“I don’t think you actually understand what prayer really is…”
My spiritual director pointed this out to me when we met just a few weeks ago. He’d asked me previously what my most vivid memory of experiencing the presence of God in prayer was, and I couldn’t think of anything.
The only thing that was crossing my mind was that prayer has, for the most part, felt extremely one-sided and empty for me for a long time now. I told him about all the modes of prayer that I’d tried, and how I usually quit them all within a few days.
So at our next meeting, he started it off by giving me a book to read called Upon This Mountain: Prayer in the Carmelite Tradition by Mary McCormack, OCD, and it has in a very short time revolutionized the way that I pray.
I’ve taken away three major tips from this book that I’d like to share with you.
1. Come As You Are, Not As You Wish You Were
In the Foreword of the book, Eugene McCaffrey, OCD states two very powerful passages from the author:
“If God is drawing me into intimate friendship with him, then he desires the ultimate meeting between the real person that I am and the real God that he is.”
“God… is not interested in befriending a persona, however devout or delightful!”
God is not at all interested in meeting who you wish you were in prayer. He came, died, rose again, and now desires to meet in the space of your personal prayer life with you as you are right now, beauties and flaws and all.
I hate to say it, but reading in this book that St. Teresa of Avila, the great Doctor of the Church and Spiritual Giant struggled greatly with the structured prayer of the Carmelites of her time made me insanely happy.
The author states in Chapter One that “Teresa observes rather wistfully: ‘All who are able to walk along this path will have rest and security (Way of Perfection 19:1). She was not one of them.”
When you come to God in the space of prayer, don’t come to Him praying the Liturgy of the Hours if you can barely get through morning prayer. Don’t come to Him praying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius if you can’t get through it.
If all you can do is sit in silence and repeat Jesus’s Name over and over again in the silence of your heart, do that. Christ rejoices in us, not some false notion of us. Just because you can’t pray in silence for four hours doesn’t make you a bad person, it simply means that you aren’t there yet, and that’s okay.
Yes, our prayer lives should all grow and deepen over time, but we all have to start somewhere. Taking baby steps is much better than not moving at all, or worse, moving backward.
2. Start By Simply Being With Christ
Going into more detail about Teresa of Avila’s own prayer life, the author states that “Teresa learned to allow herself to pray in a way that was faithful to her innate gift for relationship, for being with another… She describes to us in her Life how she prayed: ‘I strove to represent Christ within me… I strove to be His companion… I remained with Him as long as my thoughts allowed me to’ (Life of Teresa of Avila 9:4).”
Later on, she describes this type of prayer as simply looking at God; this doesn’t necessarily mean creating a mental picture of Him, “but to turn our attention in faith and love to the one whose attention never leaves us for a moment.”
Simply placing yourself in the presence of God can be enough. Find a place to sit in stillness and quiet, calm your heart and rest your mind, and say, “Here I am, Lord.”
That in itself is a beautiful prayer in which God will be incredibly happy to meet you.
3. Let Christ Be With You
I remember once praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and I was moved to let Jesus pray it with me.
Instead of saying the normal prayer, “For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world,” I prayed with Jesus, saying, “For the sake of Your Sorrowful Passion,” and let Jesus say to the Father, “have mercy on them, and on the whole world.”
It’s something I still do, and I love praying alongside Christ in that way.
Pray as you can. Over time, you will get better, but for now, do as you can.
In her book The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander says that “...in God’s eyes being something comes before doing something.” In prayer, God can transform you into all that He desires you to be, but it’s Him that must transform you, not you.
Simply be as you are now, and let Him work on you in prayer. It is there that He will transform you into Himself, into all that you’re meant to be.