Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J

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No one can teach us how to pray but there are some general principles of prayer. If we observe these principles we will learn to pray better and perhaps more efficaciously. Some of these principles we will now consider.

There are two attributes of God that determine to a large extent our prayer. These attributes are the transcendence and the immanence of God. Transcendence means that God is not identified with creation. God is distinct from and superior to creation. God existed before creation, and if creation ceased to be God would still exist. A good example of this kind of prayer is the Our Father. Immanence, on the other hand, means that God is present in creation. God resides in and sustains all of his creatures. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God is the ground of our being. A good example of this kind of prayer is the Liturgy of the Heart.

In our prayer it is important to keep a balance between the transcendence and the immanence of God. Immanence without transcendence would be pantheism. We would all be God. And if we would all be God there would be no God. Our conscience needs a transcendent God who holds us responsible and demands accountability. It is a bad thing to degrade humanity but it is even worse to deify it. On the other hand, to emphasize the transcendence of God and forget God’s immanence is one of the biggest booby traps in the spiritual life. In so doing, we spend all of our time and energy searching for God somewhere outside our self when all the while God is present within us.

Some authors speak of the distinction between existential prayer and essential prayer. Essential prayer deals with essences, what a thing is. It deals with concepts of what I am and what God is. For example, I am a creature and God is the Creator; I am a child and God is my Father, I am a sinner and God is the Redeemer. Most prayers are of this variety. Existential prayer deals with existence. It deals with the non-conceptual fact that I am and God is. It is the need and the insatiable desire of the creature for the Creator. There are no words, images, or concepts just a resting and enjoying being in the presence of God. Our prayer should be a combination of both of these; we begin with essential prayer and end with existential prayer.

Prayer is a function of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. They are called theological virtues because they have God as their immediate object. It is through these virtues that we have this intimate, personal relationship with Jesus. They lead us to respond to the events of our lives with wonder, awe, praise, petition, gratitude and contrition without even adverting to the fact that we are praying. In other words, prayer happens spontaneously. We pray when we are fearful, when we are in need, when we are grateful, and when we are sorry.

Although it is true that we pray spontaneously and often without being conscious that we are praying, it is good to have a definite time and place for daily formal prayer. Once a day, at least, we must assert our independence from the hypnotic allure and empty promises of the world. It is our right and our duty. In so doing we will return refreshed to the everyday world and its responsibilities enriched by the insight and fortified by the rest from constant tyranny of ourselves and our mind.

Don’t try to give God a snow job. How ridiculous and impossible it is. Come as you are with all of your emotions. We do not have to hide certain emotions as unworthy of God. He knows us better than we know ourselves. If we wish to communicate with God on an intimate personal level we have to communicate with him on the level of our emotions because our emotions are what are most intimate and personal about us. Our judgments we have in common with others but our emotions are uniquely our own. And we can honestly communicate on the level of our emotions because the emotions are amoral, neither moral nor immoral. The Psalms which Jesus learned from Mary and Joseph and which he loved and knew by heart and prayed in the synagogue and temple contain every possible human emotion.

Don’t monopolize the conversation. Prayer is not a monologue. God created us in his own image so that he could communicate with us, have a dialogue with us. God always takes the initiative. He is constantly revealing to us who he is, who we are, and what our relationship is with him. We are present and receptive. Then we respond and God listens. Since God can read our minds and hearts our response need not be in words, concepts or images because our faith, hope and love are speaking in the silence of our hearts.

Don’t be a spiritual hypochondriac. Prayer is not morbid introspection. The examination of conscience, of course, is a prayer and should be done everyday but to be constantly examining and analyzing ourselves is self-destructive. It produces a negative self-image that leads to what has been called paralysis by analysis. We have to shift the spotlight away from ourselves to God. We will never get any inspiration contemplating ourselves.
Did you ever see a parakeet in a cage with a mirror? It is constantly pecking away at itself in the mirror. That is the picture of the spiritual hypochondriac at prayer.

Don’t be discouraged by distraction when we are praying. They come with the territory; they are part of the human condition. We should be surprised that sometimes we can actually pray without distractions. In prayer we are trying to communicate with Someone we cannot see, hear, touch or feel. At the same time all of sensible reality is impinging on our senses demanding attention. It will help us to remember the important distinction between attention and intention. Attention is in the senses and intellect, intention is in the will. We intend to pray and while we are praying we are distracted. Not to worry. These distractions can be a revelation. If we always have the same distractions when we pray it could be an indication that we have an inordinate attachment to it. “Where your heart is there is your treasure.”

As we mature in prayer we shift the spotlight away from ourselves to God, away from greater use of the intellect to the will and affections, and away from complexity to simplicity. But we should not be too concerned about whether we are making progress in prayer. Such a concern can be dangerous. If we think we are making progress we could get proud. If we think that we are not making progress we could get discouraged. The fact of the matter is that we do not know whether we are making progress or not. For example, if you are driving out west and you see a mountain in the distance, the mountain does not seem so awesome and you do not seem to be too far away. The closer you get to the mountain the more awesome is becomes and the farther away you realize you are. That mountain is God. The closer we get the more awesome God become. The great saints thought of themselves as great sinner because of their proximity to God. The only real sign of progress in prayer is not what happens in prayer, but what happens after prayer, in our daily life. Are we growing in the observance of the commandments? Are we growing in love, peace, joy and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit?

There is more to prayer than formal prayer. Many people complain that they do not pray enough because they restrict their idea of prayer to the periods of formal prayer. The fact of the matter is that they pray more than they think. They think that they are only praying when they intend to pray and are conscious of praying. They do not realize that they are praying best when they do not realize that they are praying. As St. Anthony reminds us, “The monk who knows that he is praying is not truly praying. The monk who does not know that he is praying is truly praying.”

Prayer is not some esoteric activity reserved for the mystics. Prayer is the natural, spontaneous human response to life. It is the product of the two most powerful dynamic forces in the world: God’s relentless search for us and our insatiable desire for God. Prayer is the awareness and expression of our personal relationship with God. Prayer keeps us rooted in reality. God is the “really real” the source, and sustainer of all reality. To be out of touch with God is to live in a world of fantasy, a world of creatures without a Creator.

Each person is unique and prays in a unique way. We must find our own way in prayer by praying. We should never think that we have found our definitive and final way of praying. Prayer is a process in which we outgrow all methods. God always takes the initiative and we follow. Life is full of surprises and no life has more surprises than the life of prayer. Our prayer should not be a “Johnny-one-note” but a beautiful symphony played on all the notes and with all the instruments at our command.


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