What? Me Pray?
If you have a group of Catholics over for a dinner party, and they’ve stayed a bit too late but you don’t want to be rude by pointedly winding the alarm clock in front of them, one thing that always works to clear the room is to bring up in conversation the efficacy of prayer and people’s individual prayer lives. We all believe that people should pray and we may even believe that everyone does pray. And probably no one would deny that the question of opening channels of communication to God is “a very important thing”. But nothing makes people start looking at their watches faster than bringing up prayer in conversation.
For those of you who have stayed with me to the end to the end of the last paragraph, let me try to tantalize you with this. For a full 35 years, I didn’t think that I could pray. This changed a few years ago. If you are interested in knowing what happened, continue reading below the fold. For the rest of you, don’t worry about the plates and cups and have a safe trip home.
“What do you mean you “couldn’t pray”, you might be saying. “Even though you are hiding behind a cunningly designed pseudonym, you have let slip on several occasions that you are cradle Catholic and went to Catholic schools. Unless you are either remarkably stupid or lazy, you would have had to learn lots of prayers. What could have kept you from saying them?”
Fair enough. What I mean by being unable to pray is that as a relatively young teenager I stopped feeling any connection to God when I prayed. I may as well have been reading the ingredients from a cereal box. The very hard thing about it for me was that when I was younger, I really DID feel the connection. In fact, I probably felt it more than most of my friends did when they prayed. When my younger brother was outside hiding behind the garage playing with matches or sneaking cigarettes or in the vacant lots catching snakes and torturing grasshoppers, I could often be found in a quiet room on my knees with a rosary in my hand. (Guess which of the two of us was considered a strange little boy?)
When I lost the connection, the advice that I got from an old Jesuit at the time was “Wait; it will come back.” So I waited. And while I waited I figured that I might as well involve myself in all of those wicked things going on around me in the late ’60′s and the ’70′s to, you know, not be wasting my time while I waited.
Over time, though, I started to grow up. I came back to the Church after a 20 year sabbatical with a desire to recapture what I had lost, but not knowing how to do it. I found myself a new old Jesuit to give me some spiritual advice and discovered that the plains of aridity I was wandering in were actually the pastures of a good old fashioned clinical depression. After working for two years with my Jesuit, I found that I was no longer depressed. But I still couldn’t pray. I was going to have to wait another 17 years.
Strange as it may be to relate, I took my first step back to real prayer because of something I read (or as so often happens, I thought I read) in a book by Alasdair Macintyre. He was talking about tradition and authority. What he seemed to be saying was that the authority of tradition rests in the idea that there are many valuable things whose value we cannot grasp until we have achieved some sort of mastery over them. To obtain this mastery, we have to make what is literally a leap of faith with a teacher, trusting that he or she is simply correct about the value that we ourselves are not yet qualified to see. I had run into this kind of thinking before in Japan. In their classical system of education (still used for arts and crafts) they have an approach that could be described as “attitude follows action”. For many things, you have to learn how to do them first before you can appreciate why its good to do them. One thing that almost always strikes the Westerner is that the classic Japanese teacher gives the student very little feedback. The idea is that the student, in following exactly the master’s example, will eventually be able to grasp for himself the subject at hand well enough to be able to assess his level of quality himself.
In the West, we tend to think that “action follows attitude”. We spend a lot of time trying to prove to ourselves that something is of value before we begin the hard work of trying to master it. The classic Japanese approach of “learn it whether you like it or not” strikes the Westerner as a brutal suppression of the Individuals God given right to exercise free choice. On the other hand, to a classical Japanese teacher, Westerners look like under educated dilettantes who need constant reassurance in order to continue doing their work.
It struck me that in the case of prayer, maybe I was stuck on waiting for the right attitude to emerge. Perhaps I was looking for a toaster upside the head by the Holy Spirit before I could actually begin the discipline of praying. Perhaps what I needed was a leap of faith of my own. I should stop whining, start praying, and see what happens.
Of course, Japanophile that I am, I needed my own “master”. I could not locate any old Jesuits at the time, so I had to resort to a book. In my case it was a book by (don’t laugh) Ralph McInerney. I have always thoroughly enjoyed his philosophical works, but I had also been particularly fascinated by his crystal clear undiluted squareness. So I had purchased his autobiography and in it he talks a great deal about his own life of prayer. This was the book I happened had in hand and I felt that I could certainly trust in his good intentions. So why not start with him?
I had a good time and place for my experiment in praying. I walk to the train station every morning. It’s a few miles away so it takes me at least 35 minutes to get there. Normally I made good use of this time fantasizing about what fatal disasters awaited me at work that day. I would have to sacrifice part of this now for the prayer thing. For a model, I decided to use something that McInerney referred to as the “Little Office”, prayed by his pious and devout mother apparently all of her life. It consists of 12 sets of one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and on Glory Be. I could do this.
Now my Jansenist Irish peasant grandmother had taught me as a lad that one’s prayers were collected in heaven in some sort of celestial bank account. In high school this idea had come to repel me as too capitalistic and too manipulative of God. In retrospect, it was this kind of thinking that probably worked to separate me from prayer. Now I was just trying to put myself into the position of clueless novice. So I wasn’t going to worry about the bank account issue. Pray, and don’t worry was my new motto.
It proved rather easy to turn it into a routine. No feelings of connection emerged, but on the other hand it did force me to push out a lot of the trash thinking I had been doing before, at least for the duration of the prayers. (Note: A Buddhist monk in Japan once told me that clearing the mind of the nasty little voice constitutes spiritual progress in itself.)
One day I found myself thinking about my mother, who had died rather young over 20 years before. Why not pray for here while I was praying? It couldn’t hurt and it might even help. A lot of McInerney’s discussion of his own prayer life involved praying for the dead.
At this point, I felt that I was rapidly becoming transformed into Forrest Gump. If I was going to pray for my dead mother, I might as well pray for my dead father. And if I was going to pray for him, why not my grandparents? And my dead aunts and uncles? And old dead friends? Old teachers? Old neighbors? I could picture these people in my mind. I could see them looking for me to remember them. I even had the odd thought that perhaps Purgatory was simply Hell with a light cool rain falling in the form of hope generated by the prayers of friends and strangers. (I told you that I used to be a strange child.)
This crowd of dead people clamoring for my attention brought me to another crossroads. If I could pray for the dead, what about the sick? I knew several people personally who were gravely ill, and more unhappy alcoholics and drug addicts than I could count. But now, as irrational as this sounds, it looked like I was asking my 36 prayers to bear an awful lot of weight. And these prayers weren’t even getting me half the distance to the train station. So I decided to pray the rosary instead, discretely mumbled and the prayers counted on my fingers so as not to alarm the passers by. I took me several weeks to get half good at it, because I could remember few of the mysteries and was so out of touch that I didn’t even know that Pope John Paul II had instituted a brand new fourth set. Worse, I couldn’t remember any of Hail Holy Queen and I was forced to resort to a crib with embarrassingly lavish illustrations that I got at church. I had to read this prayer out loud over and over again like a third grader off this sheet to memorize it, to the wry amusement of the dog walkers and people in their jammies grabbing their morning papers off the stoop.
I found that if I prayed from the time I walked out my door until I boarded the train, I could get in two rosaries and one Little Office. This seemed to me to be heading back to the bad old days of the celestial bank account. But it was better that what I had been doing, praying fruitlessly (it seemed) half way to the train station and then torturing myself the rest of the way about why I was wasting all this time praying fruitlessly.
Some months had gone by. While I was still not feeling a connection, something else started to happen. I was starting to find it easier to pray as such. I would sometimes now find myself spontaneously praying at other times. And when I did this, I found that I wasn’t asking for anything. I was just praying. I didn’t feel like I was connected to God in particular, but this praying made me feel calm, like I was meditating.
This was fine with me. It seemed like some sort of progress. But I didn’t know where all of this was going. I continued along for a couple more months and then I noticed something happening that disturbed me. My prayers on the way to the train station were becoming almost automatic. I could pray in the background of my mind and still think about entirely different stuff in the foreground. This is something that I had been afraid would happen all along. I would be doing a rote recitation that would be little more than a low buzz in the background. I decided that I needed to focus more on the mysteries and their active visualization, because I could not bear the thought that my prayer life would consist of praying the rosary in the back of my head while I pondered the important matter of what color shoes to buy next time. I was not ready to stop the experiment. I had invested so much in it already.
So I prayed, focused on the meditations, and tried not to trip over any raccoons on the early morning sidewalk. The went on for a couple of months until… I found that both the prayers and the meditations were receding sometimes into the background while things like shoes were appearing in the foreground again. This new thing didn’t exactly drive me to despair, but it did disappoint me. Had it happened every time, I believe that I would have been tempted to stop the whole experiment and just hook myself to my I-Pod. But the problem was intermittant (for now) so I figured that I would just press on for the time being.
I am walking down the street one morning. I am praying the rosary in my head, counting the prayers discretely on my fingers. The mysteries concern the life of Christ. I am praying for the dead and have gotten so familiar with picturing them when I give them their morning rosary that it is almost like I am showing up to breakfast with them and bringing the donuts. The weather is fair. The sky is clear. The trees and grass are a vivid green. And suddenly I feel like I am deeply in love with everything around me and with the people I am praying for. I feel almost giddy with life. I feel loved, blessed, and fortunate.
I seem to have reconnected (at last) to the sweetness that I used to feel when I was young. It has happened spontaneously. I could not (and cannot) make it happen, but in my heart I am sure that it would not have happened had I not been praying at that time and place. It is one of those metaphysical moments when God moves from being a good and well thought out theory to being physically real.
These moments still happen. It’s not like putting a quarter in a jukebox. I have not turned into a rat pressing the bar for the sugar cube. Praying has become a kind of waiting, as though I am in a conversation with someone very interesting and I am waiting for them to add to the conversation. I find that it is not hard to wait because I know (not believe, but know) that there is someone there on the other side. Prayer is sweet.
A lot has happened to me in the couple of years since I reconnected, including the Toaster of Metanoia hitting me in the head (another long story). There have been additional things that have happened in my prayer life. But I will relate just one more anecdote.
I was talking to an ancient Franciscan friar about my experiences with prayer, very much as I have related them to you. He smiled and said “Ah yes, the sweetness of prayer. What a wonderful gift! But a thousand years ago when I was in the seminary, I remember the Novice Master telling us that yes, prayer can bring on this sweetness. But remember that after the sweetness, God frequently takes it all away, at least for a time. Yanks the rug entirely out from under you, just to see what you are really made of!”
And then, like a good Franciscan, he laughed.