Maybe you have taken on a very difficult and demanding task. Maybe you have been engaged in a burst of creative activity. Or perhaps, you have been involved in the long, slow, steady, outpouring of yourself for family, friends, or your job.
You may have noticed the signs: an anxious, sleepless night here or there; drinking too much caffeine or alcohol; not enough time to get to the grocery store; a sudden attraction to playing solitaire, and a rush of those Please-Lord-give-me-the-strength-to-do-this prayers.
In my case I was following my own devices again, rushing ahead of the Spirit, plowing my own path. Finally I was stopped by a sharp, shard of sorrow in my heart, a sense of restless unease, and the accompanying guilt and self-recrimination about my lack of motivation. I did not miss God’s irony that this should assail me over the Labor Day holiday.
After thirty years of devoting myself to prayer, I am amazed at how hard it still is to expose myself to the direct presence of Christ. I really think I would be the one in the back of the crowd, wanting desperately to push through to touch his robe, but fearful and cautious, and resigned to making the best of things on my own.
Many of us find it easy to read about faith and prayer. Books on these topics are best sellers. Countless people read the Bible. Most of us do not have much trouble telling God what we need. We may even write out a list of our needs and longings and hand it to the person in front of us, asking, “Would you pass this on up to Jesus, for me?”
What I hadn’t done was the simple, radical exposure of myself and my need to God. What I hadn’t done for several weeks was a sustained, still, silent offering of my being to the being of God. This is what I believe truly heals and redeems: contact with Holiness, that mysterious communion and co-mingling of my spirit with the Spirit, a dance of love beyond my understanding or control.
I know why I avoid it and why I, suppose, that I have to write about it. The reason is that this communion may hurt at first. The exposure of a raw, chaffed heart to the burning brightness of Grace can be excruciating. (Yes, that is the word for it: ex- crucifix, from the cross.) It may be the last thing we want to do. So we often just tell God about it, then get up and go on fretting, and look about for something to do, anything other than just sitting there in that fear and pain.
Now think for a moment. If you were sick, would you not pay attention to your symptoms, maybe check them out on the internet, and go to a physician and describe what you are feeling? And then, would you get up from your chair and go home, before the doctor had a chance to ask questions, to examine you, run tests, and prescribe your treatment?
Surely you would you wait for the examination. You would answer questions. You would you lie down on the table, bare your chest to the stethoscope, your arm to the blood pressure cuff, and take whatever tests the doctor advised. You would take your medicine and follow a treatment plan.
I had been making drive-by visits to God, where I would drop off my laundry or tell God what I need for today. I was sipping those devotions for busy people, spouting sound bite prayers on the run. I was not coming before God and disrobing. I was not holding still for God to search my heart and probe my mind. I would not wait for his grace to move into me, to absorb the pain, to refresh and heal me. Further, it was all about me. I was all about me. I had nary a thought of what God might desire or need from me.
We fool ourselves if we think a quick shot of God, a pithy quote, or Bible verse alone will do it. God desires a relationship with us, not a power lunch, and depth relationships require leisure, attention, vulnerability, and mutuality.
Part of us really does desire this. However, another part of us is just not that interested. I hear about this internal conflict over and over in my practice of spiritual direction. People are sincere and have good intentions. Yet nearly everyone I know finds him or herself facing obstacles to a sustained presence to God.
Try it. Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Set a timer. Twenty minutes is good. Ten minutes will do. Even five minutes can hold a miracle. Breathe a while. Just be there and allow yourself to be open to Christ, the patient physician, who has been waiting for you for an eternity. Now right off, you may notice all sorts of responses in yourself: a sudden urge to get up and tend to some task; some buried pain rising up, burning and stinging like really bad heart burn. You will take little sorties into the past and into future. You will write fiction, little novellas, about your life. You will discover some hurt or slight or worry to gnaw on.
Just stay there. Hold still. You are getting a CT scan. Don’t move. This time is for God’s examination of you. What you think and how you feel about this isn’t all that important. The physician is at work. Trust that. You may feel panic or anger or despair. You may feel deep peace and joy. Whatever you feel, just stay there opening yourself to the one who loves and cares for you beyond your wildest dreams.
When the timer rings, give thanks as honestly as you can. Then do the same thing the next day and the day after and the day after. Don’t look for “results,” just be obedient in allowing the doctor to heal you. Thomas Keating calls this form of centering prayer “divine therapy.” You, of course, may also read the Bible, pray in other ways that you are drawn to, do acts of love and service, and whatever else that seems right for you.
Sometimes this prayer is like detox, a weaning from some addiction, and we go through the painful withdrawal of whatever we may have been substituting for God in our lives. Other times this prayer is like the surrendered offering of Mary to the angel, Let it be to me according to thy word.
Always such yielded prayer is an act of faith in the mystery of God’s love and purposeful activity in the human heart and soul.