Many people say they could not get through the day without prayer. Frequent, short prayers remind us about life’s purpose. They help calm us, renew us, and give us strength to go on. For many people, prayer is as natural as breathing.
For others, prayer can be a mystery, and a burden. They do not have time for one more obligation in life. And even if they wanted to pray, questions arise. What am I doing when I pray? How should I pray? What should I say?
Conversation with a friend
St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, defines prayer as “a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” So, prayer is an intimate sharing with one who loves us. And, to nurture this relationship, we need to spend time with our friend.
Notice what St. Teresa’s definition implies. Prayer is a relationship based on a certain equality, and mutual affection. Notice what it does not imply: a fearful groveling before an uncaring power. Nor is prayer an activity to keep an angry God at bay. The prayer relationship is based on trust. The God with whom I am relating in prayer has my well-being at heart.
The purpose of prayer
What is the purpose of prayer? St. Teresa, a wonderful mentor in prayer, said the purpose of prayer is “conformity with God’s will.” We are not surprised at that understanding. But, it may sound like the purpose of prayer is to get us to do what we do not want to do. In this understanding, prayer is like arm-twisting. Eventually, we are supposed to give up. We will let go of what we want to do, and “conform” to God’s will.
St. Teresa’s experience of prayer led her to a different conclusion. Prayer is not a struggle between two wills, with, eventually, one will winning. Prayer brings about a change in the one who prays. Our will is more and more shaped into a consonance of desire with our Friend. What we desire, what we want, changes. In the end, St. Teresa could say, “And now, I want what you want.”
What is God’s will? What does God “want”? If we pay attention to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel, and watch what he does, we could say that God’s will is the well-being of humanity. The one who prays, and takes on God’s will, lives in a way that promotes the well-being of humanity. As the friendship with God deepens, the prayerful person more and more is living in a way which cooperates with the reign of God. That person most deeply desires the peace, love, justice, and integrity of creation that are the hallmarks of God’s reign.
An interior life
St. Teresa imaged our journey through life as a pilgrimage into an “interior castle.” God, the King, is at the core of our existence, the center of our castle. This King beckons us into a loving relationship. St. Teresa writes, “The door to the castle is prayer and reflection.” Prayer is the way to an interior, reflective, attentive life, and union with God.
It is not we who first speak in prayer. It is always God who is speaking first. God “spoke” us into life, and continues to “speak” our life. The word God speaks to us is always a word of life, compassion, forgiveness, challenge. God is out ahead of us, calling us more deeply into our life. In prayer, we, essentially, are “listeners”, trying to hear God’s word, God’s will for us and our world. All of our many words are an attempt to say the one word, which is God’s word.
A way to pray
There is no one way to pray, no sacred method. Just as there is no one way of conversing with a friend. Prayer has to do with loving, not composing beautiful thoughts, or even having “experiences”. St. Teresa complained that she could not think at great length about God. Her mind was too active to have sustained reflections. But her desires were deep. She consoled herself with the understanding that God wants us to love much, not think much!
Like many of us, St. Teresa had to find ways to focus her attention. Her practices were simple. For a period of time, she would open a book and begin reading; later, just opening the book was helpful. She said she would imagine Christ alongside her; or she would imagine Christ within her, in one of the Gospel scenes where He is alone. He would not mind her company. Or, she said, she looked at fields, flowers, and water. She said she probably paid more attention to water than anything else.
Awareness of God’s presence
What is the common element in all these simple practices? They helped her to be attentive to God’s presence in her life. If prayer is conversation with a friend, then being aware of the friend’s presence is essential. Once in that presence, there is nothing that has to be done. We can talk, we can plead, we can praise, we can be quiet.
Personal prayer, relating to God, can be done anywhere, anytime, in any lifestyle. It does not require lengthy periods of silence, or solitude. But, silence and solitude can nurture the practice of listening to God in prayer. A rhythm of life which incorporates times of silence and solitude, however brief, is a worthwhile goal. Hopefully, we become good listeners, sensitive to God’s presence and call, even in the busiest of times. We can develop an interior silence in which we hear all of our activities at depth. We have become “an expectancy”, a deep listener, continually scanning the horizon for the approach of God’s reign. The psalmist writes: “The watchman waits for daybreak; but Israel waits for the Lord.”