(please note that chapters have been slightly re-ordered)
Chapter XX – The What and The Why of Prayer
“Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.”
When I was in seminary, I remember someone telling me that they did not really pray as much as they simply lived a life of prayer – their life is their prayer – God listened in on their life.” At the time I thought that was sanctimonious hogwash (not the word I would prefer to use.) Now that I am older, my thoughts have not changed. It’s hogwash.
When two people are in a committed relationship, they do not simply “live their lives” alongside each other and call it “love” (Well, ok, many do but they are living lies.) They speak to each other in dedicated conversations – speaking and listening. They fight and make up. They encourage, cajole, remind, even call accounts. They sit with candles and speak lovingly and they walk on beaches reminiscing into the past and wondering into the future together. Sometimes, if they are particularly spiritually advanced, they sit in silence aware that they are loving each other, intentionally, but in silence, with glances and smiles.
Relationships take hard work and constant tending or they die like plants. Our relationship with God is a relationship, and without tending, it will wither and die because God does not and will not force himself on us. God shows up in people, in silence, in beauty and in scripture. And God, though master of the universe, is shy and vulnerable – especially when it comes to humans – so we need to do our part.
So prayer is wide, vast and work. It takes millions of forms but it is never, ever unintentional. So when you think your “life is a prayer” and yet you are not spending time intentionally, directly and entirely with God – you are living a lie. Prayer happens in church, yes, but to say “I pray when I am in church.” would be like saying “I am a mother when I visit my baby once a week at the child care center.” or “I am a human being but only eat and drink on Sundays for and hour.” A mother of a child is not one when she does so for an hour a week. A human will die eating and drinking only once a week. So I am a Christian because I pray. My prayers earn me nothing. But without them I pretend to be a Christian – and unconvincingly. The great justice of the church is that parishioners can always tell if their clergy are fakes.
Prayer is a hard topic on which to lead as a priest. I have heard parishioners in my 15 years of ordained ministry say things like “ Don’t cram the Bible at me!” or “I Pray on Sundays and that’s enough!” or “I am not an evangelical, my faith is private.” or “I don’t pray, but God loves me.” And there have been times in my life when I too have felt these feelings. We all sin and fall short of God’s longings for us. But then we find help and correct, or our Rule of life corrects us. If I ever really live any of these statements for too long, that’s ok; but I need to relinquish my priesthood and admit to being atheist or, if I am a coward, an agnostic. Because a Christian I am not.
So I will pray. And I will write about the times God shows up so that in-between, I am encouraged when it seems God does not show up. I will listen even if I think I hear nothing. I will sit waiting even when I am bored. I will meet with other Christians for encouragement and I will worship at least weekly.
Sure I will live as if prayer is my life. But I will not pretend I “live a life of prayer.” I will pray because I am a Christian and a priest. I want pilots to be rested. I want surgeons to be educated. I want air-traffic controllers to be awake. And I want clergy and bishops to be people of prayer. Prayer will be, to the best of my ability, the orientation of my life.
Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. Thomas Merton