Read an Excerpt
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” . . . “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the trial.’?” (Luke 11:1–4)
Jesus’ response was short and sweet, but Christians down the centuries do not seem to have been satisfied with these simple words of advice. They have continually asked for help with prayer, and thousands of fellow Christians have been foolish enough to respond to their request. Mountains of books have been produced in response to the simple request, “Teach us to pray.” None has matched the Master’s terseness and wisdom. But probably most of them, except the ones trying to explain variants of what has come to be called “centering prayer,” just ring the changes on what Jesus taught. The Lord’s Prayer is the model of all Christian prayer, after all is said and done.
But we can’t seem to leave it at that, can we? You might have picked up this book because you were intrigued by the title and hoped, perhaps, that it would give you some help with your prayer. If you found this book in a bookstore, no doubt, there were a number of books on prayer for you to look at. Moreover, I have been writing about prayer for at least twenty-five years. In fact, the first versions of the chapters of this book appeared in various magazines over a period of about twenty years. Loyola Press believes that the hunger for books on prayer justifies publishing this one. What is going on? Why can’t we accept Jesus’ recipe for prayer and let it go at that?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I just know that I keep getting insights from my own prayer and from the experiences of people who talk with me about their prayer, and I feel the urge to publish them with the hope that others will find them helpful for their relationships with God. I get great consolation from hearing people talk about their relationship with God and from writing about God and God’s desire for our friendship. So I keep on writing, even though I am aware that my basic insights are few and rather simple: God wants our friendship, and at the deepest level of our hearts all of us want what God wants; but our self-image, some rather faulty images of God, our resistance to letting God into our lives in any way but a superficial one, and many cares and worries hold us back from satisfying both of these desires. I keep playing variations on these themes, and so far enough people have been intrigued by what I write that I am encouraged to continue. So this is why you have this book in your hands.
As I mentioned, the book is a collection of chapters based on articles that appeared in various magazines over a period of years. All of the articles have something to do with prayer as a conscious relationship with God and the effects of engaging in this conscious relationship. Because the audiences of the articles were diverse, I have worked all of the articles over to try to give the whole book a somewhat congruent style, a conversational one. I want to engage you in a dialogue even though we cannot meet face-to-face. I write, at times, as though I am absolutely sure of myself. Don’t be fooled by that tone. Sometimes, only half smilingly, I wonder whether I am trying to convince myself. Only a complete fool would be absolutely sure of anything he or she said about God. I am writing from my convictions, but I don’t think I’m a fool. However, these are only my convictions, and God is always greater than anything I or anyone else can think. You need to read with an eye to your own experience and insight. So I mean my queries to the reader as the kind of question I would like to ask you if we were face-to-face. As far as I am concerned, this book would be a failure if it did not, at least sometimes, cause you to want to argue with me about something I wrote. At times I have argued with myself. After all, some of the things I have learned about God in relation to me have run counter to ideas I thought were doctrinally absolute. The most obvious example is the notion of friendship with God. How could God, who is eternal, unchangeable, all knowing, all sufficient, ever be my friend? So if what I write touches a nerve in you, don’t push it aside. Take it seriously and ask God whether what I write is true. I am writing not to prove that I’m correct about God or to give you good ideas, but to encourage you to engage in a close relationship with God. And even disagreements with the ideas of this book can serve that relationship.
I have organized the book along these lines: The first part takes up some of my ideas on prayer and how God communicates with us. You might find these chapters intriguing as they invite you to pay attention to your own experience as the privileged place where you meet God. In the second part I take up questions of how we decide what comes from God in our experience and what does not, traditionally known as the discernment of spirits. Perhaps you will be helped to discover how God is leading you in your life by reflecting on these chapters and your own experience. The third part has three meditations that may help you to live more comfortably with the dilemmas that the present plight of our world and church pose. In the fourth part you will find three meditations on who God is and what God wants in creating. Does what I write ring true to your experience? If not, you have something to discuss with God. The fifth part contains some meditations on how engaging with God changes us.
I encourage you to use the book not just for the sake of gaining more knowledge but also for the sake of improving your friendship with God. One way to do this is to read each chapter prayerfully, stopping periodically to talk with God about what you are reading, thinking, and feeling. If you find yourself engaged with God, just put the book aside and enjoy the conversation. Pick it back up again only when that conversation has ended. And remember Jesus’ response to the request, “Teach us to pray.” Basically, he said, “Talk to God as to your Creator who cares about you more than you’ll ever know.” Part I On Prayer
In this part we will look at some questions that come up about prayer. I hold that God wants our friendship. Prayer, then, is a way to engage in this relationship of friendship with God. I hope that these meditations will help your prayer life.
Why Do You Pray?
Someone might ask, “Why do you pray?” Let me be honest. At one time I prayed because I was a Jesuit. In other words, my answer meant, “I’m supposed to pray.” Prayer was an obligation and, to be frank, a burden. At times I have prayed to placate God, to get God off my back, as it were. Many times I have prayed to obtain something, a favor, for example. Such answers to the question make prayer utilitarian. No doubt, my motivation for prayer still has vestiges of these answers. However, in my better moments my answer to the question now is, “I pray because I believe in God.” Let me explain. In the process I hope that I will also say something helpful about how to pray.
What Does God Want?
Why did God create this universe? Let’s play with the image of the garden in the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis. The image becomes clear after the sin of the first man and woman. We read: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’?” (Genesis 3:8–10).
If you sit with this image for a while, you realize that the author sees the earth as a garden in which God and human beings engage in daily work and get together in the evening to pass the time of day, perhaps to talk over the day. Before their sin the man and woman were unafraid before God; the fact that they are naked and show no shame symbolizes their transparency. This image speaks to my heart, and I hope that it will speak to yours. It tells us something about God’s dream for our world.
God wants a world in which we work in harmony with God’s intention in creation; a world in which God is active and we are active; a world in which, indeed, we cooperate with God in developing the planet. God wants us to be friends and partners in this creation. Sin throws a spanner into the works. Human beings act contrary to God’s intention and become ashamed and afraid of God. The relationship of intimacy is broken.
The next few chapters of Genesis depict the consequences of human sin. Cain kills his brother Abel; human beings die at a younger and younger age; incest and other abominations follow; finally in chapter 11 human beings lose the ability to communicate with one another at the Tower of Babel. Yet God does not give up.
Chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis begins the story of God’s efforts to bring us back into right relationship. God calls Abram and Sarai, from whom will come the chosen people, a people chosen not just for themselves but also to be light for the world. You can read the chapters that follow as a story of growing intimacy between God and Abram and Sarai, an intimacy signaled by the fact that God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. In other words, the reversal of the catastrophe of human sin comes about by the recovery of an intimate relationship with God, a relationship in which human beings once again are asked to become partners with God. God chooses Abraham and Sarah, and through them the Israelites, to be the carriers of God’s dream for the reversal of the effects of sin. The culmination of this choice of Israel, of course, is the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth. We who are followers of Jesus are to be the light of the world by living his way of intimacy and partnership with God.
So the God we believe in wants a relationship of intimacy and partnership with each of us and with all of us together. He wants us to be one family. If this is true, then God’s creative desire, which brings the whole universe and each one of us into existence, touches us in the depths of our hearts. We are made for union with God, and our hearts must want that union at a very deep level. Augustine wrote: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You” (Confessions I, 1). Julian of Norwich echoes the same idea: “. . . for our natural wish is to have God, and God’s good wish is to have us, and we can never stop wanting or longing until we fully and joyfully possess him, and then we shall wish for nothing more” (Revelations of Divine Love, 1998, 50).
Why do I pray? I pray because I believe in this God. Not only that, I pray because my heart aches for God even though I am also often afraid of closeness with God. I have met a lot of people who express this longing for God and who pray because they believe in the God who attracts them so much.
How to Pray?
This brings us to the question of how to satisfy this longing for God. The simplest answer is to engage in prayer. Here is where the hope that I might have something useful to say about how to pray comes into play. If God wants a friendship and partnership with each of us (and with all of us as a people), and we have a reciprocal desire for such a relationship, then prayer is similar to what happens in any friendship. Friendship between two people develops through mutual self-revelation. So in prayer I try to let God know who I am and ask that God do the same for me. It’s that simple. As with Abraham and Sarah, it’s a matter of growing mutual transparency. As we grow in our trust in God, we reverse the results of the sin of Adam and Eve. We are not ashamed to be naked before God, that is, to be open with all our thoughts, feelings, and desires.
Of course, even in human relationships what seems so simple can become very complex and difficult because of our fears and insecurities. So in our relationship with God fears and insecurities can get in the way. We may feel that we are not worthy of God’s attention and love. It may be true, of course, that we are not worthy of God’s love, but God doesn’t seem to care. God loves us anyway, freely, and, it seems, with reckless abandon. So our fears are, in fact, groundless. However, we have to grow out of these fears, and the only way to do so is to engage in the relationship with God and find out for ourselves that God is hopelessly in love with us.
In principle, then, prayer is a simple thing. I tell God what is going on in my life and in my heart and wait for God’s response. The psalms are examples of this kind of prayer. In them the psalmists tell God everything that is going on in their hearts, even things that we shudder to say. In Psalm 42 the psalmist tells God how much he longs for God. Psalm 104 praises God for the beauties of creation. Psalm 23 speaks of trust in God even in a dark hour. Psalm 51 begs God to pardon sins. Psalm 13 pleads angrily with God: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” The beautiful Psalm 137 ends with this chilling prayer against the Babylonians: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”
These psalmists let it all hang out in prayer. The psalms also record God’s communication to the psalmists and to the people. For example, in Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. / He drew me up from the desolate pit.” In other words, the psalmist experienced God’s presence as a lifting of spirit in a hard time. And in Psalm 50: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. / Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you.” Prayer is a simple thing, but it requires a growing trust that God really wants to know everything about us, even those things that seem unsavory, and that God wants to reveal God’s own self to us.
The Effects of Such Prayer
What happens when we pray in this way? Just as two friends change because of their deepening intimacy, so too a deepening intimacy with God changes us. But the change comes about through the relationship itself, not through sheer willpower. As we relate to God in this way, we become more like God. This is what happens in human relationships, is it not? We become like our best friends in our likes and dislikes, in our hopes and desires, and so on. So too we become like God through the kind of prayer indicated. We become like what we love.
The best way to become like God is to grow in our knowledge and love of Jesus of Nazareth, God in human flesh. When making the full Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, I come to a point at which I desire to know Jesus more intimately, to love him more, and to follow him more closely. But I can know another person only if that person reveals him- or herself to me. So my desire to know Jesus more intimately is a desire for Jesus to reveal himself to me. If I have this desire, I must, then, take time with the Gospels to let them stimulate my imagination so that Jesus can reveal himself—that is, reveal his dreams and hopes, his loves and hates, his hopes for me. As I engage in this kind of prayer, I will be surprised by what I discover about Jesus and thus about God, and about myself. In the process, I will come to love Jesus and become more like him.
Why do I pray? Because I believe in God, who loves us with an everlasting love and wants us as partners and friends. I pray, in other words, because God has made me for it.
You will find references to some helpful books on prayer as a relationship in the section “Recommended Readings” at the end of the book.
Does God Communicate with Me?
“You say that God wants to engage in a relationship of friendship with each of us and indicate that God communicates with us. I don’t hear God speaking to me.” I can imagine someone responding in this way to the first chapter of this book. I want to answer as best I can the question, “Does God communicate with me?”
In the first chapter I argued that God creates the world to invite each one of us into a relationship of intimacy, of friendship, of mutuality. If this is true, then God is always making overtures to us, is always communicating with each of us. So the answer to the question that the title of this chapter poses is yes, and the real question should be, “How do I pay attention to God’s communication?” God, the creator of the universe, is not the god of the deists, one who created the world and then left it to carry on by itself much as a clockmaker makes a watch. God is always at work in this universe, aiming to bring about the divine intention in creating it, calling us to intimacy and friendship with God and with one another. So the question becomes, “How does God communicate with me or with anyone?”
Experiencing God’s Desire for Us
When we are attracted to anyone or anything, the existing beauty of that person or thing draws us. But we do not exist until God desires us into existence. In desiring us, God creates us and makes us desirable to God and to others and desirous of God. God’s action of desiring us into existence is not a once-and-for-all act in the past; it is ongoing, ever present. At every moment of our existence we are being created by God’s desire for us. Do we experience this creative desire of God? I believe so. Every so often we are almost overcome by a desire for we know not what, for the all, and, at the same time, are filled with a sense of well-being. At these moments, I believe, we are experiencing God’s creative desire for us and our own corresponding desire for God. God is the object of this desire for we know not what, for the all, for what we cannot even name.
In Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant we find a description of such an experience. An old, blind woman, Pearl Tull, has her son read from her childhood diary. It seems that before she dies, she wants to remember the experience she wrote about long ago:
Early this morning I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy. The Bedloe girl’s piano scales were floating out her window . . . and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me (1983, 284).
Over and over again I have found that people respond positively when I ask whether they have had experiences like this. These are experiences of God’s communication to us. How about you? Can you recall experiences like this?
Once when I was discussing such experiences with a class of graduate students, an Australian sister spoke up. She had had such experiences, but she had also had experiences that were different. She had worked in the inner city of one of Australia’s large cities. Often in the evening, after an exhausting day, she would take time for prayer and would be overcome by sobs of deep sorrow. In the quiet that followed, I asked her whether she would want to have more such experiences. She said, “Yes, but not only those.” In the class there was a deep silence. I believed then, and still believe now, that she had experienced God’s sorrow at what we have done to this “beautiful green little planet.” I have come to believe that when we spontaneously experience great sorrow and compassion for another human being, we are experiencing God’s own compassion.
Examples from the Prophets
The prophet Hosea fell helplessly in love with a prostitute and continued to love her in spite of her continued infidelity. As he pondered his own passionate love, he must have been astonished at himself. Perhaps reflecting on his experience he realized that he was experiencing some of God’s own pathos over faithless Israel. When we really love and forgive someone who has done us wrong, I believe, we are experiencing God’s love and forgiveness. Once I heard a talk by the Jesuit spiritual writer and spiritual director David Fleming. He maintained that when we pray, in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, for shame and confusion because of our sins and the sinful condition of our world, we are asking to experience Jesus’ shame and confusion as a human being for what human beings have done to other human beings, to the planet, to God. In other words, we are asking to experience God’s shame and confusion over us sinners.
The prophet Micah puts these poignant words of complaint in God’s mouth: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (6:3). The Creator of the universe begs his people for an answer, almost as though puzzled and ashamed at what they have done. This sounds like the shame and confusion that Ignatius has the retreatant pray for. Perhaps when we experience such shame and confusion at our own sins and at the horrors our fellow human beings perpetrate, we are experiencing God’s communication to us. How do these ideas strike you?
The Experience of Compassion for Others
In my life I have met people of tremendous compassion for others. One is a pastoral care worker in a hospital who is often moved to tears of compassion for suffering patients. Her heart is nearly broken by the suffering of these strangers who become her family. Another is a man whose wife suffered from a brain disease that changed her personality. He told me how he loved her so much and how his heart was broken that she no longer knew how much he loved her. When I hear of experiences like these, tears well up in my eyes; I feel an awe and warmth that convinces me that I am in the presence of God, a God who loves others through the hearts of these people. When we experience compassion for others who are suffering, we are experiencing God’s compassion. God is communicating to us and through us to the other.
Once I acted generously without premeditation. In fact, as I thought about it later, it was an act of spontaneous generosity that I could not take credit for. I had been planning to use a gift certificate for some books for myself when, at lunch, I asked an elderly Jesuit if he could use some classical CDs. I do not know where this idea came from, but when he said that he would like some of Beethoven’s symphonies, I went out and used the gift certificate for them. While I was doing this, I never thought of myself as generous; in fact, I did not think of myself at all. This is not my usual way of acting, as you can tell by the fact that I was surprised by it. I believe that I experienced God’s generosity pouring out of me.
This incident reminded me of an experience that Frederick Buechner recorded in his memoir The Sacred Journey. He had just signed the contract for his first novel. As he left the publisher’s office, he ran into a college classmate who was working as a messenger boy. Instead of feeling any pride that he had succeeded while this classmate had not, he felt a sadness, even shame, and realized, as he writes, “that, in the long run, there can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all.” He says that he can take no credit for this insight or this feeling. “What I felt was something better and truer than I was, or than I am, and it happened, as perhaps all such things do, as a gift” (1982, 97). When we are surprised by feelings, desires, and insights that are “something better and truer than” we are, perhaps we are experiencing God’s presence drawing us into union with God and with all others.
Pay Attention to Your Experience
What I am suggesting is that we pay attention to our experience as the privileged place where God communicates to us. Our God is actively involved in this world and with each of us. God has a purpose in creating the universe and each of us; that purpose neither rests nor grows weary. If this is true, then we are the objects of God’s communication at every moment of our existence. God is always knocking at our door, as it were. We are just not aware enough of the time. But we can grow in awareness if we wish. When we begin to pay more attention, we will discover that God’s communication often shows itself in those times when we forget ourselves and are concerned with the other, whether that other is something in nature or another human being.
While Jesus was explaining the Scriptures to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts were burning (Luke 24:32), but they did not pay attention to this until after the breaking of bread. Even though they did not notice the burning of their hearts, they were caught up in the words of this stranger and thus were experiencing God’s communication. When they recalled the experience, they recognized what had been happening on the road. We need to take time to look back over our day to see where our hearts were burning. We may well find that we have been touched often during a day by God. Yes, God does communicate to each one of us. Have the examples in this chapter reminded you of similar experiences of your own?