Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Prayer

The human heart is, as Saint Augustine put it so eloquently, "restless." Perhaps this is nowhere more obvious than when we take the time out to pray. You may have a similar experience to this: you feel this urge, this complete draw, to settle yourself and to be at one with God. Taking advantage of momentary quiet in the house, you settle into your comfy chair, close your eyes, and begin to pray.

"Hello God!" you cry out.


"Well, I'm here. How're things? It's good to spend time with you. Yep, I'm praying"

-silence -

"Yep, still praying. Oh, do you remember when I mentioned Mr. So-and-So last time? Well, he's better now. And if if you have a moment, could you please do something with Mrs. Whatsit - she's not been feeling well. And my son - Timmy, the short one - well, he needs a job."

-silence -

"Jeez! The television is really dusty. Do you mind if I dust that? I'll be right back." (so you run off to dust the tv, then you notice that the floor could stand to be vacuumed, the windows washed, and the fireplace cleaned out)

"I'll BRB (tech-talk for be right back) God," you say as you busy yourself with myriad tasks, "I just need to get to this before I can pray"


Now if this is anything at all like your experience (and believe me, it's certainly been mine), don't feel too terribly bad: you're human! I reckon it is our natural state to be busy about the things around us. And yet, if this resonates with you, you may also share in my own frustration at saying, "Lord, why does prayer have to be so difficult!"

Praying seems like it should be very easy to do. Buy a comfy cushion (if you're Zen-trendy) or plop yourself into a good chair, light a candle, and be whisked away into mystical euphoria. Sounds good if you're "Kung Fu: the Legend Continues" but doesn't much speak to our day-to-day reality. We feel called to pray, we know that we should, but we so often fumble about and cry out, "Lord, teach us to pray!"

If I may be so bold, please allow me to suggest an image that I have found helpful these last few years. I share this now simply because, as I direct retreats, I'm only too aware of how difficult it can be to settle into prayer.

Imagine your heart to be a little cottage in the very depths of your soul. It's log-hewn walls have weathered many storms, it's sloping roof has sheltered you from snow and rain and the blistering sun. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, it is your innermost place of refuge.

Enter your cottage and look about. On shelves and in every corner their rests mementos and memories from your life: pictures, records, albums. It pays to do a total inventory every now and again (in today's language, we call this going to the therapist. I'd call it being particularly self-aware) in order to take stock of what needs to go where, what can be thrown out, what is broken, what should be featured on the mantlepiece, and what things you've been clinging to that seem to have no purpose. Go under the beds and drag out some of those old resentments and hurts, too. They smell like your son's gym shoes and they take up space!

Now as you go about this process, wander into the kitchen. The center of the cottage, see how cozy and welcoming it really is. Since you are going to pray, since you have every intention of inviting the Holy One over for a spell, why don't you put the kettle on and arrange a plate of cookies? It's only polite to show hospitality. Especially to your creator.

Settle into your favorite arm chair and wait for the kettle to boil. Wait for your guest to arrive. As you do so, consider how good it will be to see your old friend again. What have you been wanting to share? What burdens are oppressing you? What joy do you want to offer to the Holy Other who is always willing to lend a helping hand or to give a high-five? Are you nervous about something? Mystified? Grateful? Resentful? These are all topics of conversation that might be worthwhile pursuing.

Now start looking at your watch. Yep, late. Close your eyes: you've been working hard, getting things in order. You've labored to straighten up the cottage: dusting, cleaning, washing, cooking. Certainly not everything is in order - is it ever? - but it's the best you can do right now. Just rest in your chair and wait for your guest to arrive. You tap your fingers impatiently. You fidget. You check the stove - you already know it's off, but you want to be sure. You pace. You look out the window. You sit down again. You begin to think that you got the date wrong. But can you recall ever setting a date and then being stood up?

Then, just as the kettle begins to sing in the kitchen, you look around again. Your friend has arrived; having snuck in the back door when you weren't looking, you now realize that God has been in the room the whole time - watching as your busied yourself to make space for your little get together. God has listened as you sang your songs as you cleaned, watched you lovingly as you tidied up. At no point have you been alone. All your business tired you out enough to be still so that you might know that the Lord has been there all along.

Feel the joy of your friend's company. Share those things that you have been holding. And be present. Your guest is sometimes an introvert, sometimes very shy, and doesn't speak too quickly. God spends so much time listening to people prattle on and on that there's not much chance to get a word in edgewise. So don't be disappointed if you don't 'hear' something too quickly. Just listen. Be still and listen.

Soon the kids will come home. You'll hear them coming up the way. You'll have to go, you tell your friend, but you promise to do this again very soon. "Thank you," you say, "I'm so glad we got together."

"You're welcome," comes the reply. "I'll be here whenver you're ready."

And as the children come up the path, as the boss phones, as the baby cries, or as the students amble back into the room, you take your leave. You wave goodbye and realize for a fleeting moment that your friend actually lives in your cottage. But it's easy to forget our boarders when the world rushes in upon us.

So as your prayer ends, return to your daily life. But can you return the same way? Do you not bear something of a trace of the experience, a lingering sense of having been with your beloved friend? Make, then, that resolve to return again and again and again. Your friend is in there, waiting, watching, and loving you. Inviting you to return for a cup of tea and a plate of cookies. Awaiting you with open arms to embrace you and welcome you home.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Wonderful - I hope you don't mind that I plan to copy and use it in my own fledgling ministry of spiritual direction. I'd like to email you, but your email link doesn't work.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Thank you - I'm glad that you find it helpful.

My email is:

(this is all one work)


(I break it up otherwise those SPAM programs (the mass-mailing, not the meat) will pick it up and start sending me ads for viagra and various strange enhancements!



Anonymous said...

Well done, Ryan. Such beautiful imagery.

Sister Julie, IHM said...

Thanks for this, Ryan. I'll be sure to link to it from my blog. It's a wonderful writing that helps make prayer more accessible. My patron and yours -- Karl Rahner -- would be proud!

Laura said...

When I started reading this post, I started saying to myself, "That's me! Hooray! Now I'm going to get some help with my lack lustre prayer. While I think that your recommnedation is beautiful and practical for a certain set, I would be interested to know how to achieve the same kind of prayer experience- without imagery. For some reason, I can't even imagine myself brushing my teeth, let alone in the amazing interior of myself. I'm one of those people who thinks in words, not pictures. I can talk, and experience silence, but in my private prayer, I find it hard to experience communion, if you know what I mean.


Betsy McKenzie said...

What a beautiful little essay on prayer and living with God! Thank you. I wandered over from your tin whistle site -- lured by the James Lang article in the Chronicle. It's all of a piece, isn't it?