I was determined to leave my mark before leaving school, but, as I could not make it in the academic field, I decided that I would have to do it on the athletic field. I spent hours in the gym building up my muscles, on the track increasing my speed, and with my trainer perfecting my technique. On the very last day, I broke the school record at the pole vault and won a gold medal for winning the county Championships at the same time. But, as there were no other competitors, I threw my medal into the bin – it was not worthy of a place in the school’s trophy cabinet. I thought the whole thing was a waste of time, but on reflection, it did teach me something worthwhile that I have never forgotten.
Practice Makes Perfect
There is no accomplishment of any kind that you can attain merely by desiring to have it. It must be learned and this means giving ever increasing time and energy to perfecting it. As my trainer used to say, practice makes perfect. This is particularly true of trying to master the most important human accomplishment of all, learning to love. There may well be such a thing as love at first sight, but if this is not followed up by a lifetime of trying to love more fully and more deeply in sickness and in health, then disaster will follow. The love at first sight that begins in flames will soon end in ashes. From rapture to routine, from routine to rupture. Learning to love God may end in flames, but it never begins there, that’s why far fewer begin the journey.
It begins with a faith-filled conviction that there is no more important journey, not just because it leads a person to experience the love of God, but because it enables his love to surcharge and suffuse our weak human love. This enables us to love others as Christ loved others, especially that special other to whom we have dedicated our lives on earth and the family that we have raised together. Learning to love, of whatever sort, must be learnt. Learning to love God through prayer then is like anything else, it takes time and it needs practice.
We think nothing of spending hours a day and working for years to get a degree, pass an examination or attain qualifications. And we quite rightly accept as a matter of course that the time we give and the energy we expend is necessary. Somehow we seem to think that prayer is an exception; but, believe me,it is not. Like any form of learning responding to God’s love is initially difficult and burdensome, until, with continual practice it becomes easier and easier until practice makes perfect. Practice eventually makes perfect because as we turn to God we enable him to enter into us, permeating our being with his being, fusing our loving with his.
When I was a student I was given the job of doing everyone else’s washing. I was given an old mangle to help me, but it was so old and rusty that I had great difficulty in using it. Then a fellow student came to my aid with a can of oil. As I tried to turn the handle he poured the oil onto the cogs and gradually they began to turn with ever greater ease and facility. Now I could do everyone’s washing with, if not pleasure, at least a measure of goodwill that had been absent before. The action of the oil symbolised for me the action of the Holy Spirit in prayer.
The Action of the Holy Spirit in Prayer
As a person tries to turn to God the Holy Spirit enters into the process, gradually giving ever greater ease and facility to do what would be quite impossible without him. Now notice that I used the word tries because we can do no more than try to turn to God. If we ever succeed it will be thanks to him. This is not only true of prayer but of everything else. If I may paraphrase the Jewish philosopher Simone Weil, she said that “men and women are no more than the quality of their endeavour,” and that is how God will ultimately judge, not only how we have prayed, but how we have done everything else for that matter.
The Way We Try is Crucial
However, the way we try is crucial. Initially, I found it so hard trying to turn the handle of the mangle that I lost my temper with it. I was depending totally on my own efforts, going nowhere until the oil came to my rescue. It is the same with prayer; if we act as if everything depends on us then we will get nowhere. In prayer, the way a person tries must demonstrate their deeply held conviction that success ultimately depends, not on their action but on the action of God. If we find that we are getting angry it is because we think everything depends on us and it does not – it depends on God. When we have learnt this and the patience that humbly awaits upon his action, then he will begin to act within us like never before. That is why I like to qualify the word trying with the word gently. The word gently describes the way we ought to try, in other words, in such a way that we know that without God’s action entering into ours, failure will be inevitable. Harness these two words together and you have what I think is a perfect definition of prayer as – gently trying to turn and open the heart and mind to God.
There Is No Magic Formula
Now to help a person keep turning away from distractions and back to God, Christian tradition has devised many different forms of prayer. There are no perfect means of prayer. There are just different means to help believers keep turning and opening their hearts to God. The important point to remember is that there is no magic formula, no infallible method or technique. There are just hundreds of different ways of prayer to do one and the same thing.
A means of prayer is good for you if it helps you here and now to keep turning your heart back to God. What might help you at the beginning of your spiritual journey may be of no use later. What helps you in the morning might not help you in the evening. What helps you one minute might not help you the next. So please move from one method to another with complete freedom. Remember that these methods are only means. Beware of the ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ gurus who have a fixation about a particular means of prayer which they enjoin upon everybody without question as a panacea. They know nothing about the spiritual life. If they did they would know that methods of prayer change as people change and as prayer develops with the years.
Pray As You Can, Not As You Can’t
Remember the words of , “Pray as you can, not as you can’t“. However, the first Christians found that meditating on the sacred scriptures was the preferred means of launching them into prayer and this was also true of all the saints. Through the scriptures they came to know and love Jesus and in him and through him they came to experience the love of his Father. William of St-Thierry said the “You will never love someone unless you know them, but you will never really know them unless you love them.”
The more you come to know Jesus the more you will love him, and then like all lovers, crave for union. But you cannot be united with the Jesus who once lived on this earth, for he no longer lives here as he did before. So, this is the moment in the spiritual ascent when love draws you up and into him as he is now, as meditation leads you into contemplation, into contemplating him in his risen glory. Then in, with and through him, into the contemplation of God the Father and of the glorious love that endlessly revolves between him and his Son.
The Love of God
No matter what sort of prayer a person chooses, there will still always be distractions, so don’t be discouraged. Let me reassure you by explaining the psychological dynamics that underpin all prayer, no matter what form it takes. The journey into God can be described as a journey from selfishness to selflessness. Whenever you choose to turn away from any distraction you are in fact performing an act of selflessness. If you turn away from fifty distractions in fifteen minutes you are in effect performing fifty acts of selflessness. As the only way you can learn to become a more selfless person and therefore more open to love is by performing selfless actions, then prayer is a school for love. It is the school where the essence of loving is learnt that opens you to receive God’s love in return.
The logic of this is such that even an Atheist should be able to appreciate the importance of putting aside time for practising selflessness that can alone make them into a perfect human being. It is only by practising selflessness that a person is open to receive the love that will alone make them fully human, whether it comes directly from God or from anyone else. A saint is just a word used to describe a man or a woman who possesses a quality of love denied to the rest of us. When we say that they are invariably men and women of prayer we are merely saying they must have spent years practising the selflessness that opens them to love – the love of God.
So you see, if you did not have distractions in your prayer you couldn’t practise the one indispensable ingredient that can open you to receive what you yearn for more than anything else. That is why St Teresa of Avila said you can’t really pray without distractions, and she knew a thing or two about prayer.
That’s consoling for all of us, is it not?
First Published on Catholic Stand