Inner formation is so important for us all because, really, when you come down to it, the quality of your life depends upon it. As physician and novelist Walker Percy once wrote, “What if life is like a train and I miss it?” When we lack prayerfulness, this becomes more possible than we might imagine.
– Robert Wicks in Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life
Several weeks ago, the rector at my church asked me to preach a sermon on prayer. Prayer is something that has been so much a part of my life that I cannot remember a time when I didn’t pray. I suspect it may be the same for you. But there is a danger in this because it may cause one to take prayer for granted—sort of like breathing. Prayers may be something we say without really giving them much thought. So I took my rector’s invitation to heart and really began to think about what it means –not to say prayer– but to be a prayer.
To be a prayer implies relationship. The opposite of prayerfulness is the isolation that comes when I make the mistake of thinking of my self as separate. Martin Buber has famously written, “All real living is meeting.” So it is with prayer. To lead a life of prayerfulness is to understand that I exist as part of the Ultimate Mystery. For a Christian to be prayerful is to understand her life as part of the Mystical Body of Christ. A Buddhist might use the metaphor of each of us being waves in a single ocean. The metaphor is not as important as the understanding that to be alive is to be in relationship. Prayerfulness means living into the fullness of our oneness with the All.
Now this deep knowing of our oneness— our interconnectedness is not so easy to come by. At least it hasn’t been for me. But there is a practice of prayer that helps to open us to the grace and communion that awakens us to our original participation in the order of things. The 20th century Jesuit theologian Walter Burghart has defined prayer as “a long, loving look at the real.”
The best way I have found to cultivate “a long loving look at the real “is through the practice of contemplative prayer. You may know this form of prayer by other names, such as centering prayer; the eastern religions call it meditation, but no matter the name, the prayer simply consists of sitting quietly in the presence of the Ultimate Mystery of God. In a culture obsessed with speed—with doing as much as we can as fast as we can, the very notion of spending 20 or 30 minutes sitting quietly in a chair or kneeling on a cushion can seem absurd. But in fact the opposite may be true. I know it is true for me, that when I fail to sit quietly and surrender my own agenda to the ultimate purpose of God’s kingdom then my own life can become superficial and even meaningless.
How we come to the deep mystery of our interconnectedness is a matter of grace, but my experience is that when I sit in contemplative silence with two or three others there is a Presence that is with us in that silence, a presence that slowly but surely erodes the mistaken notion of our separateness.
Contemplative prayer, according to Robert Wicks, when combined with other forms of daily prayer, creates a “circle of grace” that feeds, deepens, and enlivens our spiritual life. It helps us to see more clearly and thus, to act with loving-kindness more often. This is what it means to lead a life of prayerfulness, as opposed to merely “saying” prayers. For as Wicks concludes, “Meditation is at the heart of the spiritual life; and when it is neglected even the most generous, psychologically healthy person can become lost.”