I wrote this little essay years ago when I still lived in Seattle but all of it is still true today. I'd love to hear from you.
How do you pray today? How has your prayer changed as you have walked with Christ?
Sometimes I look back with nostalgia to my early years as a committed Christian. My life was one long vocational crisis but my days were filled with unceasing prayer. I had been raised in the evangelical Protestant tradition, which does not have a tradition of contemplative prayer. Prayer for us was nearly always seen in the light of mission. The closest we came to the Catholic understanding of union with God as the pinnacle of prayer was when we sought to be aware of God’s presence throughout every moment of the day, a spiritual practice written about by Brother Lawrence, one of the few Catholic authors that we read.
In those days, prayer of the heart, prayer for everything and everyone seemed to pour out of me in an inexhaustible flood. I sought to use everything as a reminder of God’s constant presence, to bless everyone I met, to live a life of single-hearted communion. The evangelicals I knew considered me something of a mystic and God help me, I started to look upon myself as something of an expert on prayer. I taught a number of classes on prayer - the prayer of presence, of listening, of guidance, which people seemed to find very helpful. Prayer was so central to my life that I was honestly puzzled by books on prayer that spoke of dryness and the desert experience. I had never experienced spiritual dryness and finally decided that such dryness wasn’t necessary and that somehow I had escaped it.
My relatively tidy spiritual universe was completely undone when I returned from a year living abroad. In order to deal with wounds from my childhood, I went through a program of extremely intense therapy. The experience changed my life in ways I could never have expected. I did experience dramatic healing. The pain that had filled my inner world disappeared, half of my constant, anxious, inner chatter vanished never to return, and I experienced, for the first time in my life, my own goodness, the goodness of God’s creative purposes in and through me. I entered therapy as an evangelical Quaker, but emerged with the clear and stunning conviction that I had to have access to the sacraments. To my astonishment, I found myself seriously contemplating joining the Catholic church.
There was another change that I did not grasp until later. I had never realized how much of my constant prayer had been driven, not by love, but by my own neediness and anxiety. As the interior “noise” in my head faded, so did certain experiences that I had always considered the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but which I began to realize was simply “my own stuff”. Between this profound inner change and the disorientation brought on by leaving the Christian culture I had known all my life and becoming Catholic, I slowly began to feel paralyzed in prayer.
First, I made the humiliating discovery that I was not a great prayer, but a mediocre member of a enormous family filled with spiritual giants, whose experience was light years beyond anything I had ever imagined. Even worse was realizing that my prayer life had been partially motivated by the praise and affirmation of other Christians about me. My old perception of myself as an advanced pray-er died a slow death. The prayer of quiet, as described by the Carmelite masters of spirituality, was simply incomprehensible to me. The pursuit of spiritual union, of mystical marriage, which seemed to be the Catholic ideal of holiness, seemed utterly beyond my desiring, much less my grasp.
What was wrong with me, I wondered in some anguish of spirit. Why was I so fascinated with the work of redemption and healing, with what God did in the lives of human beings, but not with the prospect of union with God? I would sit in front of the beautiful crucifix in my home parish and beg God to change me, strike me with a lightening bolt, something, anything, that would give me that desire for union with God that a good Catholic was supposed to desire above all else.
It was my Dominican pastor who gave me the first indication that there was a way out of my dilemma. He told me that there were historic Catholic spiritual paths to holiness that were primarily centered around mission rather than mystical marriage. Dominican spirituality was such a path, centered as it was around the apostolic mission of preaching and being useful to the souls of others. I now know that many of the ways in which I pray are typically “Dominican”.
First of all, I have been tremendously encouraged to realize that Dominicans had always understood study as a form of prayer, of contemplation. Study has always been a major spiritual catalyst for me and much of my prayer is rooted in and triggered as I seek to understand the universe God has made. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that contemplation always involved the silencing of all thought. The discovery that when I am struggling to understand the truth about human beings or the creation, I am really praying, that I am contemplating God, the Creator and Redeemer, has been enormously freeing.
Another thing that puzzled me was that I pray best when I’m on the move. I was dismayed by the idea that serious prayer required silent immobility, preferably in front of the Blessed Sacrament. While I have always had a strong sense of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I am better able to pray while walking. So I try to pray in churches that are empty so that I can take off my shoes and quietly pad about as I talk to God, stopping to bow before the altar and genuflect in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I was delighted to discover that St. Dominic was a champion prayer-walker, preferring to lag behind his brothers on their long apostolic journeys, so that he could pray as he trudged along.
One of my favorite prayer places is a nearby lake-side park, where I can often be found walking and praying before sun-rise. There on a hill that dominates the park, I stand and adore the Holy Trinity and then consciously take my place in the Body of Christ, surrounded by the communion of saints. I ask God’s blessing on the place and all the homes and families that I can see, and pray for myself, my family and friends, the redemption of all things, and the mission of the Church.
It was said of St. Dominic that he spent his day talking to others about God and his nights talking to God about the needs of others. Another great Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena recorded this word of the Lord: “You cannot do Me any service, so you must do it to your neighbor. This will be the demonstration that, by grace, you have Me in your soul.” I now understand that to be of use to others is nucleus of my own spiritual path and therefore of my prayer. The miracle is, that under the Mercy, even my walking and my wondering have been transformed into real prayer.
I should mention that a Dominican nun read this piece and sent me a lovely note assuring me that I was a true Dominican in spirit.