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What is your prayer life like today? In what specific ways do you feel called to
deepen your prayer life?
When one becomes an expert in some field, and especially when one presumes to write a book on a particular topic to help others in that area, there goes with that at least some expectation that one will have that part of their own life in some semblance of order. That expectation becomes even stronger when one dares to write or teach about the spiritual life in general and about prayer in specific. At least it seems so to me.
Yet I have often said that if I could live even a tenth of what I know about the spiritual life, I would be a saint. I am not a saint! I am not any kind of a saint. I am closer than I was twenty-five or thirty years ago. I am even closer than I was last week. But I am not a saint. In the end I can’t really live anywhere near what I know about spiritual formation and prayer. Truth is some days I am not at all sure that I know that much about these complex topics at all. Yet I still feel a strong call to share what I have learned.
I am retired, and in that sense I am mostly free to set up my prayer life however I want—or better said, however I feel led by that Mysterious Other I call God. In response to that freedom I have told myself that I could take my time apart pretty much whenever I feel called to. I have convinced myself that I could go into my room and close the door and pray any time I felt called. What I find is that this theory has put me in a kind of maintenance mode. In this maintenance mode I often do not “feel called” on any regular basis and when I do feel called it is mostly when I feel stressed or upset for some reason. In this mode the times when I do “take my time” the process is abbreviated. I often go in my room, sit down, and go straight to contemplation, skipping things like centering, reading, meditation, and prayer. I often sit for twenty minutes and just get up and go back to work. This is good, but it is not near enough. It mostly keeps me on an even keel, but it does not always lead to that growth and transformation and conversion of heart that is so central to what I know to be real spiritual formation—real prayer.
What is worse is that for some time now I have been having trouble sleeping. I tend to wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning. I tend to blame that problem on getting older, and keep trying to go back to sleep, often with little success. Sometimes I play games on my mobile phone or read on my iPad. Might this not be that still small voice calling me to take some serious time apart? Might it be coming-out of the monastic call that has been so important on my journey? Whatever else it might be it is clearly a gift— an opportunity for me to take that time and use it wisely. I am reminded of this reflection by Henri Nouwen:
“In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” [Mark 1:35] In the middle of sentences loaded with action — healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue — we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn.
I know that the secret of my own spiritual life is “hidden in that lonely place” where I go to pray. I know that I need to get out of maintenance mode. I need to get up “long before dawn” and go to my lonely place and pray there. And I know that I need to take the time to formally center myself. I know that I need to read and study. I even know what I need to read and study. The Rule of Saint Benedict was central to my practice for years, and I need to make it a part of my time apart again. I know that I need to take time to reflect yet again on those readings, and then ask that Mysterious Other I call God to guide me and to give me the strength and courage to take this into my active life. And yes, I need to sit silently and listen for that still small voice within. I know all of that. I teach and write about all of that, but I do not do it regularly. Why do I hesitate? What do I fear? For me, Marianne Williamson answers the question well.:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
“Lord God, come to my assistance. Make haste oh my God to help me”.