, our lack of sophistication, our hidden phobia, our height, our fatness, our complexion, our hair, our birthmark, our smells, our addiction. We are all ashamed of something.
The importance of this should never be understated, not just for psychology but also for spirituality and prayer. If we are ever to become whole and spiritual—if we are to take seriously the first words that came out of the mouth of Jesus: “Change your life and believe in the good news”—then the coldness and distrust brought upon us by shame must be overcome.
Change will not be easy. Shame is powerful. Its bite is deep, the scars permanent. Although the scars of shame are permanent, they are not necessarily fatal. We are powerfully resilient, capable of living warm and trusting lives, beyond shame. But the power to live beyond shame does not lie in some easy solution. As a wise axiom has it: Not everything can be cured or fixed, though it should be named properly. This is critical in the case of shame. It must be named properly. There is a growing body of literature today, much of it in popular psychology circles, that tries precisely to do this, to name shame properly. Unfortunately, to my mind, it often does not name it very well. It talks about cultures of shame and religions of shame and, all too quickly, lays much of the blame for shame at the feet of those who insist on duty and on those who are less liberal sexually. Duty and sexual restraint, in this view, are the culprits.
Whatever the truth of that, it misses the deeper point. We are not most deeply shamed and hurt for the first time when we are made to feel bad on account of some unfulfilled duty or because religion and culture have not given us permission to feel good about sex and our own bodies. No. Long before that, we are shamed at a deeper level. We are shamed in our enthusiasm. We are made to feel guilty, naïve, and humiliated about our very pulse for life and about our very trust of each other. Long before we are ever told that sex is bad, or that our body isn’t quite right, or that we have failed in our duty somewhere, we are told we are bad because we are so trusting and enthusiastic.
Remember as a child the number of times you ran up to somebody, someone you trusted—a parent, a teacher, a friend? Completely trusting, full of life, you tried, with a nakedness you can never bring yourself to risk again, to share something you were excited about: a leaf you had found, a drawing you had made, your report card, a story you wanted to tell, a fall you had just taken, something that was very important to you. Try to recall the warmth, trust, and spontaneity of that moment. Try to bring that feeling into your prayers with God, a God who delights in you, a God who has no use for crippling shame. Jesus said: “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The tail-end of that sentence contains the challenge. Jesus loved us by becoming vulnerable to the point of risking humiliation and rejection. We must recover our childlike trust and try to do the same.
A Conspiracy Against Interiority
Our culture is a powerful narcotic, for good and for bad. It is important that we first underline that there’s partly a good side to this. A narcotic soothes and protects against brute, raw pain. Our culture has within it every kind of thing (from medicine to entertainment) to shield us from suffering. That can be good, but a narcotic also can be bad, especially when it becomes a way of escaping reality. Where our culture is particularly dangerous, I feel, is in the way it can shield us from having to face the deeper issues of life: faith, forgiveness, morality, and mortality. It can constitute, as theologian Jan Walgrave has said, “a virtual conspiracy” against the interior life by keeping us so entertained, so busy, so preoccupied, and so distracted that we lose all focus on the deeper things.
We live in a world of instant and constant communication, of mobile phones and e-mail, of iPods that contain whole libraries of music, of television packages that contain hundreds of channels, of malls and stores that are open twenty-four hours a day, of restaurants and clubs that stay open all night, of sounds that never die and lights that never go out. We can be amused, distracted, and catered to at any time.
While that has made our lives wonderfully efficient, it also has conspired against depth. The danger, as one commentator puts it, is that we are all developing permanent attention deficit disorder. We are attentive to so many things that, ultimately, we aren’t attentive to anything, particularly to what is deepest inside of us.
This isn’t an abstract concept! Typically our day is so full (of work, noise, pressure, rush) that when we do finally get home and have some time when we could shut down all the stimulation, we are so fatigued that what soothes us is something that functions as a narcotic: a sporting event, a game show on television, a mindless sitcom, or anything that can calm our tensions and relax us enough to sleep. It’s not bad if we do this on a given night, but it is bad when we do it every night.
What happens is that we never find the space in our lives to touch what’s deepest inside of us and inside of others. Given the power of our culture, we can go along like this for years until something cracks in our lives—a loved one dies, someone breaks our heart, the doctor tells us we have a terminal disease—or some other crisis suddenly renders empty all the stimulation and entertainment in the world. Then we are forced to look into our own depth, and that can be a frightening abyss if we have spent years avoiding it.
Sometimes we need a narcotic. But we have to know when it is time to unplug the television, turn off the phone, shut down the computer, silence the iPod, lay away the sports page, and resist going out for coffee with a friend, so that, for one moment at least, we are not avoiding making friends with that one part of us, the deepest part, that someday will accompany us into the sunset.
by Ronald Rolheiser
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Whether you struggle to believe in God, are a beginner in prayer, or are more advanced in your spiritual practice, renowned spiritual master Ronald Rolheiser will gently lead you in this book to a deepening experience of God in prayer. Your own yearning and intuition mark the starting point.
Drawing from Scripture, ancient and modern writers, and experience, Rolheiser clears common misconceptions about prayer and offers both consolation and challenge. In thirty-three brief reflections, he will help you understand how to overcome struggles in prayer, develop a mature prayer habit, and explore new prayer practices.
Trust yourself, trust God’s providence, and get ready to open your heart in such a way that you will hear God clearly say to you, “I love you!”
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Author Ronald Rolheiser
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