Published March 13, 2009
The place of contact between God and the human heart is prayer. It is a living place, a place one can find anywhere and at any time. But all too often it is a place that seems to elude us. We may not look for it all that much, thinking that it is a place just for holy people. Or perhaps we may deem it to be a place that is best left behind the walls of a church or a monastery.
It seems that most of us go through our lives drifting from one place to another, seeking some, avoiding others, doing the best we can to fit into this big place called life. Prayer, we are told, illumines the way. It can ease the burden of an undesirable place, making its confines more endurable. We may pray for miracles to happen, for good things to come our way. And we pray for those we know and love, for people near and far, for their health and well-being.
All the above are some of the many forms that prayer can take. I would like to suggest another way, a way that expands on the place of prayer in our lives.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me what was the biggest challenge I had in coming to the monastery after 20 years as a parish priest. I told her that it was the immediate immersion into a community—the most grand scale and intimate existence I had ever experienced. And that immersion deepened with time. In short, this place really grows on you, in you and through you. It is, I told her, a steady engagement with the daily ordinariness of life. After a first glow of newness, the exacting nature of the mundane takes hold and that is experienced through our lives here. She smiled and said it sounds like the same thing that happens in a marriage—that long-lasting phase after the honeymoon, a phase that hopefully endures through a lifetime.
And prayer? Well, I have learned that prayer is not an approach to God done in the hope of rising above the ordinary. It is not closing one’s eyes, and reciting holy words in the hope that good things come and the nasty things go away. It is all still there when one’s eyes are opened and the murmuring stops. And yet the prayer has been answered in the sense that one is again given the gift of moving back into life and, hopefully, learning all the better that the place of God is there.
God’s place is in the daily activities of everyday life. God is its highs and lows, its darkness and light, its sighs and laughter, its wakefulness and sleep. Prayer can be a misguided venture if done in the hope of relieving life of its tediousness, of its sometimes disgruntling ingredients. But if prayer leads one to a deeper awareness of and trust in the presence of God in life as you know it to be, that way of praying is, I think, on the right track. For prayer is to grow in an awareness of the graced nature of everything and everyone. It is to see more deeply into life, to see what (Who) was already there, operating through the Spirit that we might find the Divine in places where we least expected.
Holy people do not say much. They are too absorbed in listening to you, or noticing what you may need, or simply enjoying your company. They won’t force themselves on you but will have a radar for being available for help, or comfort, whenever they sense a need. They probably won’t talk much about religion or God, either—they may be more interested in the very human things of life, like joy and sorrow, and moving into this places in the lives of others. They have found God in that place, and perhaps the best prayer that they can teach us is to stay put, look around, and kind of like this place we call life, a place that is centered in the heart. A place that can always be found through prayer.
Lent is a season of expectant joy. These weeks are set aside by the church to help us pull back from those things that are burdensome, things that can weigh too heavily on the heart. We are asked to focus on those things that matter. In a way, Lent is a time to become more familiar with ourselves. It is a time to disconnect from patterns of behavior that short-circuit our access to the time we need for finding our hearts. It is, simply put, a time to lighten up.
We all know the dismay that ensues when we lose our sense of place on the big and small roads of life. Something as small as a slip of paper easily serves as a bookmark. Placed amidst the pages of a novel, it affords easy access to where we left off and where we want to continue to read. It secures a sense of place amidst the changing terrains of the pages. It is set aside as we resume reading, waiting to be placed again between two pages. It is such a simple tool, and yet it does a perfect job of guaranteeing the right place in a book, the place we need to go. It is so simple that we take its use for granted, until perhaps it falls out of the book and we lose our place.
Prayer is as simple in its usage and as missed when it is lost. It is so near to us but is easy to lose. Prayer marks a day, laying as it does across a sliver of time, giving us the heart we need to live life with hope, confidence and no small measure of meaning. In its simplicity, it offers us the coordinates of the most important place in our busy lives—a place of being in and with God and each other.
God is the Author of life. It is God who is slowly and lovingly writing this vast mystery we call history. The hand of God writes each of us into the narrative with love, and when we lose our way, it is time to make use of the simple bookmark given us—the focus given by prayer.
It is how we find our way and continue to live the pages given us as they open life to the Eternal.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.