Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prayer as the Exercise of Desire

Over the past few days, I have been spending several minutes each morning with Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi. I find this a helpful practice as the Holy Father is a beautiful writer and his meditation on the virtue of hope displays his power both as a theologian and a man deeply committed to prayer.

One metaphor he employs is that of Prayer as the School for Hope (32-34). He quotes Augustine's belief that prayer is an exercise of desire, that the slow process of praying gradually stretches the human soul, making it ever more receptive and attentive to God's creative activity:
By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]. 
Employing a further metaphor, the Pontiff quotes Saint Augustine yet again:
Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God's tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined. 
I spent the class period yesterday talking about prayer with my sophomores. I find it difficult, sometimes, to break them free of the idolatrous notions of God that they cling to: they grasp onto the idea that God is basically a genie granting wishes, rather than the loving creator and sustainer of all that is. Prayer, to many of them, is simply the act of telling God what God should do. It never occurs to them to listen carefully to their own words and that, if they gave themselves over to it, their prayer would awaken them to what God is currently doing and how they are being invited to be a part of it.

One stock image I use is that of exercise. Each of us wants to be more fit, more toned, more muscular. With the turn of each new year, how many of us rush to get gym memberships...only to grow frustrated when we don't see results as quickly as we would like. The home gym becomes a very expensive rack to hang clothes upon and the gym membership is allowed to expire.

Yet if we are sensitive to our daily workouts, we realize that while we may not see immediate results, we know that if we keep at it, some change will take place. It is the patient practice, the day in and day out commitment, the long hours and seemingly fruitless workouts, that lead us to ever more sculpted bodies and chiseled features. Not many of us can run a marathon without training: it takes months of hard work, dieting, and cross-training even to make the attempt. Prayer is not so disimilar, for it takes a very long time and a great deal of patience before we see the new shape our hearts are taking.

I find comfort in looking at pictures of caves. Sometimes, it is true, the sheer power of a raging river cut through stone and carved out enormous caverns. Yet other times, it is simply the slow trickle of water that seeps into the earth and slowly dissolves the stone. Year after year, eon after eon, the slow trickle carves out enormous spaces. The rock's natural resistance to change is overcome by the steadiness and softness of a drip of water.

Perhaps more of us should make our own to have hearts of stone. Hearts that may be hard and tough, but that are passive enough to be affected by the slow trickle of grace. Stones cannot put up defenses: they are exposed to the elements and comply to the forces of nature. The human heart, infinitely more delicate than any stone, is remarkable in the defenses it can put up to protect itself from the outside.
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