I picked up a copy of an old book called The Laughter of God: At Ease With Prayer by Trappistine nun Miriam Pollard from the used book tent at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit’s Fall Festival earlier this month. It’s an insightful book which seeks to foster a sense of prayer as a means of entering into intimacy with God — the God who laughs and loves, a healthy corrective to the frightening God of judgment and wrath that so often seems to be the stock in trade of old-style religion. Here is a snippet of Sr. Miriam’s wisdom:
Prayer is not the purpose of life. The purpose of life is a mystery, in the proper sense. We can never fully define it, we can only walk around it and describe it from different perspectives, hint, make analogies. This helps. But we mustn’t think we know all about it.
You could call it surrender to God. You could call it integration of the person. Or restoration to the fullness of our destiny as image and likeness of God. Or participation in the paschal journey of Christ. Or total openness to the living Christ who is given us in Baptism. Or passage into the whole Christ. Or the return of the universe to its creative fullness. Or an infinite number of other things. I remember Fulton Sheen once giving a radio talk on human love and marriage. He ended, “If this is the spark, what must be the flame?”
This is a good passage for those who seek or practice contemplation to bear in mind. Prayer is not the purpose of life, and those of us who like to pray need to remember this. It’s rather like saying kissing is not the purpose of marriage. Mind you, I’m all for kissing. But a kiss serves the interest of love — not the other way around.
This makes me think of how some folks might think that people who are uncomfortable with the sexualization of our popular culture (hello, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus!) are merely prudish. But that is an unfair stereotype. Some of us object to how eroticized mass entertainment has become not because we don’t like sex, but precisely because we do like it, very much. It is out of profound respect for eros that we refuse to reduce it to mere amusement. The pleasure we take in sex is always grounded in the love we share with our spouse. That’s the key. When we manage to keep our priorities straight, we remember that sex is a gift given to us in the service of love.
And so it is with prayer. Prayer is a gift, given to us, in the service of love, only here we speak of the love of God.
I’ve been engaged in a conversation with a friend who shares my passion both for Christian contemplation and for interfaith dialogue. Like me, he worries that sometimes contemplative prayer seems to be treated in our culture as a type of spiritual entertainment. We enter the deep serenity of inner stillness of silent prayer in order to enjoy the experience, and somehow God seems to be left out of the picture. Or if God “shows up” at all, we fixate on how God gives us a mystical experience, which somehow seems to matter more than God himself.
St. Francis de Sales once cautioned, “There is a great difference between being occupied with God, who gives us the contentment, and being busied with the contentment which Gods give us.” In our day we can substitute the word experience for contentment and I think the saint would pretty much be describing a challenge we face today. Because we live in an entertainment culture, dominated by sports, music, movies, and television, we run the risk of relating to religion as simply another channel for entertainment. We lust for experience — what Chögyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism.” And if we’re not careful, we might start to care more for our experiences than we do for God, or for holiness, or for love.
Don’t get me wrong. It is okay to enjoy the pleasures of the spiritual life, just as it’s obvious the pleasure of a kiss (with the right person) is meant to be savored. But if our priorities are organized around kissing (or sex) rather than love, we really do run the risk of getting ourselves into trouble. And I mean real love, not just the feelings that we can easily mistake for love. Likewise, if our spirituality places greater emphasis on experience than on God, we could forget what Sr. Miriam calls “the purpose of life” — which she goes on to relate to a variety of traditional religious images, the most most meaningful for me being “restoration to the fullness of our destiny as image and likeness of God.”
Consider the dynamic here: we pray because we love God. We love God because God loves us. God loves us because, no matter how hidden it might be beneath our own woundedness, we really do shine in the radiance of being created in God’s image and likeness. God wants to help us restore that shine. But if we’re too focussed on the sweetness of a kiss rather than the healthiness of love, we will probably impede that restoration. And spiritually speaking, prayer is a kiss.
So, yes, give God all the “kisses” you can. Just remember: the kiss serves love, not the other way around. Please keep it in perspective.
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