Some New Year's thoughts

December 31, 2004

As we greet 2005 and hang our new calendars, many of us also adopt plans for personal self-improvement. The beginning of a new year can be a time for promises and resolutions about new ways of being and behaving. For those of us who follow Christ, the most important resolution we could make would be to deepen our lives of prayer.

While we most likely all aspire to a life of prayer, I think it is particularly important that we actually be persons for whom prayer is a priority. Prayer, as Julian of Norwich says, “ones us to God.” Through prayer, our consciousness is transformed and conformed to the mind of Christ, and we begin to see and act as Christ in us sees and acts. Conversely, if we are not grounded in prayer, we easily can slip into a shallowness of spirit that allows us to give lip service to the things of God, all the while acting and speaking and relating to one another in ways that hardly distinguish us from the worst of the world’s patterns.

Many people are afraid of prayer -- except in the most desperate circumstances -- because they believe they don’t know how to pray properly and are unsure as to its purpose and results. Their efforts at prayer are plagued by such questions as: Is God meant to answer? Is it selfish to pray for myself? Doesn’t God already know before I pray?

Faced with a sense of confusion or incompetence, we can take heart from Paul telling us in Romans 8 that we don’t know how to pray as we ought. He tells us that the Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words. And in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us that the Spirit of the Son prays within us, thereby making it possible for us to make Jesus’ prayer, “Abba, father,” our own with authenticity and conviction.

How liberating it is to know that prayer at its deepest and truest is the activity of the Spirit in us, rather than something we do. Prayer doesn’t begin with, “Can I do it right?” but with giving myself over to what the Spirit already is praying within me, even below the level of my consciousness. Knowing that prayer is always going on, and that our call is to tap into that reality rather than creating the reality out of nothing, is immensely freeing.

I think here of Psalm 27, in which the psalmist, addressing God, says, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’” And then the psalmist replies, “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” The psalmist is aware that, deep within, the Spirit is praying, “Seek my face, seek my face, seek my face,” and then gives himself over to that deep prayer and responds, “Your face, Lord, will I seek.”

Thomas Merton was once asked, “How do you pray?” His answer was, “Pray.” We can spend inordinate amounts of time reading books on prayer, studying methods of prayer, but we never quite get around to praying. We can become experts on a discipline that we never actually undertake ourselves. It’s rather like reading books on dieting and never losing a pound.

When we pray, we are drawn into communion with Christ and Christ’s life; Christ’s desire, Christ’s courage, Christ’s compassion and love all find a home in us. This is the last thing the Evil One wants to have happen. So, having us preoccupied with how to pray or having us feel guilty because we don’t pray perfectly in our own eyes is exactly how the Evil One wants to undermine us.

So often in our prayer we ask for answers. When answers don’t drop out of the sky, we are afraid our prayer has gone unheeded. However, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that the purpose of prayer is not information but communion.

The fruit of our prayer is often not what we expect, nor does it come in the form we asked for. We might pray earnestly for quiet confidence and find ourselves continuing to feel anxious. Yet, later on, at a time when we would normally be fearful, we find ourselves filled with an unexpected inner reservoir of peace and courage.

That the fruit of our prayer catches us by surprise indicates the sovereign freedom of the Spirit. I think God wants us to know that the fruit of prayer is the gift of the Spirit rather than the result of our having prayed “correctly.” What God chooses to give us and when God chooses to give it to us is up to God, as much as we might want certain graces or gifts in particular circumstances. It is always God’s choice to take our prayer and work through it in whatever ways God in God’s love for us desires.

As we enter this New Year, my hope is that each of us will resolve to set aside whatever resistance we may have to the deep availability to the Spirit that is at the heart of prayer. May our church become ever more a community of prayer such that all our patterns of relationship, our patterns of doing and thinking and being, are transformed and conformed to the mind and heart of Christ in ways that may be surprising to us all.