During this season of Lent we have been exploring the theme, ‘Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life.’ We’ve been asking ourselves what monastic spirituality can teach us about how we can live life well, particularly in these challenging days. This afternoon we take up the topic of ‘Prayer and Life.’
The first thing to be noted is that these two things, prayer and life, are not two separate activities which have no relation to one another. One sometimes gets that impression when people say that they have very little time for prayer in the midst of their busy lives, or that they don’t pray often enough or long enough. Prayer is seen as one more item on an already-lengthy list of things to be done each day. When prayer becomes just another task to be done, it quickly loses its appeal and is drained of its life-giving energy.
Prayer is more like breathing. At times we may be especially conscious of it. It’s helpful to pause from time to time to focus our full attention on our breath, as we might do during a time of meditation or just to slow ourselves down during the course of the day. But breathing is never just one more task on our list of things to do. It is essential to life; without it we die. Prayer, like breathing, is essential to our life in God. Without it, our spiritual lives cannot be sustained.
“Monastic life is above all a life of prayer,” writes Thomas Merton, and by this he means that it is not just a life that includes prayer, but that prayer is life-breath of monks, as it is for all of us. In God we live and move and have our being. Prayer is the breath that sustains our life in God.
Now there is a great deal to be said for pausing from time to time to give our full attention to God – it’s very important and I’m all for it! Monks do this several times a day. When the bell rings, we pause whatever we are doing and head for the chapel. Each day we set aside time for meditative prayer. But these are not the only times when we are engaged in prayer. Prayer and living are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them. Monastic prayer aims for something more than just pausing a few times a day to pray; it seeks to pray always and everywhere. Its aim is to pray without ceasing, to live our lives in continual awareness of God’s presence with us and in us.
How do we cultivate a prayerful life? That’s our topic for this afternoon. I’d like to suggest some lessons we could learn from the monastic way.
LESSON ONE: Keep it simple!
“Monastic prayer is, first of all, essentially simple,” writes Thomas Merton. He cites a story from the Desert Fathers in which a monk asks St. Macarius how to pray. The latter replied: “It is not necessary to use many words. Only stretch out your arms and say: Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how! And if the enemy presses you hard, say: Lord, come to my aid!”i
Early monks stressed the importance of simple prayer made up of short phrases drawn from the psalms or other parts of Scripture. They used these simple phrases to express their desire for God, their love for God, their need for God, their reliance upon God. Many, if not most, of the Desert Fathers and Mothers were uneducated and illiterate. They relied on simple prayers spoken from the heart to keep them in touch with God.
There is a danger that we can become too caught up with methods of prayer and with finding the right way to pray. Prayer is not about mastering certain techniques, as helpful as they can be. It is about turning to God, orienting and re-orienting our lives towards God, living in the awareness that God is all in all.
Pray simply then, and from the heart. You might choose a verse from the psalms or a line of Scripture – something that expresses your awareness of God or your desire for God – and repeat it as you go about your daily tasks, letting it continually call you back to God throughout the day. Keep turning your face towards the light.
LESSON TWO: Keep it honest!
Prayer, to be genuine, must be real. God is not interested in how “spiritual” we can look and sound. Prayer is meant to be grounded in the reality of our daily lives; it is meant to touch every part of us. To be genuine and effective, it must be honest and real.
In our Rule of Life we read, “The life of prayer calls for the courage to bring into our communion with Christ the fullness of our humanity and the concrete realities of our daily existence… We are to bring him our sufferings and poverty, our passion and sexuality, our fears and resistances, our desires and our dreams, our losses and grief. We must spread before him our cares about the world and its peoples, our friends and families, our enemies and those from whom we are estranged. Our successes and failures, our gifts and shortcomings are equally the stuff of our prayer.”ii
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most of us will admit that though we are drawn to prayer and we genuinely desire God, we also experience fear and resistance at the thought of drawing near to God. We are tempted to hide our real desires, thoughts and feelings from God, imagining either that God might disapprove of them or that God couldn’t possibly be concerned with the mundane details of our daily lives. Sometimes we, consciously or unconsciously, close off the doors to certain parts of our lives that we do not want God to see, or with which we do not want God to interfere. We fear that God may ask us to change a pattern of behavior, or to forgive someone with whom we are angry, or to do something we would rather not do. We do not want to risk losing control of our lives. So we are tempted to create for ourselves a God of our own making, one who will not disturb us or interfere with our plans. We abort the journey inward and settle for a prayer routine that protects the secret thoughts of our hearts and lets us remain in control.
It takes courage to take off our masks, to drop our defenses, and to open ourselves to God in a way that is honest, genuine, and real. It can be difficult to risk intimacy with God. We may be reluctant to admit, much less embrace, our deep need for God. We may resist God’s invitation to change, and draw back from the path of transformation God is setting before us. When we recognize that our prayer has become routine, passionless, comfortable, and safe; when we see that we have allowed ourselves to become complacent, it’s time to get real!
Many who have chosen the monastic way have modeled for us a deep hunger for God. Early monastics went to the desert – a dangerous place – to rid themselves of distractions and to stand naked and alone before God. They inspire us to let go of comfortable routines and safe images of God in order to encounter God in the daily realities of our lives. Keep your relationship with God honest; keep it real. Don’t settle for prayer that isn’t genuine, that doesn’t engage your whole being.
LESSON THREE: Pay attention!
For many Christians, prayer can seem like a one-sided conversation in which they do all the talking and God is largely silent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that prayer is a dialogue initiated by God, and that God communicates with us in countless ways each and every day. We have only to learn the ways in which God speaks and tune our hearts to listen.
I once heard of a woman who likened prayer to a game of hide and seek with a God who wants to be found. “When I play ‘hide and seek’ with the little ones,” she said, “I always leave a little bit of myself sticking out. If I’m behind a curtain, I make sure my shoes are sticking out. If I’m behind a tree, I make sure a little of my jacket is showing. I want them to find me.” God remains invisible to us. We cannot see or hear or touch God in the same way that we can see and hear and touch one another. And yet, if we are attentive, we can see evidence of the Divine “sticking out” in everyday places and events. Paying attention means being watchful, expecting God to come to us each day – perhaps in the beauty of the natural world, perhaps through a word or story from Scripture, perhaps in a conversation with a friend, perhaps in a new thought or insight. Prayer is this attentive listening for God. It involves opening our eyes and ears to sense God’s presence and activity in all things.
Monastics seek to abide in God every moment of every day, receptive and listening, always alert for signs of God’s presence and activity. Monastic prayer is characterized by listening; it demands that we pay attention to what God is saying and doing in our lives.
LESSON FOUR: Don’t give up!
There will be seasons in our lives when our experience of God is vivid, lively and engaging. There will also be seasons when it is dry, routine, or completely absent. The monastic way is to keep at it, even when our prayer seems hollow and empty and God seems far away.
It is not unusual for us to experience rich and lively prayer early on in our spiritual journey, and then to come to a desert place or a dark night where those consolations we’ve been accustomed to have disappeared. The feeling is similar to that of lovers when the thrill of romance wears off and they are left to negotiate daily life in all its mundaneness. That is the real test of love. That is a test of our spiritual maturity.
To live a life of prayer we must learn to persevere patiently through these dry times, to trust that God is at work within us and all around us in ways that are not immediately visible or accessible to us in the present moment. “Remain in your cell,” early monks were counseled, “The cell will teach you all things.” Don’t give up. Don’t turn back on your good intention to live a life oriented towards God. Persevere. Stay with it. Sometimes the only thing we can do is keep showing up. At those times the Spirit is praying deep within us; grace will carry us home.
Let your life be a life of prayer – not just a life that includes occasional times of prayer, but a life that is prayerful, a life continually oriented towards God, awake and watchful towards God, mindful of God’s presence in every place and every person, and with us at every moment. Keep it simple. Keep it real. Pay attention. And don’t give up. It’s as simple as breathing – and as necessary. Pray your lives.
i Merton, Thomas; The Climate of Monastic Prayer; (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), p. 30.
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