When We Pray–Living an Interior Life

June 12, 2015 |

WhenWePray.SILENTPRAYER-1Having an “interior life” sounds rather mysterious. Another term for it could be, having a “spiritual life.” An interior or spiritual life can sound like a luxury to people who are occupied with the problems of daily living. People have said, “I would like to have a spiritual life, but, right now, I don’t feel very holy. I have many issues to confront in my life. After I get my act together, then I may have time for a ‘spiritual life.’”

Having an interior or spiritual life even sounds a little selfish. It seems to imply withdrawing within myself, letting the cares of the world go by. An “interior life” can sound like a gated, spiritual, existence where I live in another reality, unaffected by life around me. “Good-by world, I’m going ‘within’!”

Life at depth
An interior or spiritual life is just the opposite of an escape from problems. Fundamentally, a spiritual life is a life lived with attention to, and response to, God’s Spirit working within us. A spiritual life is life lived in its depths, in its fullness. Such an interior life is not a luxury; it is essential to making that journey well.

A messy life does not make us unfit for a spiritual life. The very messiness is the context for our spirituality. God is found right there where we are struggling hardest. Right there where we care most deeply, where the heart is troubled and challenged, is where we are already living a spiritual life.

To say that God is already “within” our lives is to say that our human journey is a graced adventure, acknowledged or not. Far from being unworthy of God’s presence, God has already chosen to be with us. God brought us into life, and accompanies us throughout life. We could not get God out of our life even if we tried. We can walk away; God does not. Every human life is on a journey to, and with, God, whether we are conscious of that fact or not.

An awareness of grace
To have an interior or spiritual life is to have an awareness of the graced story we are living. It is to be reflective, thoughtful, attentive. Life, within and without us, shimmers with the Mystery of God. The spiritual person, the one living an interior life, has antennae to pick up the signals from this Mystery.

The person who does not have an interior, spiritual life takes cues entirely from the world around. This person is at the whip-end of events, situations, people who impact him or her. This person has no anchor in life, no center, no well of resource to weather life’s events. His or her identity comes from “outside”.

St. Augustine confessed to God, “You were inside; I was outside. You were with me; I was not with you.”

A life of prayer
Another way of talking about a spiritual life is to talk about a life of prayer. A life of prayer is a way of acknowledging that we already are in a relationship with God. Prayer is our effort to pay attention to that relationship. Prayer is essentially listening. We listen to the One who calls us by name, who is present at the heart of our difficulties, who invites us to continue our journey in life with hope.

In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila wrote about her attempts to have an interior, spiritual life. She thought that going “within” would be like going home! The problems in her outer life were difficult, but she looked forward to an inner life of peace. But, she went within in prayer, she wrote, and found she was at war with herself. She became convinced that the problems “inside” were much more difficult than the problems “outside.”

St. Teresa’s prayer was an inward journey of reflection and attention to the movements of her heart and mind; she listened in faith to life’s experiences; she stayed open to God’s presence and invitation. Consequently, she grew in awareness, and what she saw was not pretty.

False selves, false gods
Prayer, the attempt to grow in truth, brings us face to face with all the things we had not been acknowledging. When continually distracted by life’s events, and when we spend our energies trying to control our lives, we absolve ourselves from having to go beneath the surface. We do not have to face ourselves and the ways we are living. “Where no one asks, no one need answer,” wrote one psychologist.

Prayer throws light on the unexamined parts of our life. It reveals to us the false selves and false gods inhabiting our lives. It brings into our awareness patterns of living and habitual reactions which need examining. We realize our brokenness, our sinfulness.

This painful outcome of an interior life, a life of prayer, is necessary if we are going to acknowledge our need for God’s mercy and healing. This unpleasant confrontation with the reality of who we are, is the beginning of our course-correction in life. It is the path to true humility, to freedom in life, and to a deeper relationship with God.

Everything is gift
Prayer leads us to realize how poor and weak we are, and how much in need of God’s mercy we are. And, the great surprise is that mercy and grace are always available. Letting go of our obsessive efforts to make our lives right, and walking in the fields of God’s mercies, we grow in the realization that all we have is gift. By ourselves we are weak; in God we are strong.

An interior life, a spiritual, prayerful life, inevitably leads to an attitude of thankfulness. In the end, the only response we have left is gratitude. A faith-filled interior life leads to a grateful heart. And that grateful heart, in turn, helps us grow in faith. It helps us navigate our lives in confidence. In all our prayers, then, is a quietly voiced,

John Welch O.Carm.
Fr. John Welch, a Chicago native, recently served as Prior Provincial of the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary for six years. He has written and spoken extensively on the interplay of Carmelite spirituality and the insights of psychology. As a teacher at Washington Theological Union he specialized in Carmelite spirituality and human development. He has an M.A. in theology and a Ph.D. in religious education from the University of Notre Dame. Among his publications are Spiritual Pilgrims: Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila; When Gods Die: an introduction to St. John of the Cross; The Carmelite Way: An ancient path for today’s pilgrim.
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