Thursday, May 19, 2011

Column: Crossing the threshold of prayer

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 12 May 2011.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. I will sing, I will praise your name. — Ps. 57:8

It was a scene right out of a movie about a jewel heist. A black-clad figure creeping into a darkened museum gallery. One wrong move and suddenly the place is ablaze with light. Alarms are blaring, warning lights flash, security teams come running. Cut to the requisite wild chase.

In my case the story was set in a silent Jesuit retreat house in the country, in the depths of winter. Late at night, wearing my black hooded sweatshirt to ward off the chill in the chapel, I went to spend some time in prayer before going to bed. I soundlessly opened the main doors, blessed myself, paused for a moment to recollect myself and stepped into the nave.

At that precise instant, lights began to flash everywhere, including behind the tabernacle, and alarms wailed. My first thought was I had tripped an invisible alarm (clearly I watch too many action flicks). Then I realized this was a fire alarm. No chase scene followed, just many retreatants in pajamas and hastily donned coats heading calmly toward the exits.

I eventually did get to pray in the chapel that night, and have returned several times since, but I must admit that I still find myself bracing for the alarm each time I step into the nave. In all, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I’m far more aware of the moment at which I cross into sacred space, when I commit myself to a time of prayer.

Prayer takes us to a threshold, one that perhaps we should not always cross unaware, or unprepared. When we deliberately walk into God’s space, it might be wise to be “sensible of conditions,” as Annie Dillard suggests in her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole.” She wonders how we dare to come to prayer at all, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”

In his “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends that we come to the threshold of prayer — literally, stop a few steps before the place where you will pray — and pause for a moment: “before all contemplations and meditations, there ought always to be made the preparatory prayer.” This suggested preparation of Ignatius sets a boundary and provides an orientation.

Before prayer, Ignatius directs, ask for God’s grace that your every intention and action be directed purely to the service and praise of His Divine Majesty. Know who you have come to meet in prayer; don’t drift in, blithely insensible of conditions. Know that this time of prayer depends not on you, but on God.

This preparation to pray, which so directly acknowledges our relationship to God, orients not only the time of prayer, but trains us up to be oriented to God in the same way in all our daily work.

It may be as Dillard suggests, “madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.” Certainly these days I am a bit more sensible of conditions when it comes to prayer, attentive to the need to seek God’s grace as I approach the threshold, moving cautiously into the space that opens before me. I can only pray that my heart is ready, O Lord.

Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. — From the Invitatory for the Liturgy of the Hours


  1. Anonymous11:23 AM

    The image still lingers in my mind of a portion of the Basilica witnessed on a celebratory post Confirmation pilgrimage. The tabernacle was marked off by preventative "Caution" tape. [Some sort of remodeling was going on.] Especially because I saw it just after after Confirmation, I tucked it away.

    (Also, a similar thing happened to me on a college visit! The fire alarm went off during Mass. I think we kept going, but it was more than a little painful.]

  2. Stopping at the threshold of prayer... hmmm, love that thought.

  3. I like that part about the crash helmets. Chapel as "hard-hat zone..."