“Prayer is nothing else than union with God.” (St. John Vianney)
I do not know how to pray. Sometimes I like to think that I do but that is only because I am prone to the sin of pride.
This sin of pride is not so much that I strut around thinking that I am holy and wise. I know to be on the watch for such obvious foolishness.
Where I get taken in is when God, in His great love and generosity, pours out a wondrous gift upon me. At first I am grateful and full of joy. But after a little time passes, it starts to feel like the gift is mine, that I brought it about by something I did.
Hence, if God in His great mercy allows me even a little taste of the glorious sense of union with Him of which St. John Vianney speaks, at the moment, I know it is a gift. How could it be anything else?
But I am a sinner and so I imagine myself better than I am. After a while, I imagine that I was sitting the right way, breathing correctly, saying the right words (or not saying words at all) – that I had through my years of practice learned how to pray.
So, knowing your author to be such a fool, you may be wise to quit reading now. However, I will continue to write, on the chance that God might use me tonight to communicate some blessing He wishes to offer you, despite my flaws.
Because I don’t know how to pray, if there is to be any hope for me, I must ask God to help me. It is natural that I turn to the Holy Spirit because of Jesus’ promise about the Paraclete, “He will teach you everything…” (John 14: 26)
It is comforting for us to know that the Spirit intercedes for us “with inexpressible groanings”… “when we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8: 26). When I don’t know how to pray or I cannot express myself before God, the Spirit is there as my helper.
And yet there is something puzzling about this teaching. I can understand the Spirit teaching me. But interceding? Does God (the Spirit) need to intervene with God (the Father) on my behalf?
This seems much like the perplexing question of Jesus needing to pray in private while on earth. Why would God (the Son) need to talk to God (the Father), except for our benefit? Do they not share all in common?
This is, of course, part of the great Mystery of God that is beyond fathoming.
Yet there is one aspect of this Mystery that strengthens me and helps me stay the course while on the often confusing path of prayer.
The words of St. John Vianney remind me that, in prayer, I am invited to receive the gift of union with God, an experience he further describes as “a most beautiful thing” and “a happiness that we cannot understand”.
In my very feeble understanding of the Holy Trinity, I see the union of love I am invited into. I do not mean, of course, that I will “become God” in His uncreated Essence. But I am invited to share fully in His life.
As I think of Jesus communing with His Father in a lonely spot, I get a glimpse of this Union as an outpouring of love that is dynamic – for there is no such thing as static love. Similarly, the Spirit who has been given to me, is loving the Father and Son in a fully personal way as He teaches, guides and intercedes for me. The relationship within Trinity is fully alive, fully loving and thus perfectly One.
How does this rudimentary understanding help me?
It helps me because I do not know how to pray.
Most often, I suspect, you and I would not define prayer as union with God. We would define it as the effort we make to bring ourselves to attention so that we can talk to God or praise Him or listen for Him. We think of it as something we do.
It is not wrong for us to be conscious of the work we must do. Of course, our effort is always necessary. But it is also true that our effort is never sufficient of itself. (Remember my sin of pride…)
In contemplating the Union of God in Trinity, God inviting me into union and God dwelling in me in the Spirit, suddenly prayer does not seem so hard.
I am not saying I know how to pray. But I trust that the Spirit will pray in me and with me if I ask Him to. I trust He will teach my heart to always be at prayer if I so ask. It is not for me to know how or at what rate He is teaching me. I simply trust that He does.
Much of my work, as I wrote in my previous post The new life, is to empty myself to make room for the Spirit to fully occupy my life. And, of course, not knowing how to do this either, I pray again for His help.
If I might, I will say a word or two about the Jesus Prayer as well. Before doing so, however, I would first add that I do not believe that there is any “method” of prayer that is right for all people at every stage of their lives. The way I pray at 60 years old is necessarily different than how I prayed at 6 – and not automatically better. Thus, my reflection is only what I see at this moment in my life and may mean nothing more.
I began saying the Jesus Prayer with my breath, without any particular guidance – although I am sure that God must have been protecting from the serious errors that I have since read can occur. It was almost like a “mantra” for me at first, a place to come “home” to when my mind inevitably wandered while at prayer.
Of course, it had to become more than a mantra. Even the weakest Christian cannot call on the name of Jesus and have it mean nothing. Over time, my wandering or troubled mind increasingly learned to return to this special “home” when it needed safe harbor, learning most likely because of sheer repetition – and sheer grace.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As these words move with my breath, they slow me. I suppose they slow me much as any breathing exercise would, except that Jesus is there. Sometimes the words slip into the background, as the mind yields to the heart.
The words are my effort. The loss of the words in the Presence is the gift.
I do not know how to pray. But the Spirit within me is always “praying” in loving Union.
Oh that I might stay with the work of emptying myself to make room for Him!
Please pray for me, a sinner.
Thanks to this, I may be praying a little more simply now. It especially helps to say names and join with others’ needs. That way I don’t get lost in my own. So i’ll say Mary along with Charlie, Alice, Mike, Gracie, Nadia, Kokoni, Vesna, Dan & Anita, . . . for starters. And then there are all the persons whose names I do not know. It is so liberating to be reminded that prayer does not have to be, need not, should not be about me. I hear occasionally in my head the powerful offering in the Divine Liturgy, “. . . on behalf of all and for all,” but then I forget. Through your words here and elsewhere, but really through the mysterious “inexpressible groanings” (I had so facilely dismissed that concept because I couldn’t understand it), I am beginning to see that anxiety about prayer, about my so-called “prayer life,” is pretty much a waste of time, if not altogether meaningless–except to add, as you did and so many do, pray for me, a sinner.
Nice thoughts here, Al.
So often we stress about how we are doing and end up with our focus in the wrong place. I’m as prone to it as you are. I think I’m focused on God only to discover along the way that I was actually focused more on myself (whether I’m imagining myself to be doing well or poorly).
The prayer-as-union-with-God concept reminds me that pure prayer is utterly simple. The closest parallel I can think of is like being with a spouse or dear friend of many, many years, just sitting in peaceable silence. It is so different from early relationship behavior where we are so concerned about the impression we are making, trying to say and do the right thing. After many years of love, it is much more a being-with; we don’t focus on “how am I doing?”.
Of course, our human parallels often fall quite short of the ideal. And at their best, they still fall WAY short of the union with God experience. And I totally agree about praying for others. I have found that to be a wonderful antidote for mild anxieties and depressed mood. Asking God to bless people, listing each person by name, then going through different groups of people, nations, etc., praying with the breath, is very calming. It once got me through a 90 minute medical test where I wasn’t allowed to move! My instinct was to panic when I was told I had to do this but the prayer kept my focus on everyone else but me. Which is good. 🙂
I just heard something in a sermon this morning. “The Fathers say that we should pray as often as we breathe.” I think that must be a poetic way of describing an attitude rather than actual use of words or control of thoughts. I hope so. Maybe Paul’s often-quoted statement can be interpreted in the same way?
I do not think it meant to be poetic. Nor do I really think it is an “attitude”, any more than it involves words or control of thoughts. (But then, who am I to interpret the Fathers?)
That is a beautiful way to express it though, to “pray as often as we breathe”. If the Spirit is the breath of God within us, union with Him would mean that breathing is prayer and prayer is breathing. It is mystical. True at the deepest level but not readily described in our limited modes of expression.
It is all right if that is not our experience of prayer now. God has His own time and way of leading us into union. It is more important to be humble and follow Him wherever He leads, than to have “achieved” some high level of spiritual experience in the eyes of ourselves or others.
Humility and obedience are always the Way. The latter (i.e. “achievement”) is full of pitfalls.