Everything I Know About Prayer

I know almost nothing about prayer. But what I do know I don’t see being said around enough, so I want to say it. This post is about 3% drawn from personal experience/thoughts and 97% drawn from the writings of Sr Rachel, a.k.a. Ruth Burrows, Carmelite nun and the author of several best-selling books on prayer, which I am in the process of devouring. These books have opened my eyes so much, and I cannot encourage enough that you read them–any of them, all of them. This post is really just basically a summary of the points in the books.

Prayer is not something you do, it is something God does to you. That’s the most fundamental thing, and the thing from which every other point flows. Whenever we think about prayer, or our prayer life, we think of prayer as a performance–as something we do for God. And we wonder whether we do it “right.” And we fuss and wonder about technique. This is quasi-Pelagianism. We Christians are under the order of grace. Our relationship with God is–must be–totally marked by grace. We are saved by God by sheer grace through Jesus Christ. God does not want performance from us. God only wants us to agree to receive his grace, which is in many ways a lot harder, because it means surrendering control, and surrendering our idolatry of ourselves. But it is also liberating, because it means there is no “wrong” way to pray. We don’t have to worry about praying “wrongly”, because whatever we do, what matters is what God does to us, not the other way around. In her biographical stretches of the great saints of the Carmelite tradition, she stresses that even the great “mystics” and saints of this highly-mystical Tradition mostly had basically the same prayer experience as most of us every day: dryness, distraction, frustration, and so on.

Prayer is that through which God makes us more like Jesus. That is what it is about. That is what it is “for”. Yes, it is about deepening our relationship with God, but deepening our relationship with God means, is, growth in holiness, and growth in holiness is growth in Christlikeness. Prayer is not about our enjoyment of spending time with our buddy Jesus (or fulfilling some mandatory obligation). Prayer is about letting God work in us to conform us more closely to our true humanity, which is perfected in Christ Jesus.

Prayer is not about feelings or experiences–not AT ALL. This is a point that Burrows stresses over and over again, and it seems so very right and important to me. Most often, we judge our prayer life by our experiences and how it feels to pray. If it feels “dry” we are doing something wrong, if we have nice feelings, we are on the right road. But the truth of the matter is that this is idolatry. Are we after God, or are we after nice feelings? Do we want to be more in the likeness of God, or do we want a pleasant spiritual experience which makes us feel good (and fuels our pride at being Good Christians)? It is very hard for us (I experience it) to rid ourselves of this notion that prayer is about feelings and emotions and sensations, and yet it is fundamental that we do so. And here Burrows makes a key point: God works on us at the most profound level of our inner being, a level which is much more profound than our carnal senses or our “inner” senses (i.e. how we feel), and therefore inaccessible to them. Here Burrows hints at a point of systematic theology which I’ll take the liberty of developing a little further: because God is ipsum esse existens, the ontological ground of Being and not one being out of many inside the Universe, when God “touches” us, by its nature, it is not an experience we can register in the way we register the other things that affect us inside the Universe, i.e. our outer and inner senses. Instead it affects us as a most profound level. Even though he almost always enters like a thief in the night, sometimes, Burrows allows, for some people, God will, as she puts it, “turn the lights on” and give us what we typically refer to as a “mystical experience.” But, she is quick to add, whether or not this happens is totally unrelated to whether your prayer is, in fact, working. She also points out that nowadays we know very well that many “mystical experiences”, perhaps (probably?) most of them, are really just the product of autosuggestion. And conversely, she knows nuns who have the most truly mystical prayer, i.e. a prayer that conforms them to Jesus, and have never had a “lights on” experience. But most importantly, she writes, these experiences can never be the goal of prayer. And even lack of experiences is, in itself, not an indicator, positive or negative. Sometimes spiritual directors will say something to the effect that God is “giving you” a “dry spell” to “test you” or some such, and so it’s actually a “good sign”. Maybe, maybe not, Burrows writes, but it’s impossible to know–and, more importantly, it’s quite beside the point. This fact makes prayer fundamentally about Faith. Our divinely revealed Faith teaches that whenever you pray, you are in communion with God through the Spirit, and that God is indeed touching you and affecting you. Do you really believe it? Or do you instead believe your feelings? If you truly have faith, your feelings and experiences should not sway you one way or another in the firm belief that prayer is communion with God.

If you are serious about prayer, it will hurt. This is a consequence of the earlier. If prayer is God making you more like Jesus, this naturally leads to a greater awareness of your sin, and a greater awareness of the ugliness in your soul, and it is harrowing. This is the dark night of the soul. Burrows writes (I am certainly not at this stage of the spiritual life) that this is a natural step in the progress of the prayer and spiritual life. I think this is important to note, because we often focus on joy, after experiences, as the main metric of whether our prayer is “working.” For sure, joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, especially over the long run, but there is no such thing as a straight line between “good prayer” or “holiness” and “feeling happy-pappy” (we now know of the despair sometimes experienced by saints like Therese of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta). Sometimes the fruit of the Spirit is feeling like utter crap. I think, and I think Burrows does too, that we do sense this at some unconscious level and this is why we don’t “get serious” about prayer–we prefer to stay in our comfortable lie about how, yeah, we have some sins, but basically we’re really okay, rather than confront the enormity of our sin through the eyes of the true God. You must go through the refiner’s fire.

Prayer has to be a daily, deliberate, focused habit. For all that was said about the irrelevance and misplaced focus on technique, Burrows does emphasize that we do have to set aside focused, daily time, where we pray and do nothing else. This is related to the previous point. Often, we’re afraid to pray, because we’re afraid of what we might find. So we find excuses. Oh, I pray throughout the day, I pray while driving, I pray while doing the groceries, I have a restless soul, my best style of prayer is active prayer, and so on. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with praying while doing the groceries. But this is a cop-out. We do have to set aside a window of time when we do nothing but pray, and we do have to do it daily. God cannot work on us unless we let Him, and we won’t let Him unless our prayer is a sustained, real, regular habit. As a personal note, I think this is the genius of the rosary. Pray the rosary once a day, and you have 20-30 minutes of daily, uninterrupted, “real” prayer.

The only sure sign of “successful” prayer is growing selflessness. I love this expression, which Burrows uses, growing selflessness. This is the consequence of all the above. If the metric of our prayer is not experiences or feelings, if prayer is about us letting God conform us to God, then the sign of whether prayer is “working” will be that we grow in selflessness. In every sense of the term. We will be more selfless. We will be less “ourselves” and more Jesus. We will be emptied of our ego. This, not joy, or anything else, is the true criterion–and the true goal. It distinguishes Christian prayer from the spiritual or mystical practices of other religions. And it is discovered not through what “happens” during prayer, but what happens after prayer. Which, of course, is utterly like the Gospel: we are disciples of love; union with God finds its fruit in service to others.

That’s pretty much all I know. But I do think it is a lot. And more importantly, it’s something I had to find out on my own, rather than being told, even as a cradle Catholic. So now I am telling you, so that you can tell others, so that they don’t have to find out on their own.

Stained glass window of St Therese of Lisieux. By Nheyob (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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