Prayer As Bedrock for Service

Although prayer and service have many splendors within Christianity, one cannot exist without the other. Prayer is spiritual respiration to the soul, which oxygenates Christian service. Pope John XXIII said, “Perfume all your actions with the life-giving breath of prayer.” Indeed, a person of prayer finds resting with Christ within one’s heart and searching for Christ the in hearts of others, an ongoing challenge. 

The primary language in this Christian rest and search is prayer. Be it as simple as a loving sigh, or as profound as a mystical experience, prayer is the ultimate link with God, who cannot be fathomed, and the incomprehensible link with others, even those unknown. Adoration, praise, contrition, supplication, and thanksgiving flow through the days like gentle streams linking us to heaven, as well as to our authentic selves. Daily prayer opens us to the subtle graces that expand our love for Christ and energizes our commitment to service. By recognizing our incompleteness, we bond with the wholeness of God. We see our nothingness in God, because he is all. Daily prayer is best accomplished at regular times of the day. Daily prayer is a good habit, and, in time, we discover it to be the most important part of the day. 

Prayer is an adventure that takes us through ever changing landscapes, traveling through cactus patches, tranquil meadows, dry deserts, lone prairies, rolling hills, fruited plains, and rocky mountains. Each terrain has its own majesty and mystery, beauty and foreboding, and we never experience the same place a second time. 

Mature Christians understand that prayer is a sacred refuge that is frequently sought, and always available. One of the reasons we pray is because it helps us, and changes us. We could say a rosary in the quiet of the night when we cannot sleep, a litany when we are agitated, a novena for a specific need, a chaplet of mercy when we are fearful, or prayers of gratitude for everything. Prayer expresses our belief in the Triune God and prompts us to look for the goodness of Christ in the realities of our daily life.   

Service projects, relationships, living and working environments, parishes and communities are all subject to change. To go through change well, we need to be true to ourselves. Our identity must be firmly rooted in Jesus. We grow in our companionship with Jesus through prayer, and service confirms this growth. Prayer is the living rock foundation on which we build the ever changing framework of service. The foundation of prayer is ever supportive even though the forms of service can change with the passing of days and seasons of life. Whatever our service, we walk in a fellowship bound together by Christ’s love: the Church in the world.

We represent, each in our own way, the love of Jesus. John of the Cross said: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” This is what prayer calls us to do. By giving love away without strings attached, love can flow to places where it is unknown. As we are drawn to God in prayer, we become distant from our own desires. We travel outside of our personal comfort zones in prayer and in service. Prayer is essential. We pray because we are a man or woman of prayer. Service becomes itinerant. We serve to meet a need, rather than to do what we want to do. Francis de Sales reminds us: “What does it matter to a truly loving soul whether God be served by this means or by another.” 

In the 17th century, there was a lay brother at the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Friars in Paris. His name was Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Before he entered religious life, he was a soldier with an aversion to cooking and kitchens. For 15 years, he worked in the monastery as the community cook in the kitchen. There, his skill in the culinary arts became his road to sanctity. How did this happen? He became accustomed to asking God for the grace to do the work well, and to do everything for the love of God. God uses things we do not like, like scrubbing dirty pots, and cleaning kitchen sinks, to bring us close to him. 

Stumbling Blocks
Despite contrary feelings or inclinations toward prayer, we pray. Prayer is more powerful when we pray, even though we would rather do something else. At times, praying morning prayer at an early hour may be annoying. We would rather sleep in, relax with a cup of tea, or read the newspaper. However, we resist the negative impulses that pull us away from prayer, and just pray. To ignore the feelings and personal preferences of the moment is to strengthen a steadfastness and perseverance in faith. In the long run, this gives our spiritual life more substance and makes us more responsive to God’s work within us. God works independent of our mood. It is easy to swim in the sea of the romantic and pleasing aspects of prayer, but grace sustains us when we must navigate through the storms of tensions and difficulties of prayer. Prayer is not so much a task we do, but a way to live.  

At times, faithful Christians may dwell on the prodigal son’s brother. They may ruminate about how much “fun” notable sinners had before they converted, or returned to, the Church at the eleventh hour. However, when these thoughts persist, Christians need to look deeper at the truth that life inside God’s house is fuller and richer than life outside God’s house could possibly be. There is no real depth or true beauty in self-gratifying pleasures. If a person thinks a popular sin is attractive, he need only scratch its surface to discover a great illusion.

The ability to help others, and receive help from others, maintains a healthy balance. However, what if we are good at giving help, but shy away from receiving help? For some, it is easier to do things for another, than to have others do things for them. By not allowing others to help us, we restrict the grace they might receive by their service to us. Do we keep those, who come to us for help, at arms’ length because we fear they will see we are also in need? Do we maintain a protective barrier so that people will not find out who we really are? Receiving help exposes our vulnerability, and each one of us is vulnerable and flawed.  

We are a servant among servants. In other words, the supervisor is our sister, and the janitor is our brother. A mirror of humility keeps entitlements or aggrandizing behaviors in check. We need not set ourselves apart, or consider ourselves above the everyday humdrum workers that build the kingdom of God. From implementing a vital program, to cleaning up a dirty church hall, no matter what the service, one should take on the role of a foot washer. Cleaning feet is a good way to begin guiding steps toward a desired goal. Jesus shows us the way.

Tell Me Again, Lord, I Forget
You know, Lord, how I serve you
With great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for you
At the women’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
A fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.

But how would I react, I wonder
If you pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
Of a bent and wrinkled old woman
Day after day
Month after month
In a room where nobody saw
And nobody knew.
By Ruth Harms Calkin

We may have a special talent, or a Ph.D., but in service, they must be part of a greater cause, instead of an individual distinction. Although status and politics are inevitable in any Christian organization, they should not interfere with the Christian values of the organization. The structure, machinery, and hierarchy within an organization should not deter spreading the kingdom of God on earth. The “I am” changes to “we are.” An individual good yields to the common good. Yes, each person in our service milieu can irritate, disappoint, amaze, or mystify us. However, with the help of grace, together we do the best we can to live the Gospel and walk toward heaven.

We should not put an over importance on, or be too dependent on, the results of our service. It is better to concentrate on the values and goodness of the service itself. In time, a service area may no longer be of use, or not achieve the expected results. We should avoid becoming overly involved in, or driven by, our service to the point of avoiding other life sustaining activities. Nor should our service mask or hide loneliness, deep-seated problems with others, or conflicts within ourselves, or obstruct spiritual development. Work is not a substitute for, or an expression of, daily prayer. Except for emergencies, work should not be done during the time set aside for prayer. When we pray, we pray. When we work, we work. One cannot thrive without the other.    

The Ear of the Heart
Prayer can be like an hourglass at its narrowest point. At this point, everything flows to it, and everything flows from it. All flowing is silent. Silence is a great help to listening. Listening to God is a little more difficult than listening to a person. A quiet environment helps because God usually speaks in a still, small voice. We sit in silence without argument or commotion. Like conversing with another person, we cannot hear God if we are talking, or if our mind is preoccupied. If we want to hear him, we must be quiet, so we can be receptive to what he is trying to tell us. 

Because prayer, in part, is a listening art, it should develop into listening to others well. How we listen to God is reflected in how we listen to others. The fruits of listening at prayer tell us it is detrimental to listen to malicious gossip, mind numbing chatter from acquaintances, or suggestive programming. To discern what deserves our attention, we scrutinize carefully what we choose to hear or view in the entertainment industry, as well as in other areas of life.

It is a gift to speak the right words at the right time. A mutual monologue doesn’t fit here. This kind of ping-pong monologue is common. Two people talk at each other. One shares a personal problem about a spouse, children, work, or illness. Then the other person talks about the same problem in his or her life. Attentive concern is being aware of another’s needs, watching his or her body language and facial expression, and hearing what is said, and not said. We pay attention to the words, and to the way the words are being conveyed. What does this person really need, and how can I keep the focus on that need?

A sincere form of respect is to stay tuned to what a person has to say. With a receptive heart, we can concentrate more on what is being said. It is easy to respond by giving advice or solving the problem. Doesn’t this make us feel good? However, it is accurate to say that a person wants to know he or she is being heard correctly before help is offered. To clarify phrases with no need to control, censor, or manipulate what is heard builds mutual trust. Listening with love is dying to self. So often we feel compelled to share our stories, but isn’t that placing emphasis on us, rather than the other? It takes a long course of study to achieve what Benedict wrote in his rule: “Listen with the ear of your heart.”

The Craft of Service
Augustine said we should pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us. There are so many areas of service, yet there are constants within each area. Our behavior reveals more about who we are, than what we do. Maintaining order, with a positive attitude, sense of humor, and trustworthiness discloses more about us than task performance. The love put into a work of service is more important than the social status of that service. We do what we can; then step aside. We rest, assured that a job well-done is still a job well-done, even though no one notices it.

Harry S. Truman said it best: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Christian prayer is the launch for Christian service. Meister Eckhart wrote: “If one were in a rapture, like St. Paul, and there was a sick man needing help, I think it would be best to throw off the rapture, and show love by service to the needy.” We cannot embark on a Christian service project unless prayer powers us. But how do we know that our prayer has formed us to serve in a Christ-like manner? What are some behavioral guidelines? Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata assists us:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements, as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere, life is full of heroism. Be yourself.  Especially, do not feign affection.  Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.  Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

And we are ever grateful that the source of true happiness, Jesus Christ, is our way, our truth, and our life.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. This article has so many meaty insights that I’ve read it twice already, and I expect to read it again and again… probably outlining as I go. Thank you, Carolyn Humphreys!

  2. Avatar Nina Sanfilippo says:

    Carolyn,
    How wonderful an article is this! I am so proud of your sharing because it’s everything I have experienced in my life so far and everything that I hope to achieve before seeing my Savior some day. Keep on keepin’ on. You’ve been given a great gift of simplicity in communicating and getting a wonderful point across. Thank you for your friendship all these years in CUSA!