Few people are every really satisfied with the way they pray: there’s a feeling that it should be “more” or “better.” It’s a sense we have that we’re not doing it quite right.
Getting past the idea of right or wrong is hard to do. There are as many types of prayer as there are pray-ers. It’s as diverse as love. It’s a simple as contemplating the wonder of a falling leaf, or as mystically shattering as the transverberation of St. Teresa.
Maybe we could come at a better understanding of prayer by what it is not. It’s not a monologue: it’s not talking to yourself.
Even an actor giving a monologue on a stage is not talking to himself. He’s talking to an audience that has made a conscious choice to be there and listen to those words. Their emotional and mental response to that actor’s monologue is their reply. Even if the actor is alone, he’s not just talking into nothingness: he’s conversing with himself, his peers, his audience, his predecessors, and the author through intellect, will, memory, and imagination.
Communication is not a solitary activity: it’s very nature assumes an I and a Thou. The “Thou” may be right in front of you with ears to hear, a thousand years away in time, a million miles away in space, or beyond the material world entirely, but this “Thou” exists, and thus there are two in the conversation.
We may be fine with the idea that we initiate a conversation with God and he listens, but does not reply directly (unless we are gifted with a mystical experience).
Let’s turn that completely around. In fact, we’re not the initiator of the conversation in prayer: God has spoken, and we are responding. Our prayer is not mere homage to the King, or a litany of things we need, or declarations of love or gratitude. These are, to be sure, part of prayer, but they are not its essence.
Its essence is our response to a conversation initiated by the Triune God. We cannot even be drawn to prayer unless prompted by grace, so an action has already occurred in the soul. The dialog is begun by God before we even open our mouths, minds, or hearts.
And more than grace is involved in this conversation. The very nature of each soul is such that it yearns to answer the call of its Creator. That same Creator has etched His message in every cloud and stone, every heart that beats and every touch of love. He gave us sacraments as channels of grace, and art as the expression of His glory; the word of the scripture, and the incarnate Word.
The entire world sings out with the conversation of God, and we think we’re the ones initiating a one-sided conversation? Pure hubris.
God talks to us every day. The practice of silence and contemplation is the way we hear Him.
Prayer is the way we reply.
My naturally tendency is to pray as though I’ve called a friend and am leaving a long phone message filled with thanks and praise, hopes and dreams, sorrows and worries.
I try, instead, to imagine the opposite. A Friend has already left a long and detailed message for me, and continues to leave new ones each day. My practice of contemplation involves listening to those messages in scripture, life, art, and the voice and silence of the soul. My prayer then becomes a reply in an ongoing conversation that never ends.
Oddly enough, I had not read Will’s post till after I wrote this, but we say very similar things, which in itself I think shows a unity among those who practice contemplation. For my part, this was inspired by Von Balthasar’s Prayer.