It’s easy to escape from prayer. Why would I want to do that? Maybe it’s because true prayer goes to the very center of things, the center where God speaks my truth, and sometimes that’s a scary place to go.
It also requires time and discipline, and sometimes I’m lazy.
There are many ways to escape prayer. To do it blatantly, pick up the morning paper or turn on the news at the time you’ve set aside for silence and prayer. That escape route has been well-traveled by me. Often, there are things in the morning news I find myself praying about such as people enveloped in tragedy, a Syrian child caught in the crossfire of oppression.
But my prayer then is a brief lifting up, an opening to God, surely, something I should do at any moment of my day. Do I pause and wait in the silence for God’s answer? Or do I turn to the editorial page?
Once, I belonged to a parish that had perpetual eucharistic adoration. What a wonderful way to encourage prayer. But the adoration room had shelves filled with books. Was this, I wondered, a prayer room, or a reading room? It could hardly be both.
That’s not to deny that spiritual reading can be a great aid to my prayer life. The spiritual masters guide me away from my own sophistries and crack open my heart. Spiritual reading prepares me to pray, opens the door. But in the end, to pray is to put down the book and wait for God. If I spend an hour at adoration reading, I’ve escaped again.
Recently, a man I knew died. Nearly everyone considered him a saint. Following an accident as a young adult, he became a quadriplegic. While others might have dissolved into self-pity, he did remarkable things with his life. He graduated from law school, married a lovely woman, built a career.
Most important, he became a man of deep prayer. He grew into an easy contemplation. He was unafraid of the silence where God spoke the truth about his broken body.
As a spiritual director, this man taught others to pray and to learn the truth about themselves. Others might have sought to escape from the verity of the cross he bore, but he instead became a person whose interior life was based on an understanding of the cross.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Praying,” which I sometimes use as I begin my prayer. She reminds me to “pay attention.” That is sometimes the hardest thing.
My work, the political world, the turmoil around me, my faults, my worries, I let them fill my mind. I invite them in. Indeed, I lavishly entertain them while God waits unwearyingly like a compliant patient in a busy doctor’s office at day’s end.
Meanwhile, I use my prayer time to mentally argue with my would-be opponents or reinforce my silly priorities. Sometimes the time elapses, I’ve filled up that beckoning silence with my chatter, and I promise God a new appointment another day.
Oliver reminds me that “this isn’t a contest, but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
I remind myself I’m asked to bring the time and discipline, but God does the rest. As the old peasant who sat for long periods in the church told St. John Vianney, “I look at the good God, and the good God looks at me.”
Why would I ever want to escape from that?