Prayer as Energy for the Road

Every man has two journeys to make through life. There is the outer journey, with its various incidents and milestones. There is also an inner journey, a spiritual odyssey, with a secret history of its own. (William Inge)

Like our physical life, our spiritual life must stay active, or else it will atrophy. A withered spiritual life can have dire eternal consequences. Although being on the road is a natural part of life today, it should be a necessity to move ahead on the spiritual road as well. By moving forward on the spiritual road we grow in our relationship with God, and in our integrity as persons, even when the road is shrouded in obscurity.

There is a maxim for physical health: People do not get better unless they want to get better. This also is true for health of the soul. The greatest achievement in a person’s life is maintaining a healthy soul because it leads to his or her greatest reward. Today, keeping souls healthy is a hard challenge. Indeed, people can know about Jesus, but not include him in their daily lives. Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “The essence of Christianity is simply and solely belief in the unification of the world in God through the Incarnation.” Jesus helps us come alive to daily spiritual needs that have been there all along, but hidden by inordinate busyness. Because Christian living affects our views, behavior, disposition, attitude, how we see ourselves, and how we relate to others, we must energize ourselves by daily contact with Jesus through prayer. Our relationship with God influences our relationship with others, ourselves, and everything we do. Therefore, if we do not pray, we are lost. William Law wrote: “He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and a happy life.” What does our life center around? When our activities are in line with God’s will, our lives are rightly ordered. God is the still center of the moving wheel of our life, and the various aspects of our life are like spokes that unite us with this center. Indeed, holiness is humanity at its fullest and finest flower.

Unlike an academic journey through one’s college years, the spiritual journey is beyond the grasp of one’s reason or intellect. Nor can the spiritual journey be a temporal success story. God has a plan for us that we don’t always understand. It is occasionally hidden, sometimes even hidden from us. The spiritual journey requires effort, but it is filled with grace. It can resemble walking on a mysterious and shadowy trail. Here and there, we lay aside our backpacks of stuff to make walking easier. Through shadowy mystery, we are refashioned in Christ. Becoming better Christians does not happen by one big conversion, but through little conversions that draw us away from things that come and go, and closer to Christ who is forever. Faith is a gift to be lived each day, and if we do not live it, we lose it. Christian witness depends more on forgiveness and integrity than on dramatics or the latest technology. I recall a priest who commented in his homily that: “You spend your younger days doing so much collecting of stuff, of resources, of knowledge. Then, at some point in time, the process starts to reverse. You begin to drop things along the wayside. You start to strip away all things until, at the end, there is you, and there is God. It has come down to the essentials.”

The Unexpected

Even negative experiences can be spiritually fruitful, and later become sources for personal sanctification. Through them, we can find an intimacy with God that would otherwise be lost to us. Prayer enables us to see things in a new way, and keeps us on the path of trust and surrender. A man, brilliant and financially successful, became the father of a retarded daughter. At first, he was disturbed by her condition, but later he discovered that if he had not had that child, he would have become lost to the goods and gods of worldly success. She kept him on course, and taught him what love is.

Growing in the spiritual life takes courage. We stick with it even though we do not experience any signs of growth. We pray when we do not feel like praying because daily prayer maintains an inner disposition of the heart for the things of God. St. Anthony of Padua provides this insight: “He prays best who does not know that he is praying.” Prayer can be as simple as a loving sigh. Whatever the prayer, we must be quite serious about praying every day, cultivating Christian behavior, and never resting on our laurels. There are always challenges on the Christian road. Something goes wrong in a family and the setback is remembered for a long time. The cause of a feud between two people is forgotten, but the feuding continues. Relatives do not speak to each other. Families fight when they gather together for a holiday celebration. Family strife can lead to chronic stress. Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Be at peace with yourself first, then you will be able to bring peace to others.” Indeed, we need to have the peace of Christ in ourselves, and in our families, before we attempt to bring Christ’s peace to society. When someone is verbally, or behaviorally, out of control, we try to avoid reacting in the same manner by responding with composed behavior and a calming voice. This is an example of Christian behavior. Prayer develops straightforward appreciation for family, goodness, and love. They are highly treasured elements in our lives, and operate at their best with God’s assistance.

Christ cannot live his life today in this world without our mouth, without our eyes, without our going and coming, without our heart. When we love, it is Christ loving through us. This is Christianity. (Leon Joseph Suenens)

A Christian can move to many geographic locations during the course his or her life. However, this movement is not an indication of moving ahead on the spiritual road. As members of contemplative religious communities demonstrate, a Christian can stay at a specific location throughout life, and make great strides on the spiritual road, which is basically an interior journey. Moving ahead on that spiritual road is a personal response to the call to salvation through living the message of Jesus Christ. A solid foundation in interior prayer gives Christians the power to confront what is wrong in society by doing something about it, rather than by becoming comfortable, and doing nothing about it. An inner strength helps us to do something about the challenges of being better Christians, rather than using excuses, and turning away from these challenges. God must have an active place in our daily lives for this to happen. God must be so much a part of our day that spontaneous, heart-to-heart conversations with him become second nature to us. We strive to model every aspect of our lives on the Christian faith, with nutrients from the Word, the sacraments, and friendship with Jesus. Praying every day has top priority. If we do not pray daily, we can easily take an attractive exit from the spiritual highway, settling down in “fun-time city,” or in “shady-rest” retirement home, where it is easy to give in to a labyrinth of superficial pursuits, and shallow relationships. However, with the power of prayer, we pass by these exits because there is no vacation, or retirement, from being a Christian.

Silence is Golden

We can pray in song, and in words, and even by sharing amusing stories with Jesus, but more profoundly, we can pray in silence. Silent prayer is letting go of our voice and listening for the voice of God quietly speaking within us. In reflective silent prayer, we are less anxious about our concerns. We give them to God, and trust in his providence, as we turn into the contemplative dimension of prayer that unfolds when we are still and quiet with the Lord. This may resemble sitting next to him in a quiet park. We say no words, just relax, and rest in a silent communion that is deeper than words or images. Contemplative silence is more than the absence of noise; it is the absence of self. With no need to say or do something, we sit with an interior vulnerability, and rest in the spaciousness of God. Our desires, even for God’s gifts, take a back seat. God loves us and knows what is best for us. We are immersed in holy fascination with his ineffability. Words cannot adequately describe silent prayer. This prayer can be associated with becoming spiritually mature. The loving gaze of silent prayer helps us to recognize God’s actions in everything. Outside this prayer, there is a sense of lightness and liberation from daily concerns and burdens. A sound prayer life helps us speak for a good reason while also reverencing the value of silence.

During times when life does not make sense, Ignatius of Loyola gives us comforting words:

In times of dryness and desolation, we must be patient. . .putting our trust in the goodness of God. We must animate ourselves by the thought that God is always with us, that he only allows this trial for our greater good, and that we have not necessarily lost his grace because we have lost the taste and feeling of it.

Like a dark fog, a sense of failure can be a common occurrence on the spiritual journey. No one is spared suffering, sickness, or failure. Failure and letdowns can be dear teachers. When it seems like we are walking through a dense fog, God remains by our side. We cannot see two steps ahead of ourselves, and all is cold and still around us. We keep walking in trust, and eventually find that our heavy-with-fog path may be life-changing. Perhaps, we have reached the end of one road in our journey of life, and will begin another. Fogbound times can confront us with truths about ourselves that we would rather not know, and see things about ourselves that we would rather not see. The mystery of God’s actions breaks down our denials and defenses while opening us up to new and frightening challenges. The fog eventually lifts, and the warmth and the light of the sun will once again be ours. Failing is as much a part of life as succeeding. We fail through human weakness, but we rise through the mercy of God. Believing that the sun will shine again is choosing faith over understanding. Life brings situations we cannot understand. However, we are more in need of God’s mercy, than in need of understanding our life’s situations. God loves us in spite of ourselves. The fogbound phases of life make it difficult to know what to do, or where to go. Yet, it is of little use to brood about foggy times because negative thinking gets us nowhere. If negative thoughts assail us, we need to change the endlessly running theories our mind keeps replaying, and think about the gifts and talents God has given us. By using them in new ways, they may lead to new growth, and new service to others. Spiritual wisdom can be found in the fogbound times of our lives through fresh insights and a reformed way of living. During the hazy times of living, we can be encouraged by Thomas Merton’s prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost, and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

There are people who think prayer is an escape from reality. Rather than an escape, prayer is a bond with God who is the most real. The ego, like an onion, has many layers, and these layers block this fact. Those who do not pray may be escaping from the basic truths of life: Life is short and eternity has no end. We are weak and need God’s help. The road to heaven is narrow and the path to perdition is wide. Divine justice will hold each person accountable for his or her actions on earth. Prayer brings us face-to-face with the truths about us, our world, and the world to come. Prayer can be seen as a scale that keeps life in balance. Prayer is the call to all that is good, noble, holy, beautiful, and true. It takes the suffering on earth to the glory in heaven, similar to incense rising from a thurible. Prayer sustains the soul like blood sustains the body. Prayer is the pulse beat for our action, expressing itself in kind words, simple works, or in giving hope to those who have none. Moreover, our service leads us back to prayer.

Veritas

Prayer stimulates a continual search for truth. Opening the door, and letting Jesus into our lives, is an everyday event that is not easy. Critical questions are revealed. How do we live the gospel? Going to church on Sunday must be followed by living the gospel the rest of the week. We are created to give and receive love. How do we do that? For God to be active in our lives, we must function as Christians each day. Faith is more about fidelity to spiritual practices and less about pleasantries of fervent feelings. We walk with straightforward faith as we wonder and weigh what is basic to life, love, and God Feelings shift like the desert sands. Emotional fire can easily change to ice. Faith and reason shed light on each other, as we read and study in the light of gospel teaching. The more we live our faith, the more we want to be closer to Jesus. A strong sense of his presence helps us to act and to speak in a way that respects and honors the dignity and value of each person, and all of God’s creation. As we surrender more to the love of the Triune God, we let go of non-essentials, becoming the unique individuals God made us to be. God draws us beyond the perplexities of the day as we find blessings in calming down, accepting what comes, and finding grace everywhere. Carlo Carretto, an Italian religious author and member of the Catholic congregation of the Little Brothers of the Gospel wrote:

The degree of our faith is the degree of our prayer. The strength of our hope is the strength of our prayer. The warmth of our charity is the warmth of our prayer.

Prayer inspires action. When we are saying the rosary, a good idea can pop into our mind. During reflective prayer, a solution to a problem can surface. We set them aside and keep praying. Later, we develop the thought, brainstorm for additional possibilities, develop a plan, and put the plan into action. An inspiration can change a negative attitude we have about a daily task. A daily task can mean several things, such as something to master, control, be a source of stress, or be a boring job that must be done. At the highest level, a task is a way to show love. At this level our daily activities become a service of love, and a way to use our God-given talents. It is not what we do that really matters, but what goes on inside us when we are doing something. That rare gem, serenity, is the key. Serenity is difficult to foster in this harried society, but it can be done. If we get up earlier, we can start the day right with morning prayer, and then enjoy sitting down for breakfast at home. We avoid dwelling on yesterday’s arguments, or tomorrow’s troubles. At work we mind our own business. After work, we spend less time on apps or computer programs while spending more time with loved ones, or in peaceful solitude. Serenity is a precious jewel.

At the Cross

For more times than we can count, our spiritual road leads to the foot of the cross, a difficult and riveting place to be. We sense the awesomeness of God, and our nothingness before him. The cross opens us up to and discovers God in our emptiness. The inordinate elements in our lives come together as we try to look at them through Jesus’ eyes. He is serenity amid our turmoil. The cross is an endless wellspring of wisdom that stabilizes us. Suffering is not from God but comes through the effects of fallen human nature: misuse of human freedom, people doing bad things, and sin. Yet, our suffering can be for the good of humankind. Suffering, united with Jesus’ passion, is redemptive. Gazing at Jesus on the cross joins our suffering with his, heightens our communion with him, and encourages communication with others. Managing problems and sorrows well are sure signs of living the mystery of the cross. When we dwell on the mystery of Jesus crucified, we do so in awe, and often simply wait. Even though there are great temptations to push ahead, and find solutions, we wait with quiet expectation. Jesus’ words ring true: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The depths of love are realized in the cross. The mystery of the cross shows us that pain is never isolated or separated from love. Love is the force that makes sacrifice bearable. Thomas a Kempis wrote: “In the cross is the height of virtue, in the cross is the perfection of sanctity. There is no health of the soul, or hope for eternal life, but in the cross.”

As Christians, we live in the shadow of the cross, but focus our attention on the light of redemption. The words of an old hymn by Isaac Watts keeps this in mind:

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died.
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and 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.

Comments

  1. brian thunder says:

    if you can send more an article on how to be fruitful in prayer
    or importance of prayer in catholic or christian life