I had the privilege of teaching our Adult Inquirers’ Class last Wednesday. My Rector charged me with the task of speaking about prayer and liturgy. The several times I’ve done this, I’ve always taken a very practical hands-on approach to it: here’s where the Mass is in the Prayerbook, here is how you say Morning Prayer and here is why we do what we do. Then we’d top it all off with a healthy conversation about how participation in liturgy leads to union with God or theosis. (What I’d done in the past was very similar to my Introduction to Lent and my Introduction to Holy Week.)
This time, I thought about spending the majority of the time on answering the question, “What is prayer?” I think because prayer is something that is so common in every time, place and culture, we’re apt to not even address this question. We might answer it with “Well, prayer is prayer — that’s what prayer is! You know . . . it’s prayer!”
To start, I had everyone imagine that we are eating together at the Olive Garden and we are sitting by three different couples: a young couple on their third date, a middle-aged couple with two children and an elderly couple. Each of these couples clearly loves each other, but each for their different reasons. How they talk to each other betrays the level of love that they have for each other.
Hypothetically, the young couple are enamored, yet still getting to know each other. Their conversation is surface-level and slightly strained. As far as I know, when you’re still getting to know someone, it is best to only talk about your day or your “likes”. They might talk about the attributes in each other that they like. Few people probably talk about their deepest hopes, aspirations and disappointments on the third date — you know, the things that make us fully human. They love each other.
The middle-aged couple’s conversation is far less exciting. They’re talking about who is going to take whom to which practice or piano lesson tomorrow. They might talk about things like “Did you remember to pay the light bill?” or “We really should get the muffler on the car fixed” and chastising the children for their abhorrent table manners. They’ve been through a lot, so they don’t have to constantly reinforce the fact that they are madly in love with each other, even though they are.
The elderly couple’s conversation is mostly silence. What can you say to the person who can finish your sentences or has been by your side through it all? They’ve been through births, death, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, heart-ache, hard-times and good-times. They’ve been hurt together and they’ve hurt each other unintentionally (and intentionally), yet chosen to stay with each other through it all. In many ways, they have left themselves years ago and become one in a real sense. Perhaps, they don’t have to say that they love each other, even though they do from time to time, because they know it in their bones.
Each couple loves each other, but for different reasons and at different levels, right? The young couple has a passionate, yet untested love. When asked why they love the other, they might reply with, “I like the way they make me feel” or “He is really handsome”. The middle-aged couple’s love is being tested through trying to make a family unit work: their love has moved to the nitty-gritty stage of schedules and car repairs. The elderly couple’s love, though, has been tested and they have come through it, together; their love is perhaps the most “perfect”. They all love each other, just for different reasons and at different levels.
First and foremost, prayer is an act of love. To me, our relationship with God (our “faith journey”, if you must) is just like any other relationship that we have in our lives. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about something similar in a few chapters from his wonderful little treatise, On Loving God. Just like our couples, we love God for different reasons and at different levels. And it is our prayers that betray what level of love we have for God.
Just like the young couple, St. Bernard writes that we all begin loving God for purely selfish reasons. We love God because God (or the idea of God) makes us feel good and because God does some great stuff for us. This is well and good in and of itself, but it has not been tested by suffering. After some trials, the soul begins to love God because God is good. This is just like our middle-aged couple who are learning to rely on one another in starting a family, they are beginning to see the goodness in each other. Then, the soul begins to love God for the reason that God is God. This is like the elderly couple, who tested throughout their lives, love each other because she is his wife and he, her husband.
Yet, St. Bernard goes on to give one more stage and it is at this place that my cheesy little metaphor falls apart. Bernard writes that through Godly suffering, the soul’s motivation for loving God moves to a complete love without regard for self. At this point, the soul only loves itself in that God loves it. The soul loses itself in God as drop of water poured into wine. The soul becomes one with God, yet remains itself.
The way we pray shows how we love God and our words betray the level at which we love God. Most of us — myself foremost — love God for purely selfish reasons and our prayers sound like it. If we were to make a chart of our prayer time, the time we spend on ourselves would take up most of the pie. Please keep in mind, though, that this is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just not as perfect as it could be. We’re like the young couple at Olive Garden in our prayers, we pray because God does stuff for us or because God makes us feel good. We, just like them, should move more and more towards a selfless love that shows itself in the prayers of silence and surrender.
So, how do we deepen our love of God through our prayers? Well, like St. Bernard, I think suffering-in-love (redemptive suffering) plays the primary role in this. As CS Lewis once wrote, “I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it.” (Letters to Malcolm)
Yet, I also think that the liturgy is the vehicle by which our prayers and love for God are deepened. For example, we do not always feel the words that we pray or think the same as the words we say, yet the liturgy shows how how we should be thinking and how we should be praying. The focus of the liturgy is always on God and away from self (through the self is still remembered); the liturgy is constantly moving us towards God. Through constant and attentive repetition, lex orandi, lex credendi takes effect and we are brought into a deeper prayer-life, a deeper love and a deeper union with God. The self remains, but it is wholly consumed by the Divine.
Through the liturgy, we move from being a starry-eyed, untested lover of God to a mature lover, wholly at one with the Divine. May the good Lord grant us all the grace of having a deeper love for God and each other.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee , so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine , utterly dedicated unto thee ; and then use us, we pray thee , as thou wilt , and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.