Arts and Culture

Where Does Prayer Begin — With Us or God?

Seventh in a series

I have just re-read a few pages about prayer in Father James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 432 pages, $26.99) and Father Martin’s reflections on prayer speak powerfully to me. His struggles with prayer seem a mirror image of my own struggles.
Looking back on the way I prayed for years, the type of prayers I said and when and how I said them, I now suspect that an unhealthy fear of God greatly influenced my prayer life. That fear may not have been very conscious, perhaps almost below the surface of my thinking but definitely affecting how I prayed and indeed how I related to God. What was the origin of the fear? Was it from my parents, the nuns who taught me in grammar school, the Jesuits who taught me in high school?
To answer any of those questions, I probably would have to go into psychoanalysis and even then I might not discover the ultimate source of the fear.

Raising Hearts and Minds
In commenting on his own experience of prayer, Father Martin mentions some of the definitions that he has heard in his training and his life as a Jesuit. The most familiar is probably the definition offered by St. John Damascene in the seventh century. It is the definition that I accepted for years: Prayer is “a raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” He offers observations about this definition and others.
Father Martin writes the following:
“St. John’s ‘raising of the mind and heart’ reminds us that prayer is not simply an intellectual exercise, but an emotional one, too.
“But that seemed too one-sided. It described what I was trying to do, but it left out God. What was God doing? Waiting for me to lift my mind and heart to him? It seemed too passive an image of God….
“Karl Rahner, the twentieth-century Jesuit theologian, wrote that prayer is ‘God’s self-communication, given in grace and accepted in freedom.’ While I liked that idea, it still felt one-sided, but on the other side – as if all we did was sit around and wait for God. It left out our part of the relationship.” (p. 113)
My problem with St. John Damascene’s definition is similar to the problem that Father Martin has. What I don’t like about it is that it gives me the impression that we start the prayer process. The image I have of St. John’s definition is that we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and turn ourselves toward God. I don’t believe that this is how prayer happens.
I believe that prayer starts with God contacting us or touching us or speaking to us. After God takes the initiative, we can respond to God’s reaching out to us and then prayer can happen.

God’s Role and Ours
I very much like Father Karl Rahner’s definition of prayer. It does not seem one-sided to me as it apparently did to Father  Martin. I like Father Rahner’s definition because it includes both God’s role and our role and it indicates that God’s self-communication to us is a gift, that God is not forced or determined to reach out to us. It also indicates that through God’s grace we can freely respond.

Emphasis on Limitless Love
Though I do not know why for so many years I had a half-conscious fear of God and that this fear influenced how I prayed and how I related to God, I do have some ideas of how and why this fear has left me. Certainly a key factor has been the wonderful, healthy and  important emphasis in the Catholic community on God’s unlimited love for every person.
It took me a very long time to make that profound truth, indeed the most profound truth about the human person, part of my own self-understanding. Of course, there are still vestiges of fear floating around but I think, for the most part, they have given way to a trust in God’s loving presence to me and indeed to everyone.
Reflecting on the way that my attitude toward God has changed, I have to give most of the credit, after God, to the priest who has served as my confessor and spiritual advisor for almost 40 years.
Sometimes I think that we do not appreciate the power we have to affect one another for good or for ill. On every level of being human we depend on one another. We are radically dependent. The self-made man does not exist.
My priest advisor has been one of the truly great graces and blessings in my life. I wonder if he knows this. I am deeply grateful and I have just made a resolution to tell him.