In response to my recent post about Contemplative Prayer and the Holy Trinity, a reader posted the following message to me via Facebook:
I’ve gotten discouraged with the very idea of “spiritual practice”. I’ve found so many practices that are meaningful and helpful but I’ve managed to turn every single one into an idol, treating it like a mechanism that controls my relation to God. I see the need for practice but I don’t understand how to keep from idolizing it.
Thank you for such an honest comment. I suspect that many people get mired in idolatrous relationships to many religious and spiritual practices, from methods of prayer to particular types of religious observance (ways of worshipping or doing liturgy, particular types of music, or particular translations of the Bible), down to forming unhealthy relationships to a particular pastor or spiritual teacher, or a particular church or denomination, or even a particular ministry.
Why is the prohibition against idolatry the first commandment? Because it is human nature to create idols.
We do it in our political life, in how we relate to art and entertainment and sports, to money, to fame, to security, to our reputation, to our spouse or family or nation… the list goes on.
We are homo idololatricus.
Idolatry is basically an addiction. There are addictions and then there are addictions. Some addictions, like to alcohol or tobacco or gambling, require a complete cessation of using the addictive substance. An alcoholic in recovery simply stops drinking — not even communion wine is acceptable. But other addictions, like to food (overeating) or to spending (compulsive shopping) have to be managed while still engaging with the addictive act. You can’t just stop eating altogether: you’ll die. Recovery from an eating addiction means learning how to eat in a healthy and non-addictive way.
Turning prayer into an idol is the second kind of addiction. You have to give up the addiction, while still keeping prayer a central part of your daily walk with God.
So, let me speak directly to my reader, and hopefully this will be helpful to others as well.
My first comment to my reader: could this be a dodge? Are you using the fear of idolatry as an excuse to avoid a serious and sustained practice of prayer?
Maybe you are, and maybe you aren’t. I’ll trust your judgment — but I think that avoiding prayer because it might turn into something idolatrous just has the net effect of not praying. And I don’t think that’s what God wants of us.
G. K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” In other words, messy, distracted, self-serving, narcissistic, even idolatrous prayer — well, it’s still prayer! And with God’s grace we can make it better. I’d much rather see someone engage in a practice of prayer, do it poorly, but gradually get better at it, then to see someone get frustrated because their prayer is a mess, and then just give up on it, which leaves them perpetually at the starting line.
But the way the reader posed the question, it sounds like he really is trying. So for anyone who is in the same boat: working at a regular contemplative prayer practice, and then discovering to their dismay that the prayer has begun to matter more to them than God (!), here are my thoughts on what you can do, to keep praying — without your prayer coming between you and God.
- Do not abandon the practice. Set limits with it: no more than once or twice a day, and no more than 20 minutes per session. Keep those limits — but neither abandon the practice. If you find that you are “sneaking in” more prayer time than you agreed to, or else you are abandoning the practice altogether, bring the matter up with a trusted spiritual director (see #4 below).
Remember, contemplative prayer is threatening to the ego/false self/sinful nature — so naturally, the ego will try to undermine the practice. And one way to do that is to make the case that we are failing at the practice: we’re poor at it, too distracted, too obsessed with it, too addicted to it. The ego wants you to abandon the practice, and so it is doing all it can to make you think it’s a waste of time, or spiritually unhealthy, or a dead end. Here’s where it is important to trust the good counsel of generations of spiritual teachers who have gone before us, and who have spoken of the importance of perseverance in prayer, especially at first when we are prone to getting distracted or obsessive.
- Begin and/or end your contemplative practice session with a brief time for verbal prayer in which you express sorrow to God for your tendency to be addicted to spiritual practices. Ask for the grace to persevere in prayer without getting obsessive or compulsive. Contemplative prayer, like all authentic prayer, is a source for deep spiritual healing, but this often happens below the threshold of our conscious awareness. So including a few moments of verbal prayer is a way to keep your conscious self “dialed in” with your spiritual intention — including the intention to persevere in prayer, and to ask for God’s grace to pray in a healthy way.
- Continue to surrender all distracting thoughts during prayer. Persevering in prayer is 90% of the battle, but here is the other 10%. My hunch is that your anxiety about addiction or obsessiveness in prayer keeps showing up during your silent prayer time. Once again, this is the ego seeking to assert or maintain control. Gently and non-judgmentally returning your attention to your chosen point of focus: whether a prayer word, Bible verse, or even simply your breath — this will both give you a greater sense of satisfaction with your prayer, but will also shield you from the remonstrations of your inner critic. It’s impossible to shut up the inner critic, but we can learn to avoid paying it any attention. Each time the inner critic squawks, simply return your focus of attention to your prayer word, verse, or breath. It really is that simple!
- Keep in regular contact with a trusted spiritual director or soul friend. Especially if the feeling of being addicted or idolatrous persists, discussing in detail your experience of prayer with a spiritual companion might be the best way to break through your resistance and find some freedom in your practice. Really go deep with your director: for example, my reader reports “I’ve managed to turn every single spiritual practice into an idol, treating it like a mechanism that controls my relation to God.” Take the time to really unpack this sentence with your spiritual companion. Exactly how do you attempt to control God? What do you do? What do you think? How does it feel? Meanwhile, your director will have suggestions for practices or prayer prompts that might be helpful. For example, every time you notice yourself subtly attempting to manipulate God, your spiritual director might instruct you to pray this verse: “Transform me by the renewing of my mind, that I may conform to your good and acceptable and perfect will, o God.” (this is a paraphrase of Romans 12:2) or, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). Repeat as often as necessary.
- Be patient. Like any other program of recovery from addiction, it’s a process. You may even want to carefully look at every element of your prayer practice with your spiritual director. What is it that inspires you to feel like you can control God? When do those controlling thoughts arise? What happens if you respond to them with a prayerful Bible verse or simply returning your attention to silence? Reviwing carefully the dynamics of your addictive tendencies will help you to discover where your trigger points are, and what you need to do to stop giving in to the triggers when they arise.
- Finally, if all else fails, try a different approach to prayer — but with the guidance of your spiritual director. It sounds like you have tried different types of prayer, but I think this is still something to consider. It is possible that at this point in your life journey, contemplation is not the best way for you to pray. But if that’s the case, then it is incumbent upon you to find another way of daily prayer. I would recommend a Liturgical form of prayer, such as Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne & Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, or Celtic Daily Prayer by the Northumbria Community. Usually persons who are not ready for deep silent prayer need the structure of a regular form of liturgical (scripted) prayer. It takes great discipline and humility and patience to persevere in liturgical prayer, but it can be very nourishing spiritually — and can be a great foundation for a future return to contemplative practice, should you discern yourself being called in that direction.
So here’s the bottom line:
- Even if you tend to turn prayer itself into an idol, keep praying. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” — G. K. Chesterton
- Pray to God for the grace to be freed from your addictive/idolatrous tendencies.
- Discuss all this with your spiritual director (if you don’t have a spiritual director, get one: it’s really essential for anyone with a commitment to daily prayer)
- Be patient and persevere.
- Remember that silence is your best friend. Scripture can also be a profound way to pray your way out of your idolizing.
- If all else fails, take refuge in fixed, liturgical daily prayer. It will nurture your relationship with God and help you grow beyond your desires to always be in control.
Hope this is helpful — sorry it’s such a long post, but it really is a complicated (and important) question. God bless you. Keep praying!