This post is the first in a coming series entitled The Work of The Spiritual Journey. In future posts in this series we will go into more detail on what I have come to call “The Practice”— the prayer practices that have changed my life. Click here to see other posts in this series.
The Work of the Spiritual Journey
You looked at me and you called me by another name.
Once you found a girl and called her Dulcinea.
When you spoke the name an angel seemed to whisper,
Won’t you please bring back the dream of Dulcinea?
Won’t you bring me back to that moment of shining glory?
Of Dulcinea, Dulcinea.
Perhaps, perhaps it was not a dream.
You spoke of a dream, and about the quest.
The words, tell me, tell me the words.
But they are your own words.
Try to remember.
From The Man of LaMancha
I remember the event like it was yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. I was sitting at the dinner table with my family. I have no idea what we were talking about, but something made me extremely angry, until finally I picked up my dinner plate and threw it across the room against the wall breaking it and scattering the pieces and the food all across the floor and the wall. Luckily I did not hit anyone, but it was a wakeup call for me. I knew then I had to do something about my anger.
I began meeting with a psychologist shortly after that. After two years of therapy I was sitting with my therapist, and I was tired and frustrated with the process. I told her that over the time I had been meeting with her I had learned a lot about where my anger came from and about how to manage that anger so it did not spill over onto my family and others nearly as much. But, I told her, the anger was still there, and it seemed to me that, in a way, continually having to manage that anger actually added to the depth and power of the anger rather than reducing it. I asked her if I would ever get to the place where that anger would subside. Her answer actually shocked me. “No”, she said, “the best you can hope for is to be able to manage the anger better.” My daughter, who is also a clinical psychologist, assured me that this was not the case. Good therapy, she insisted, should really reduce the anger. I get that on some level, but at the time the words of my therapist, confirmed by my own experience, made my daughter’s denial seem hollow. The fact was still true—after two years of therapy I was still living with that anger. It was still driving the way I experienced and lived my life, albeit mitigated externally by my improved ability to manage it. Therapy was not enough. I quit therapy shortly after this discussion.
Interestingly my experience with Christianity followed much the same pattern. Over the years I was in and out of multiple churches, in multiple denominations. Over that time I talked with a number of ministers, church leaders, fellow church members, and even a couple of spiritual directors. None of them seemed to even understand what my struggle was all about.
I was discussing this with the pastor at one of the churches I attended, and finally, out of frustration I blurted out, “Mr. D, you have answers to questions that are not even questions for me, and you have absolutely no answers to the questions I do have.” What I took from that discussion and others like it was essentially the same message I got from my therapist. I was exhorted to manage my anger—my sin, but I should not expect it to dissipate. Unlike with my therapist, my church experience did not offer any real guidance on how to even manage the anger except to say that I should pray, whatever that meant. The message I got was that it really didn’t matter much anyway. If I gave my life to Jesus I would be forgiven and “saved” in the next life. In some of the messages there was a kind of magical option where God would just reach down and transform me, but that never actually happened, and that, I was told, was because my faith was not strong enough. NEVER, in any of the churches I attended or the people in those churches I talked with, was I offered spiritual practices—prayer practices—that might begin to heal that anger. The truth is that, like managing my anger, my church experience over the years has ultimately contributed to my frustration and anger a great deal more than it has ever helped to heal it, but that is a story for another time. It suffices here to say that it was not enough.
A Prayer Of My Own
I ultimately quit looking for answers in church too, though I continued to attend with my wife from time to time. A short time later I began a period of self-study of the spiritual literature I had discovered as a part of my academic studies. From that self-study I began experimenting with various spiritual practices. Those books led me to other material, and over a couple of years I developed a personal practice that worked for me, and the turmoil and anger really did begin to dissipate. It is precisely here that I began to develop a real “prayer of my own”. Though that prayer has it very roots in the depths of the Christian tradition it was neither taught nor supported in any of the many churches I attended. If it was mentioned at all it was criticized as some kind of heresy. That said, it was just these practices that, over time, changed my life dramatically in ways that neither therapy nor my church experience ever even began to touch. That growth and transformation, or what the monastics call “conversion of heart” continues. My wife, both of my daughters, some of my supervisors, and several of my friends have all told me in different ways that I have changed more than anyone they have known. I attribute that “conversion” entirely to my spiritual practice—to my prayer practice.
As that process of self-study continues I recently read Thomas Moore’s book, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World*. While I would not have had the words to describe it then, I realize now that it was during this time that I actually began to develop “a religion of [my] own”. Moore’s book essentially served to legitimize my struggle and gave me the language to understand it and talk about it. Unfortunately at the time I could only see it as a criticism of and a rebellion against contemporary Christianity. I cannot help but wonder what that struggle to develop my own prayer practice would have been like if I had found the teaching and the support for that part of my journey in even one of the churches I attended. As we will see, this struggle to develop “a religion of one’s own”, will permeate my rethinking of prayer in all of my writing. We will be encouraged to reach beyond the contemporary view of prayer and to think about what prayer really means for each of us personally. What is envisioned here is a “turning around”—a conversion of heart that can transform our lives.
All that said, sadly at the time, neither my therapist nor anyone in any of the many churches I attended over the years seemed to even know of these practices, even though they come to us from the very depths of the Christian tradition, and the roots of those practices can be seen clearly in Jesus’ life and teaching.
They also can be found in different forms in almost all major religious traditions. The prayer practices that are outlined here are not new—they are not “new age” as some conservative Christians have tried to claim. The practices come from deep within the Christian tradition. They can be found all thru the writings of the spiritual masters, the saints, the desert fathers and mothers, and the monastic tradition. My quest to connect with that Mysterious Other I call God, to continue my own growth, and to write and teach about the spiritual life begins precisely here. I want to make what I have discovered available to others in understandable language that is not buried in ancient texts. To the extent that I can, I want to be obedient to that quest.
This series is about “turning around”. Like all of my writing and teaching, it is about transformation and that “conversion of heart” the monastics speak of so profoundly. In the end it is about prayer as “the work of the spiritual journey”. It is about prayer that includes “turning around” as part of that work. These prayer practices profoundly changed my life and continue to change my life. They can change yours as well if you are open and obedient to them. Sharing that insight is the very essence of my quest.
Yet, at the same time, it seems ironic—maybe even hypocritical, for me to be writing about prayer. How can I presume to have anything useful to say about prayer? How can I presume to teach anyone about prayer? For most of my adult life I have openly criticized much of what has been said (and maybe more often, what has not been said) about prayer in the churches I have attended. As a result, until I began my search for “a prayer of my own” I spent very little time even thinking about prayer, much less actually praying. I pretty much ignored the subject entirely, and if I spoke of it at all it was mostly to offer some criticism of what the churches teach, or do not teach, about prayer. Yet here I sit, hands on the keyboard, typing the first paragraphs of just such a series.
This is a series that I must write if I am to be true and authentic to who I am and who I feel God is calling me to be. My quest grows out of this long process of criticism, study, practice, and growth. Maybe it is my initial struggle with prayer as it was presented to me in the churches I attended, combined with my own struggle, study, practice, and experience that will give these reflections a quality of legitimacy they might otherwise lack. That is my sincere hope. That is my quest. That is my prayer.
My friend and Catholic priest, Fr. J. Patrick Foley put it this way in the forward to my first book: