Saturday, April 11, 2015

My body pines for You.

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory. [Psalm 63]

We are often told to listen to God and it makes sense to me that my time in prayer shouldn't be entirely taken up with my spoken prayers (either vocally or in my mind) but that I should spend some time in silence waiting for God to speak, if He so chooses.

It seems that God doesn't speak to each person in the same way, and rarely ever in an audible voice. God can speak through the circumstances of our daily lives (e.g. God speaks to one of my friends through license plates), through the words of others around us (even by overhearing a stranger's conversation), or through intuition (like the person who would have died in a plane crash but never boarded because she just didn't feel right about it). These types of messages from God typically come outside of our regularly scheduled prayer time, highlighting the importance of maintaining interior silence and recollection throughout the day. With experience, I can learn how God speaks to me.

There are ways in which we can facilitate the conversation with God and hear his voice more clearly. One commonly used method is called Lectio Divina and involves reading the Bible (the Word of God), meditating on it, praising God, and opening oneself up to contemplation (in which God speaks directly to the soul in a mystical way). Many Religious Orders practice this method daily.

But what of my time sitting in silence and actively listening? Why can't I just hear God's voice during the rest of the day, maybe in the ways mentioned above? Aren't I wasting me time sitting here listening if God apparently doesn't have anything to say right now? Why all of the emphasis on prayerful silence?

One thing I've noticed is that my time actively listening to God bears fruit throughout the rest of the day. So even if I feel like God is not very talkative during my prayer time, I see a direct correlation between my faithfulness in 'listening' and my perception of His presence throughout the rest of the day. Because I am giving God my undivided attention and listening right now, I may hear him speaking later. However, how do I get the most out of this period of listening? Is it a sort of meditation during which I try to keep my mind clear of any thoughts? Am I still praying? I think we can understand better what it means to listen to God when we expand our definition of what it means to pray, beyond the level of human conversation.

Ralph Martin has said that prayer is "paying attention to God". This is a good definition (and explains how one might pray always) but does not describe the attitude I should have toward God. A few months ago one of my housemates told me "prayer is nothing other than a desire for union with God." He leads a youth group at our church and tells the young people that, in order to develop a deeper prayer life, they should sit quietly for some time each day and desire God. "You desire all sorts of things like pizza, video games, money, and so on. Just sit down for a while and try to desire God." It will become easier and, meditating on God's love for us, we can begin to desire God above other things.

There are several different types of prayer including (but probably not limited to) Liturgical prayer (in community), vocal prayer (e.g. the Our Father), mental prayer (meditation, e.g. the rosary), and contemplative prayer. Infused contemplation (which includes mystical prayer) is considered the highest form of prayer because we are acting as docile recipients of God's grace. This doesn't have to be an extraordinary experience like spiritual ecstasy. Some Saints have described the experience of infused contemplation (which is true union with God) as being like a fish immersed in water. I am the fish and God is the water. Many of the early Christians considered infused prayer to be the "pearl of great price" mentioned in the Gospel.

One can practice meditation and, for example, become less prone to distractions. And one can decide that today I will for the first time pray the Divine Office (a form of Liturgical prayer). But one cannot wake up in the morning and decide that "I'm going to try infused contemplative prayer and practice it for the next several weeks." God is the one who initiates every instance of infused contemplation.

However, some refer to 'acquired contemplation' as a form of prayer that can prepare one to have the appropriate disposition for infused contemplation. It seems to me that this acquired contemplation is nothing other than 'listening to God'. I have seen acquired contemplation referred to as casting a loving gaze toward God. I think we can all stir up an image in our minds of the loving mother gazing at her sleeping infant, or the grown man watching over his dying mother. Seeing a loved one in a vulnerable state makes our feelings of love grow stronger. Similarly we can direct our spiritual eyes in a loving gaze toward the infant Jesus or the crucified Christ.

Lovingly gazing upon Christ on the cross with the eyes of my body (knowing that this plaster crucifix is obviously not God) can help me to direct more easily the eyes of my soul to the living God. In the Eastern Churches, it is believed that an authentic religious icon (produced according to a particular method involving periods of prayer) serves as a portal to Heaven. For example, by looking at an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, my gaze is directed through the portal of the icon and I truly look at Holy Mary. (That's my beginners understanding of this mystery of faith.) As an aid to prayer, images and icons are an indispensable tool for acquired contemplation.

Spending time with God, paying attention to Him, loving Him, and desiring Him is how we drink from the ever flowing stream of living water. We become more docile to the Holy Spirit who wells up within us and sets our hearts aflame. It can be extremely difficult to force oneself to sit in silence with God. In fact, it sometimes seems impossible. But the reward at the other side of the desert is the gift of infused contemplation, the pearl of great price.

"Taste God's love. Give God permission. Stop fighting him. Desire God and he will come. Desire more and you will receive more. Every single second God loves you infinitely. This is reality. Everything else is a lie."
--Msgr. John Esseff, Building a Kingdom of Love

No comments:

Post a Comment