Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [people]. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because [people] are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
In one catechism for African children, the answer given to the question, “Why did God make you?” is “Because He thought you might just like it.” If, as people of faith, we lived more completely in this belief on a daily basis, we would better understand both the Gospel and how to pray.
As Catholics, most of us wish to have a little more peace in our lives, experience some joy, be able to understand ourselves better, and, if possible, lead a more meaningful, compassionate life. Surprisingly, even though Jesus has offered us “fullness,” often we settle for so much less. How sad and unnecessary this is—especially since at some level we sense there is so much more to a faith-lled life. Of course this is nothing new. It can be traced back to the time of Christ.
For instance, in the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus helps future disciples recognize what is essential to live more fully. He sees their need for meaning and asks, “What are you looking for?” Later on he invites them to “Come and see,” and then chapter one closes, as does the end of John’s Gospel, with the call, “Follow me.”
However, what the disciples will see in doing this is not what they expect or hope for,
and Jesus will teach them, on their way to greater faith and a richer life, that
• in place of power, the call is to friendship and service
• in place of success, the call is to faithfulness
• in place of certainty, the call is to face their doubts and
• in place of retribution, the call is to forgive and love
In essence, we are called now, as the disciples were then, to a new type of living. The call Jesus had for them is the same call meant for us to take to heart now. One of the primary ways we can respond to this call to live abundantly is by developing an attitude based on a rich sense of prayerfulness—that is, being in the present with our eyes wide open to the presence and reÍection of God in all things, including ourselves. Given this, a true attitude of prayerfulness can be seen as the portal to a full, rewarding life. Yet, sadly, being prayerful is often poorly understood, so the gate to a life marked by meaning, joy, peace, and compassion isn’t entered into by many of us—even those of us who claim we are religious.
Instead, many think they are being prayerful only when they are undertaking “religious” practices, usually on Sunday or in acts like grace before meals that are often performed in a perfunctory way. It is true that such acts are benecial if they are done with the right intention, and they are certainly part of the process of inviting God into our lives. However, prayerfulness is much more encompassing than a series of acts. As a theologian once noted, “Jesus didn’t call us to a new religion; he called us to life.”
And so, prayerfulness helps us discover a new center of gravity in our lives—one that will lead to closer divine intimacy, greater compassion, and a richer sense of self. William Paulsell, in Rules for Prayer, recognizes this when he writes: It may be that you consider prayer as being more than simply just asking God for things you want.… You may have developed certain disciplines, setting aside time for prayer on a regular basis. You now pray frequently, having integrated prayer into your normal routine… Your prayer of praise, thanksgiving, confession and intercession. You have also begun to meditate on scripture and to ponder more carefully things you have often taken for granted or practiced by rote.
But still something is lacking.… [You’re] doing all the right things and making a sincere effort, often at the sacrice of the elements that once were important in your life. However, God still seems very distant, and while you feel good about yourself for living a more disciplined religious life, you still wonder if there is something more that ought to be happening. A serious spiritual life is more than just following the rules and doing things the proper way. More fundamental is the attitude with which we enter into and carry on our quest.
Jesus offered us the framework for such an attitude of prayerfulness in his response to the oft-asked classic rabbinical question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Like other rabbis, he reached into Torah for the answer and selected from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And, like other rabbis, he used the approach of putting people at ease with the rst half of his response and then spiritually pulling the rug out from under their complacency through the second part of his answer!
In the first part, he selected a heavy precept from one of the 613 precepts adhered to by Pharisees of the day by stating, “You must love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul.” In response, it is easy to imagine the people
listening and nodding their heads in assent. After all, if you were religious, how could you disagree with such a statement? en, as they were taking in the familiar, he reached down and grasped a lighter precept and held it up on the same level as the heavier precept and said, “and you must love your neighbor as yourself.”
In emphasizing the love of neighbor of course he was reemphasizing the message that Moses received from God during the Exodus that the Israelites must not only nd God vertically in prayer but also horizontally through each other. However, he was indicating that this also must be a circular movement by emphasizing that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. True compassion includes self-compassion. After all, why would you treat yourself any different than God would treat you? We must recognize that one of the greatest gifts we can share with others is a sense of our own inner peace and a healthy perspective, but we can’t share what we don’t have.
And so, an attitude of prayerfulness must include a balance of the right sense of presence to God, others, and self. To open ourselves to this occurring naturally and continually, as John of the Cross would note many years later, we also need to seek to make space for God in constantly new and different ways. is involves recognizing that often in the darkness, God is making new space in us to experience the Divine at a deeper level. As in the case of the apostles present at the Transguration, for us
to welcome God in such moments, we must be “awake” to experiencing God in our lives. In this way, what is being offered us that is new or unfamiliar can be recognized and responded to with a sense of openness, passion and compassion.
The gifts for us, and those whom we touch in life, are too great to be missed. In prayerfulness, when theonomy (God’s will) and autonomy (our will) intersect, true freedom, peace, and joy become possible. en we can receive and freely share
with our unique God-given gifts (what theology would speak of as our charisms and psychology would refer to today as “signature strengths”).
Prayerfulness becomes transformed from something we “do” or “add” to our lives into a new vision of life in which the daily events are part of an actual ongoing pilgrimage. We welcome Jesus’s desire to “make all things new” each moment rather than leaving Jesus’s words of conversion as merely a Sunday wish unable to produce real fruit.
Following Jesus’s call to love God, others, and self, the goal of prayerfulness is to see as clearly as possible what God is gifting us with each day so that we, in turn, may “go and do likewise” and reach out to others. is spiritual journey is aided to some
extent by keeping our “psychological ngers” on the pulse of our cognitions (ways of thinking, perceiving, and understanding) in order to be as clear as possible as to what the motivations of our behavior are each day. In this way we can really appreciate more accurately what the fruits of our outlook and actions are. You see, sometimes what appears to be initially good really turns out to be something else, but with a prayerful attitude in place we are more apt to take note of it.
Image: Valeria Boltneva.
It is easy to miss what God is calling us to be and do when we are lost amid the fog of our own intentions and desires, even though they seem good. For instance, a very religious Catholic woman once consulted me about her life. She admitted to being a worrier, upset about the negative reactions from her children (some of them already young adults) to her hovering over them, and her confusion about not enjoying what she considered the good life she had. After speaking with her for a while, I responded, “You seem to be a woman of commitment and prayer. Am I correct in assuming that?” “Yes, I’d like to think so,” she replied.
I then commented, “Well, that is what confuses me. I wonder why you are leaving out an important prayer.”
“Which one?” she asked.
“Well, let me illustrate by telling you a story that leads to a question. There was once a young girl who was given a gift for her birthday. What would be the best way she could thank the person who gave it to her? She could say ‘thank you’ and that would be lovely. Or she could fully enjoy the gift given to her and then freely share it with her friends. Which act of gratitude would be more profound, do you think?”
“Probably the response that was more than words.” “Yes, I agree, and the same is true of the life we have been given by God. Our prayer of gratitude for the beautiful life we have is to enjoy and share it freely, not looking for the results we want. An attitude of prayerfulness is so important because, really, when you come down to it, the quality of our lives depends upon it. As physician and Catholic novelist Walker Percy once wrote, ‘What if life is like a train, and I miss it?’ When we lack a sense of prayerfulness, this becomes more possible than we might imagine, especially when we are seeking the best for others.”
What I shared with her was in line with the basic philosophy of prayerfulness that calls us to love God deeply, do what we can for others, and please, take good care of ourselves. An attitude of true prayerfulness helps straighten out our thoughts on how to best do this. One way is by keeping a gentle, clear eye on the fruits of our prayer life to see if our prayer is really true. Sometimes this can be difficult for us to accomplish.
For example, a professor involved in the ministry of spiritual formation once approached me about how to assist a young man who seemed to be very negative in his response to others at the school. The first thing I asked is whether the youth spent quiet time alone each day with the Lord. (As Henri Nouwen noted in his book Way of the Heart time in silence and solitude with God can straighten out our thoughts.) He responded by saying, “Oh yes, he is very dedicated in spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer in our chapel. But as soon as he comes out, he gossips about the faculty and those with whom he is studying.”
From these negative fruits, we recognize that, for the most part, he is probably not spending time alone with God but mistakenly with his own inflated ego. He is not in silence listening to God but to his own opinions and because of this remains
quite self-righteous rather than having the opportunity to be truly righteous, which would be evidenced by his own humility and compassion toward others. The fruits of true prayerfulness are clear. By recalling them, we can better monitor ourselves as well as be able to bring them up for discussion in spiritual direction or in informal discussions about our prayer life with wise, trustworthy friends.
Robert J. Wicks is a clinical psychologist and leading writer about the intersection of spirituality and psychology.