I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard. Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during my recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have succeeded in going through it with absolute pure attention. (Simone Weil)
Prayer—verbal, non-verbal, formulaic, or spontaneous—is one of the hardest parts of Christian experience to explain. It is at once integral and ineffable, deeply private, yet binding for the Body across time and space.
Time and again, others—ex-Christians, lukewarm believers, those who go through the motions—have told me “I am not sure I have ever prayed. It’s just not clear to me what I’m supposed to do.”
There are, of course, many ways to pray, to open oneself up to God, to beg the intercession of a saint, to sit in the stillness of supernatural presence before the otherworldly gaze of an icon. I want to dedicate my next couple of posts to a mode (or modes) of prayer I have found particularly enriching in my own life. They are anecdotal recommendations, not dogmatic prescriptions (as if I had such authority!). Thus they may be taken or left at one’s own discretion.
Simone Weil—mystic, polymath, and saintly pauper—has been integral in forming my prayer life, predominantly through her writings on attention. For Weil, the problem with most of what we do is our lack of focus. We believe; we do right; we try to love our neighbors, but we do so without purity of heart, without full concentration on God. The goal of prayer—really of life—is to have one’s heart turned always toward God, so that all outer actions are regulated by such focus. Or, as she puts it, “[the] faculty of attention […when] directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.”
To say the Our Father over and over without the full concentration of one’s body, mind, and soul is to miss out on the fullness of divinity to which Christ has called us. And, what advice could be better in the age of social media—when it is so easy to glance at our phones, send out messages, and read (and re-read!) e-mails whenever we wish (and sometimes when we truly don’t wish!). One doesn’t need to look at one’s phone to be distracted during prayer. The very act of spending so much time before screens—torn in every direction, wanted and needed in a million places at once—molds our thoughts, tears us from absolute and total focus on God in the depths of our hearts. Multiplicity rips us limb from limb, away from the simplicity of God’s love.The focus of our minds is much more important than the words used.
Or have we forgotten Christ’s counsel right before He revealed the Our Father (and what a short prayer it is!):
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
“[D]o not babble.” No. Let the Lord be the fullness of your thoughts—such is the essence of prayer.
But such terse, focused supplication and praise is not merely for the love of God but also the gateway to love of neighbor. Again, Weil:
Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance […] The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
But how might we achieve such attention? How may we turn from verbosity to silence, from warmhearted kindness to a purity of heart that knows nothing but the plenitude of the Godhead?
This will be the subject of my next post. We shall turn to the Medievals for the answer.
(Part two of this post is available here).