I’ve never been good at praying.
Reading, hell yes! If reading was an Olympic sport I would have a closet full of medals. Being in my head is very comfy and I can stay there for days, weeks even.
I’ve wondered why being rational, objective, and abstract feels so good. Maybe it’s because I get to become, as Kierkegaard put it, a “phantom of pure reason,” where I’m not subject to the real world—the world of emotions and relationship; it’s a ‘safe’ existence.
Prayer on the other hand is very trying for me and always has been. It seems like the easiest thing in the world, you just quite down, focus on God and whatever people or circumstances you want to hold before Him, and… talk to God. It’s not exactly scaling Mt. Everest or training for the Hawaiian Triathlon. It’s a conversation.
But it’s so much more than that—it’s pure subjectivity. What I mean by that is prayer makes one subjected to reality in a way that nothing else in existence can. Many who are uninitiated in the art and life of prayer see it as just the opposite, they see it as a flight from reality. I can see that. It sure looks like it from the outside. But like most things, one can never know something by looking in from the outside—through objective distancing. If “knowing” is to mean anything when related to existential phenomenon it means the knowing which comes from experience—through subjectivity.
Prayer is such a thing. It is impossible to know anything about it without engaging in it. Claiming to know what prayer is by studying about it or observing someone else doing it would be like claiming to know your spouse because you can give a physical description of him or her. Knowing that my wife is 5’3” with hazel eyes doesn’t give me the right to say “I know her.” What gives me the right is living with her and experiencing her as a person.
But I digress.
The reason why prayer is so difficult for me is because it not only gets me out of my cozy little phantasmal existence in the clouds of my intellect, but it makes me engage my entire being. My feet feel the ground beneath me; my back feels the weight of my torso; my whole body becomes involve in prostrations and signing of the cross; I become aware of my breathing; my intellect comes face-to-face with the face beneath my face, the real me that is hiding out behind the fortress walls of my intellect is beckoned by the spirit “come out and play”; the prayer book takes me into the heart of the Church and its enchanting life of the saints from time immortal, joining spiritual arm-in-arm with them as I walk out my own course; and then there is that sweet, still voice of God that can be heard when everything else is blocked out, an occasion that only happens once in a while but when it happens its unmistakable.
The Orthodox Christian theologian, Alexander Schmemann states the after effect of spending time in prayer beautifully:
“And then, in the light of the approaching encounter with Christ, how serious and how grave becomes the day I have to spend in the usual occupations; how the most trivial and insignificant things, which fill my daily existence and to which I am so accustomed that I pay no attention to them, acquire a new significance. Every word I say, every act I perform, every thought passing through my mind becomes important, unique, irreversible, and either each is ‘in line’ with my expectation of Christ or in opposition to it. Time itself, which we usually waste so easily, is revealed in its true meaning as the time of either salvation or damnation.”
Prayer, when really engaged in with one’s whole person, has this effect. It’s why the saints claim that prayer is the mind’s highest function. And maybe that’s why I shy away from it so consistently.
I’m a trained theologian and psychotherapist. On paper, I should know how to face reality and be self-aware enough to know when I’m trying to give reality the slip, but I only catch myself doing so maybe a fraction of the time. Daily I counsel people to face their true selves, to be courageous enough to face down their own psychological “demons,” to call them out into the light, to be real with who they are. But I have a difficult time with this and the reason is because having that sort of gumption, that sort of courage, is not an intellectual feat—it’s a highly spiritual feat, maybe the highest.
The Great Lenten Fast has called Christians to engage prayer, as it does every year, in a way different than throughout the rest of the year. It calls us to a steady and intensely focused encounter with ourselves and our Lord. It calls us to a true acting out of salvation, not just in our heads, but in our whole person.
This is what this second week of the Lenten journey has spoken to me this year.
Thanks for reading.