How To Pray Badly

If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time. — G.K. Chesterton

The modern world cannot comprehend the fact of the Saint. Actually, I’m becoming ever-more convinced that the modern world can’t comprehend much at all — but that’s beside the point.

The reason she shudders and grinds to a halt when contemplating the Contemplators is the false idea that ‘one must simply get tired of it all’. At the end of the day – putting beauty and truth aside – surely there are only so many Ave Marias one can mutter? Surely it’s extremism, to live a life in constant prayer, constant mortification, and constant contemplation of Christ? Surely the Saints get bored of Sainthood?

As a mediocre Catholic, I understand the complaint all too well. We’ve all been there, when our prayer curls up and dies like spiders on our lips, when the faith that surrounds us bores, when Mass is a chore, fasting a pain, and obedience to The Church frightfully difficult. There are times when I do get tired of it all, dammit. (I am usually made aware of this sad fact when praying my Rosary, and halfway through the third mystery I realize I’ve spent 35 Hail Marys thinking about bacon. And not even the Father-of-the-English-Renaissance-variety.))

But the Saints hold a terrifying secret. It is the answer to the uncomprehending modern and the mediocre Catholic. Are you ready for it? It is the reason for their small smiles in their portraits; it is the reason their eyes burn like hearths within them. They have no idea what they’re doing.

None at all.

Now I hear the battle-cry of Thomists rising slowly from their desks, so swift I run to my explanation. A Saint is not a man who has done a thing so many times that he is good at it and rewarded appropriately. He is not an ‘expert’, as we might call the top scientist in a field, nor a winner, as we might call Usain Bolt. He is not a man of whom we would say, “He’s good at what he does.” No, a Saint is a man who repeats and repeats and repeats again the spiritual life, not to become good at it, but to become bad at it.

Bear with me, for the Thomists have been joined by herds of Benedictine nuns, and they are streaming down the hill, enraged goats charging the library.

You think it’s funny, but it’s not.

When you repeat a word again and again, soon the word is strange on your tongue. Who invented such an obnoxious mouthful such as ‘toast’? What is ‘toast’? Toast, toast, toast, toast. It’s this strange, wet tap on the roof of my mouth, a stupid slackening of my jaw and tightening of my cheeks, then a entire reformation of my mouth into an evil grin that pushes out a hiss of ‘ssss’ air, ending in that same odd slap of tongue against the back of my teeth. I have no idea what ‘toast’ is now, but when I re-establish it with slightly-burnt bread, it’s something of a newfound delight. What a marvel, that that awkward mouthful means this crunchy, peanut-butter-coated mouthful. (This makes two breakfast item references in one post, I apologize. I’m hungry.)

Or take our fathers. We see them every day for 18 years. We think, surely, this is one of the men I know best. But have you not experienced this moment, speaking to your father, looking at his face, when suddenly the who-you-think-he-is falls away, and you realize you don’t know in the least this giant individual who runs your house? Who is this man? I’ve been hugging him on a daily basis, thinking nothing more of it than it is that-which-I-do, but he was born of some woman, he grew up and kissed girls and had religious experiences, got drunk for the first time and all the times after that, set things on fire and hugged some other man on a daily basis! My God, who is this creature?

And again, when we re-establish this strangeness with the idea of Father, what a powerful view we are granted of fatherhood! Here is a man, in all his mystery, who has raised me and protected me from my youth. What a guy.

I hold that the constant prayer of the Saints is not an effort to become good at praying, but a fiery effort to pray for the first time. To speak the words, “My God I believe, I adore, I trust and I love thee,” in somewhat of the same manner we spoke ‘toast’ – that is – to utter them as they are; incredible, virgin, foreign. Truly, to pray well is to pray badly, to allow the words to shock us as strange, to permit the well-worn phrases to be things we can scarcely comprehend, to cave in to those names of Christ — Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace — to let them be names that strike us rudely, not mere names we project for a lifetime onto the Savior. To pray constantly is to seek that shining moment of praying as awfully as a child.

The Saint gazing at an icon of Christ does not gaze to gaze well, to get used to the Divine Face or to understand it. He gazes to confirm the suspicion that he cannot understand it at all. He gazes for hours to see the face of Christ for one second. He contemplates for years to realize that he has not enough lifetimes to contemplate. The expert would seek an answer. The Saint seeks a mystery. The expert would gaze well. The Saint looks at the face of Christ like an idiot child looks at a bird on his windowsill.

This Christianity of ours is dying. It is dying because we are seeing it for 999th time. Its language has been destroyed. Think of the phrase our Evangelical-Protestant culture has gifted to the world. “Jesus Saves.” This is entirely true, but it is entirely dead. As Walker Percy says:

The Christian novelist is like a man who goes to a wild lonely place to discover the truth within himself and there after much ordeal and suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news…He, the novelist, believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio-TV, more commonplace than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays attention to him.

Jesus, save us from ‘Jesus Saves!’ Everyone knows it for the 999th time, and thus no one knows it at all.

But there is an answer. Our Lord speaks to us in the lives of the Saints: It is up to you to move the universe towards the thousandth and the first experience of the Truth. It is left to you to become Saints, to see your God, your faith and your world so awfully that it might be shocked with new life. Do you think I was lying when I told you you must become like little children? I was speaking the truth. Unless you are as wide-eyed and stunned by My grace as a child is by the first robin of Spring, you will not enter the Heavenly Kingdom. This is because to exist as anything but a child is to believe that you know my Heavenly Kingdom, that you know what it is like, that you have it nailed down like a beetle to a card. Only the recognition of the appalling strangeness of my Being, the utter inconceivability of my mercy, and the total mystery of my Grace will prepare your heart for What I Actually Am. Only if you open your eyes to see as I see will you ever experience the fullness of life I have planned for you on this earth. For I am The I Am That I Am: I see everything for the first time.

In this context it is safe to say that the Saint is the worst Catholic of us all. Look back to the picture of of our beautiful Pope Benedict: Is he not seeing Our Lady for the first time? May we all be given the grace to imitate.

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