I have a confession to make. For most of my life, I haven’t been a very good pray-er.
It’s not that I haven’t prayed. I have – regularly and at times quite fervently. It’s just that, overall, I haven’t been very good at it. I’m not one of those people who enters easily into deep contemplation. I’m told that I have a very “quick” mind. Not necessarily smart, but fast. I kneel down to pray and my brain is instantly running in eighty million different directions – none of them having anything to do with the prayerful task at hand. Slowing it down enough to meditate has always been very difficult for me.
And – get this. For some reason, when I first learned the various gospel stories as a child, I pictured them all happening in various parts of the St. Bernadette’s Elementary School gym in Lakewood, Colorado. You wouldn’t think childish mental images like that would stick with a person, would you? Oh, no. They do. No matter how many times I watch Jesus of Nazareth, there is still some very primitive and stubborn part of my mind that knows that the Last Supper happened up on the front stage, that Christ was crucified in the northeast corner by the basketball hoops, and that He was buried by the back closet.
One can easily see how my brain could sabotage my spiritual life.
I share all of this bizarre and probably embarrassing information for one simple reason. Whatever struggles you may face in your prayer life, you should feel fully canonizable compared to a schlep like me.
But seriously, I don’t think we see enough discussion about the difficulties people face in prayer. We’re just told that we should pray, and we get the impression that those who are telling us to pray are the types who slip into contemplative ecstasy within moments of making the sign of the cross. I know that’s what I used to think.
I think it’s time to have an honest discussion about prayer.
First of all, why do we pray? Why should we pray? I think many of us carry over some childhood ideas about the obligation to “say our prayers” as just that – an obligation. It’s as if God puts a check in our “good” column every time we recite these certain formulas, and if we get enough checks, we can cash them in for Divine favors. (Kind of like the old S&H Green Stamps.)
Or – I’ve been guilty of this at times – we pray because we want something. We pray only when we want something. We go along our merry little way, only vaguely aware of God’s presence in our lives. And then a crisis hits, and we find ourselves in a situation over which we have no control. And so we desperately turn to God. If He would just fix this situation, we promise to change everything. We’ll start going to Mass every day. We’ll give half of our money to the poor. We’ll wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of our lives.
Crisis averts, and we go back to business as usual.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize. Prayer is not some kind of “quid pro quo” arrangement that gets us goodies from God. Prayer is about relationship with God – about fostering and enriching that relationship with the One who created you.
I think many of us see God as the Guy who expects things from us – the Guy who judges us. But we miss the central point. God loves you, madly, wildly and passionately. He loves you. Not just in some vague “God loves everybody and I’m one of the everybodies” kind of way. You are unique and irreplaceable, and his love for you is equally unique and specific. He takes delight in you – in your gifts, your personality traits – the amazing way he made you.
Think about how any father loves his children. He loves them all, of course. And a good father loves them all equally. But he doesn’t love them all the same. Each child has different traits, different habits, different facial expressions that warm a father’s heart in different ways. He delights in being around each one of his children, in interacting with them. In the same way, God delights in interacting with you.
There are other reasons to pray, of course. My original plan was to discuss them, and to discuss how to pray – how to foster that intimate relationship with God. But I’ve already run over my allotted 750 words, so it looks like this is going to be (at least) a two-part series.
It’s probably just as well. For the next few weeks, just chew on this. God loves you. He loves you, personally and individually and uniquely. Sit with that. Think about it. Read the Scriptural passages that describe that love. Then, go sit (or kneel, or stand) with Him in the Blessed Sacrament a few times, and ask Him to help you experience that love.
Then we’ll talk some more.