“I do it myself!” On our family vacation over the 4th of July, two-year-old Zippy is declaring her independence.
Her independence produces a lot of work, particularly for my brother Joe, who is a good and attentive father. “I do it myself!” she insists, as she puts on her pajamas, but her leg goes into the arm sleeve and so she is stuck until help arrives. “I do it myself!” she peels her own egg, and my brother must bring the “scary weapon” to vacuum the 98% of the shells that wind up on the floor. “I do it myself!” she jumps into the deep end of the pool, propelled to the surface by her “floaties” and the subtle assistance of an adult hand guiding her to shore.
As I delight in her growth, I muse on my own, and the mysterious interplay of freedom and dependence on God. I too, have a patient Father, teaching me both to step out in faith but also fall back in trust. I am learning, too, that the “doing” of Christianity is so often a matter of “being.” What does this mean?
Recently in prayer I was anguishing over something, the details of which I do not recall, but it was a matter requiring some degree of discernment and action. However, the image that persisted in prayer was tea bags. Just tea bags, steeping. I was jarred by the banality of it. I wanted something at least inspirational, if not instructive. But tea bags?
I am often asked about prayer, and my consistent advice is to begin by “making a space to be with God,” i.e. to begin by committing to a specific daily prayer time. For anyone who wishes to grow in the spiritual life, to have a relationship with Christ, daily prayer time is paramount. Nothing matters more. Just fifteen minutes a day, practiced with persistence and perseverance, will be life-changing.
In the beginning, it often helps to have some “props” for prayer—images or books to focus on, or Scriptures or other reading to guide our reflections. It is also of great help to invite the Holy Spirit to pray within us, and to ask Jesus to lead our prayer in whatever way He wishes. Many excellent books have been written on ways that can help beginners in prayer; some I will cover in future posts.
To pray is to “practice the presence of God.” It is “wasting time with God.” It is not something that we do, although in the beginning we have to work to open ourselves to God, to be quiet and still and truly present. It is to receive the love of God, and then to return it. “Prayer is not thinking much but loving much,” says Saint Teresa of Avila. (It is worth noting, that Teresa herself relied on books and images for help in prayer, especially in the early years).
Being present does not mean being passive. In the beginnings of prayer, in particular, we may need to fight—to work to be still, to fight for silence, to be recollected. Especially in today’s culture, times of quiet do not come easily.
Are we afraid of silence?
In the beginning, this silence and space for God can be disconcerting, or even frightening. “Just who am I?” the silence taunts us with its emptiness. But it is only in the presence of I AM that we are filled and given a more true answer.
In today’s first reading, God identifies Himself to Moses as “I AM.” It is fascinating to compare Him to the gods of other religions, who are numerous and named for what they do and/or control. The god of war, the goddess of the harvest or of fertility, the sun god, the river god. Our God, who has a far more impressive resume and who holds the whole world, does not identify Himself as “I do” but as “I AM.”
To pray is to be with this God.
Saint Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church for her works on prayer. But at one point, she herself gave up on prayer for over a year, when it became frustrating, and she mistakenly thought, fruitless. She learned that prayer is essential, that it depends on God, and she wrote beautiful works on growing in prayer.
She uses the image of prayer as a garden that is to be watered. In the beginning there is work to be done removing weeds etc. and cultivating growth; the garden must also be watered regularly.
In the beginning, the pray-er seems to be doing most of the work, but as she grows spiritually, the effort of the soul lessens and God’s work increases. In the early stages Teresa likens prayer to drawing water from a well—a lot of work, for a very little water. Later it may be like a pump—the pray-er is still “working” at prayer, but more efficiently and for more water. At a third stage God provides the water as through an irrigation system—the soul is more still, more dependent, more receptive. And in the final stages of prayer, it is like a garden watered by rain: the soul is completely receptive.
At each stage of prayer, we must give to God what we can, and let Him give to us what we cannot. It is us that He wants. He wants not just our actions, but our hearts, our desires—including our desire to be with Him. And sometimes, we must ask even for this desire! The desire to pray is itself a gift of God.
Prayer isn’t always pretty. We come with our hearts as they are—angry, broken, bruised by sin, filled with self—to give what we are, as we are, to the God of Being.
Sometimes in prayer we might have wonderful “experiences” of the presence of God. But other times, we are transformed more quietly, more subtly, in the way water receives from tea bags, simply by time and togetherness. It is in these moments that God works, and we receive, without even knowing what or how.
Image credit: Photo by Monika MG on Unsplash