I liked Rahner's idea that even when prayer feels awkward, it has a strength to it. And suspect many (me included) need to listen to Evagrius Ponticus' advice - it applies to my teaching as much to my prayer life. Don't slew around the course, pick a style and dig into that.
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 19 November 2008.
Now once he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” — Lk. 11:1
My youngest son Chris has a T-shirt that reads: “Warning: The person wearing this shirt is a roller coaster fanatic. May be prone to random screaming. Contents of head are under extreme pressure.”
For the record, I am not a roller coaster fanatic. One ride is fun. Thirteen in an afternoon might be a bit over the top. Lately my prayer life has felt a lot like the part of the roller coaster rides I enjoy least — the start.
You wait in line, trying not to be discouraged by the sign posts: “Wait time from this point two hours.” At long last you get on board, only to find yourself jerkily dragged upward, the cars clanking and banging, the whole structure seems to groan. You wonder if the ride will be worth the wait and this interminable noisy crawl to the top. And then you look down … where has the ground gone?
As the pace and pressure of the fall semester threaten to make my head explode, I struggle to find stable ground under a prayer life that seems to creak and clank and heave itself up, rather than glide tranquilly along. I find myself returning again and again to this line in Luke: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
In his treatise “On Prayer,” Church father Origen asks if we really think that a follower of Jesus would not know how to pray, at the very least be well versed in the Jewish prayers. What was this disciple seeking? What did the disciple see and hear in Christ’s prayer that begged the question — “How do I pray, O Lord?” Origen wonders if it was an awareness of “human weakness falling short of prayer in the right way.”
I, too, long to know how to pray aright — even when it feels awkward and a bit clumsy, when I cannot find the right words, or place, or time, or rhythm. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner suggests this rough sort of prayer, that is “well-intended … a little monotonous and naive,” has its own strengths. It is, he says, a prayer that doesn’t look to the experience of the one praying, but to the glory of God. No matter that I cannot muster exalted thoughts, the contrast makes God’s light shine all the brighter.
Still, I am tempted to try to change things up, to see if I can find something new and different that will smooth out the roughness in this patch of my prayer, pull me over the top so I can race delightedly down the track. Digging through a collection of counsels from the desert fathers, looking for a reference for a unrelated project, I happened on some apt advice from Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth century monastic whose writings ground much of St. John Cassian’s advice to his monks.
Evagrius had much to say about prayer — in one treatise devoting a full 153 chapters to it. It was in the 101st that I found what I was looking for. Start where you are, stretch yourself gently, do not attempt to race far ahead of what you can do. And as for my temptation to novelty, forget it. “Do not be perplexed by the many paths walked by our fathers of old, each different from the others. Do not … try to imitate them all — this would only upset your way of life.” Choose a path for prayer and stick to it, success lies in intention and persistence, not in great spiritual insights.
Both Rahner and Evagrius, though separated by nearly two millennia, reach past the practice of prayer, to lay bare the experience of praying. I do not need much, I need nothing I do not already have. In response to the disciple’s desire to grow as close to the Father as Jesus seemed to be, Jesus offered not 153 chapters, but scarcely 50 words. I’ll stick to the track laid out. My prayer is in God’s hands, not my own.
Father, may Your name be held holy,
Your kingdom come;
give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test. Amen.