Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Invitation to Prayer

As Christians, we are all called to encounter and embrace God’s Word to each of us individually deep within our hearts. Personal prayer is simply training ourselves to be more aware of our relationship with God and his presence in the world.

The relationship already exists; personal prayer is what nourishes it.

By this, I do not mean to imply that public or liturgical prayer is not important. Obviously, it is essential—it’s how the Body of Christ expresses itself, transcends time, and joins eternity in the praise of God. It cannot be separated from personal prayer as if they were two distinct or competing aspects of our faith. They are intimately bound with one another, just like breathing requires both inhaling and exhaling. They feed one another. Without one, the other dies.

But the focus here, for now, is on personal prayer—and more specifically, that silent surrender to God’s movement of grace within.

Trappist monk Michael Casey says:

Prayer is an attempt to realize the love that unites us with God, allow it to become more present to us, and give it greater scope to act upon us and change us. We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us.

But we can listen for the invitation, for that “tiny whispering sound” in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do that, we have to surrender to God, let go of our preoccupations, preconceived notions, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. In short, we have to let go of ourselves—or better yet, let go of who we perceive ourselves to be—so we are totally immersed in God’s presence.

It seems to me that the more I pray, and the more I study and learn about prayer, the more I discover that I really know less than ever. In the course of my monastic formation the last three years, our common life of prayer and work in the monastery, and my studies, I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of prayer, but I wonder sometimes if my prayer has really deepened. I think it has, but only time will tell. It has certainly changed, and hopefully it is moving me toward God day by day.

Ora et labora, or prayer and work, is the motto adopted by Benedictines. It is intended to be a symbiotic relationship, a rhythm of life in which intervals of communal and personal prayer, work, and our common life together as monks are interwoven into one continuous thread. Sometimes though, this rhythm may be a little out of step. Many of us like to joke that, in reality, our motto is: Ora et labora, et labora, et labora

It can seem that way at times, perhaps. We are on the go around here from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I am far busier now than I ever was before coming to the monastery. No one, it seems, has less than three or four jobs. Part of that is our heritage here at Saint Meinrad. We are descended from German monks, and Germans know how to work.

However, a wonderful and mysterious thing occurs here each day, several times a day. No matter what we are doing, or how busy we are, we are called back every few hours to the church for our common prayer. And we have two specific periods each day—one in the morning and one in the evening—set aside for personal prayer and lectio divina or sacred reading. When the bells announce these periods, the faithful monk goes, and leaves everything else behind (physically if not always mentally).

Our ordered round of prayer in the monastery continually calls us, invites us back to listen to God in the spoken Word, and in the depths of our hearts. No matter what else we do, we constantly come back to praise God, who is the center of our lives, and who guides, sustains and completes everything we do.

Through this dedication of our time and our being with God, we are called to become more deeply aware of God’s presence at all times and in everything and everyone, and to broaden our vision on this journey toward God, who is Love.

Fr. Harry, our former novice-master, likes to say that, “Monastic life is not difficult. It’s relentless.” The same can likely be said of any state in life. It takes commitment, concentration, and discipline to faithfully live as a Christian, whether you’re a monk or not. It always has.

Our abbot is fond of saying that “Monks do not do different things than other people do. They just do them differently.”

Indeed. Monks are human beings.

We struggle. We celebrate.
We laugh. We mourn.
We fail. We succeed.
We live peaceably. We get angry.
We work. We rest.
We get tired and frustrated. We are energetic and focused.
We love, and we get lonely.
We sin, and we practice virtue.
We become distracted, and we live joyfully by grace.

And in our work as part of this monastery, we are not so different. We are teachers, administrators, writers, artists, psychologists, tailors, laborers, gardeners, students, health-care providers, retreat directors, spiritual guides, pastors, business managers, computer technicians, musicians, foresters, scholars, locksmiths, delivery persons, craftsmen, housekeepers, cooks, librarians, firefighters, and carpenters.

However, one thing we do quite differently than most people is center our lives in prayer. Through our prayer, work, and common lives together, we seek God—to know and love and serve God above all else, and our neighbors as ourselves. We do this in common and individually. We bring our lives to prayer, and our prayer to our lives. Both are one. It is a unity and integrity of life I never knew existed before coming to the monastery.

It is not only relentless, but relentlessly full of grace.

But it does not necessarily make us experts on prayer, and it does not mean that that unity and integrity can only be lived inside a monastery. Our prayer in the monastery is nothing more than the intentional offering of our time and being for the praise of God. The monastic life is a specific way in which some are called to do that. But all people, whatever their state in life, are called to this intentional offering of time and being for the praise of God. Whoever we are, and whatever we do, all Christians are called to a life of prayer.

God’s pure and simple invitation to prayer is open to all, however we live it out. Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ, and we relate to the whole through each other. But each of us also has a personal and unique invitation from God.

God’s Word is sown in our hearts, and it is there that he calls us. We are born with the desire, or spiritual hunger, to seek God, but we must truly listen for this invitation. As I’ve mentioned, to do that, we have to do something we often resist: Be still, get out of the way, and let God do the talking. We have to be willing to follow Jesus into the desert and let him feed us with the bread from heaven.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8). “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

We all do well to reflect on these words and what they really mean. If we are willing to follow Jesus into the desert, to be fed, to seek, to knock, to ask, what is it we truly desire—deep down in our souls, which words cannot begin to express?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks a very simple question, one he poses to each and every one of us amid our busy lives, our work, our prayer, our failures, our successes, our joys, our sorrows:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Actually, he asks the same question twice. First, he asks two of his apostles, James and John. They ask for power and glory. Wrong answer. Next he asks a blind beggar by the road, who says, “Master, I want to see.” In other words, “I want to see you, follow you.” His was the correct answer because while he asked from his deepest need, his focus was on Jesus and not himself, nor his preconceived ideas and expectations.

“What do you want me to do for you?” It takes a hungry heart to answer that question truthfully. That scares a lot of people because it means being vulnerable, acknowledging our need. We don’t like to feel that way. We don’t want to be hungry. We want to be full. But too often we fill ourselves with the wrong things and are left dissatisfied. Only the Bread of Life satisfies.

Prayer teaches us how to enter into the question. And it must be pure prayer from the heart, arising from that personal hunger—that need. It must be fiery prayer, beyond words, immersed in the love of God, as John Cassian would say.

The story is told of St. John Vianney noticing an old farmer who would sit for hours in a church. One day, he asked the farmer what he was doing. He replied, “God looks at me, and I look at him.”

This is contemplation, and we are all called to it. In heaven, we will spend an eternity doing it. Here, by God’s grace, we are given a foretaste if we are open to it. It is not complicated, and it cannot be taught. It requires only a heart completely open to God’s grace.

As Christians—especially men—we sometimes tend to over-intellectualize prayer and the spiritual life, to classify it, and systematize it. Monks do it, too. We make it something to be studied and taught, something to produce practical results like a good moral life. That is all good and necessary. Our prayer must be informed, have structure, be communal, and make us better people.

But that is not all the invitation to prayer involves. God did not become man merely to teach or introduce a system of moral conduct, or to inspire our involvement in a myriad of activities and programs. Jesus came to love us, to call us, to draw us, to invite us into his saving action of grace. We are called Christians not because of what we do, but because of who we are. “Come to me,” Jesus says, to discover who you are truly meant to be.

In this invitation, God promises us his presence. “I am with you,” he says repeatedly in Scripture. The gift of presence is the most valuable gift we can either receive or give. It is the gift of self. Prayer is simply being present to God, who is always present to us.

“What do you want me to do for you? Ask and it will be given you.”

Whatever the answer to that question might be for each of us, God has accomplished it in Christ, and he reveals it through our hunger. Our deepest desires are satisfied by our greatest needs.

We're all invited to hunger for the One thing necessary.

1 comment:

John in Florida said...

I like the comment about monks doing the same things differently. That's one of the most important unknown truths about the monastic life!