Bonaventure’s brief phrase raises some questions: Does one raise the heart and mind to God [ad deum], or into God, or perhaps both? Raising the heart and mind “into God” seems preferable, for it communicates the notion one is dealing with present reality, and not with a “thing” or “being” that is “out there” or “up there.” Praying as an activity “to God” is more spatial, suggesting that God may be a “separate substance” or being-thing apart from what one experiences here. To move “into God” leaves open the possibility that what we call “God” and is already present to one’s consciousness [or soul], whether or not one chooses to remember and to attend.
To what human activities is prayer most akin? It is a kind of communication, as are speaking and listening. But it is more of a communing with than a “talking to another,” I would suggest. If this is true, than prayer is close to meditation or thinking about God, when one is aware that “God” is not apart or a being or a thing at all, but the divine Presence experienced in consciousness. In this sense, to pray is essentially to be aware of God’s presence, as suggested by the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I AM God.” Stillness and awareness of divine presence, perhaps remembered as He Who Is, would seem to be the basic activity underlying various kinds of prayer. Without this simple remembering awareness of divine presence, one may be speaking towards God or a god, but perhaps not “praying” in its essential meaning.
In other words, are not some types of prayer more truly prayer? Is it possible that one thinks that he or she is “praying,” but is not? Is it possible that someone may actually be praying, although they are not aware of it as “prayer?” Could it ﬁttingly be claimed that any form of activity in which one is truly mindful (attentive, aware) is prayer, at least implicit prayer? Or does one need to invoke certain words, such as “God,” or “Lord,” in order for the activity to be prayer?
Example, or a brief remembrance: In 1992, while walking through the Imperial Gardens near the Emperor’s palace in Tokyo, I photographed, as has been my custom since childhood. With the ancient stone walls, the immaculately groomed plants, and the utter silence and lack of commotion in the gardens (no one running, no one speaking loudly [not even an American], no children crying], I was able to concentrate to a high degree on photographing. The combination of the Zen-inspired beautiful order, the silence, and my loving concentration induced an intense state of awareness that I still recall twenty years later. Although I did not explicitly call on a deity or saint, I was intensely aware of reality--of It as a whole--as I was fully conscious in the moment. I felt intensely alive, present, joyful. To my way of thinking, this experience was truly “prayer” as union with that which is, not a mere uttering words towards God without recollection and concentration. Unfortunately, the photographs, which I knew at the time were among the best I have ever taken, were not properly developed. They recorded my focused state, or “Zen mind, open mind,” borrowing the phrase of a Zen master. The photographs have been lost, but recollection of the experience abides.
We begin again, understanding that a meditative experience, or an experience of open consciousness, of quiet awareness, may not be what some of us would consider prayer. (Admittedly, I wonder, “Why not?” But I also assume that many have been taught that using words towards God is prayer, and I know that new paths need to be explored carefully and in a way that some, at least, may follow.) So we employ some words in a prayer: You creatively form all things according to your wisdom. We humbly ask You to guide our hearts, LORD God, so that we truly love you, and guide our minds to wonder about you, and perhaps to know you as you let yourself be known. Bring each and all of us, every creature, into full communion with you, each according to its way of being. Make us awake and alive during our brief sojourn here. Amen.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote prayers and hymns, but I think that his great prayer was his scholarly work, for it is evident that his heart and mind were set on God ﬁrst and foremost, and that he examined other beings (especially human being) in relation to God. If one would not wish to call such philosophical theology “prayer,” then perhaps one could call it: mindfulness of the reality of God, and a concentrated act of response to the One seeking Thomas to love and to know Him.
What is mindfulness of the reality of God? Well, it surely is remembering what one ought to remember, and not forgetting: that the “I AM” who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush is also present to the consciousness of every human being. That which we call “God” is the eternalizing or immortalizing presence experienced in consciousness. And it is this divine “Creator” that forms and orders each being thing for what it is, as depicted in the opening chapter of Genesis in the great story of creation. To be mindful of this creative, formative presence is to be mindful of God.
Without mindfulness of God, without awareness of divine presence, what would prayer be? “To say one’s prayers” could mean to one without this awareness of presence, “Talk to `the man up there.’” Is that prayer, or it is more an act of unformed imagination? I wonder if some persons never get past this form of praying as “saying your prayers.” Does it dawn on a person in this mode of existence that one does not form one’s words alone, but that Another, the divine, is present aiding the process, and moving one to pray as a means of realizing a truer union? What would prayer be, if it were the product of someone who thought that he or she was praying by one’s own strength and light, and not aware of the inner light and divine force moving in and through one? Would not offering prayers in the belief that oneself is doing it an example of the ancient heresy called Pelagianism? If one can pray by himself or herself to God, could not one also save oneself, or perfect oneself? Is it possible that a person who prays without being aware that God is moving the prayer is actually immersed in an exercise of self, engaged in a self-centered activity? Could such a form of prayer be a kind of alienation from God, more than a union with the Spirit of the Creator?
Do you pray? If so, why? And who or what is causing you to pray? Could it be that when you pray, it is the divine that is praying, and you are listening? Is it possible that the ultimate source and cause of all that exists draws human beings to be aware of the divine present and active here, now, everywhere? Is it possible that prayer is more a response to divine activity in us than something we generate on our own? If our prayer is not a response to God, to what is it a response? Could self-generated prayers be a response to fear--of being damned to hell, or of failing to be “a good boy or girl” if one does not pray in a “churchy” way?
A possibility: Anything in one’s life that is a response to divine presence could be called “prayer,” for it is a means through which one is becoming one with the One. Praying in words is one way to respond. So is listening to God, or waiting in utter silence. So is what the Benedictine tradition called “divine reading” (lectio divina), in which one studies a sacred text with the desire to listen to God, and with ﬁrm trust that God is speaking to the reader in that very activity, in and through the words on the page. So here we see three ways to respond to God moving us to pray: speaking words to God; listening for the Lord in silence; studying a sacred text, mindful of God working through the words on the mind of the attentive reader.
And when Mother Theresa arose from the chapel where she had been meditating before the Blessed Sacrament, and walked into the streets of Calcutta to ﬁnd and to tend to the sick and dying, was she not responding to God, and hence, still praying? Was not her service of love a heartfelt response to the living God, who loves all of its creatures? Deeds of charity, done by one longing for God’s companionship, are surely ways of responding to God, and hence I would say, within the range of what is called “prayer” in our Catholic tradition.
Do you pray, and if so, what in particular makes you want to pray? Where do you go to pray? Do you have a favorite place, or time of day, when you deliberately turn your heart and mind to God? Or are you content to just utter a few words every so often, and chalk up your chatter to “prayer?” Do you need to be in a church to pray? Can you pray in church at all, or is it too distracting for you there? Do you struggle against distractions in order to concentrate on what you are doing, or do you just let the distractions rule you? Are these questions a form of distraction, or a form of prayer, or neither, or perhaps both? How does one know when one is praying, and not just “going through the motions?” Are you going through the motions, “jumping through hoops” (so to speak) when you pray? Or are you truly making contact with God? Is your prayer in God, or out of God?
Do you seek God? If so, how? If you do not seek God, why not? Did not Jesus say, “Seek, and you will ﬁnd?” He did not say, “Assume that you have already found God, just the way you are.” Nor did he say, “I got saved!” What he did say was, “It is not those who cry, `Lord, Lord,’ who enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of my heavenly Father.” And what is God’s will for you? Do you ask the LORD to make it known, and do you faithfully follow His pulls in you?
It is speaking to me this evening, and I am attending. It arrested my attention by its beauty in the setting sun. Then it caught my attention as I walked by the bedroom, with the stain glass art of the burning bush hanging in a window, illuminated by the light of the reddened sun. It made me stop what I was doing, be attentive, look closely, enjoy. I was surely drawn by beauty, which I understand to be the glory of God, the face of the hidden One. No words were spoken. My prayer was my loving gaze at God’s beauty shining through, And yes, I am mindful of being experientially close to a famous passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions as I write these words.
Why not, when the same One is drawing everyone to itself, and many are moved to attend through the perception of beauty? “But that is not prayer,” someone may say, “because you are not talking to God.” No, the divine is speaking to me, and I am awed by its beauty. Awed and humbled, to be in the presence of that which is overwhelmingly beautiful and good.
Where have you gone, you who spoke to my heart through the setting sun? Why have I stopped seeing what you display? Perhaps because I am concentrating on writing, and not attending to your divine work all around me / within me. Have you guided this brief meditation in any way? If there is any truth or goodness here, it comes from you. But I sense that my thoughts have moved too quickly, my words sometimes ﬂippantly, not giving you the quiet in which to work. God opens the soul into peace. But to experience God’s peace, one must cease being merely complacent. In the realm of prayer, this means, perhaps, letting go of old habits and attending to God afresh, and sometimes in ways not so often travelled.
Stopping to write, I simply look up. I see so much beauty around me: the dogs lying on the bed, sleeping; the moody-dark, cloudy sky in the evening twilight, brooding mysteriously outside the windows; paintings and works of art all around where I am sitting, and looking back at me as I look at them; light gracing the hard wooden ﬂoor, revealing it as alive in some way; the stillness of the evening, when you and I have time together, apart from the clatter of the day. And a slowing down even of my breathing, as I move towards my resting place. I do not feel you, but I trust that you are here, in me and with me, even as I write. What energy would I have, if not for you? What sense of purpose, what desire to write something for these good parishioners who sacriﬁce time to attend faith class? I am conscious of your loving, guiding presence, LORD, and this awareness is joyful, and quiet, and the best kind of prayer I know for me. Indeed, I feel ﬂeeting moments of a joy that borders on ecstasy when, mindful of you, I see with a loving and joyful freshness. With you and in you, all has meaning, and beauty, and ﬁnds its home. Each thing lights up, radiant with your light, shining within and without. Apart from you, life is stale, dull, tedious, and unproﬁtable. “Lord, you are my light and my salvation.” Being mindful of you, and grateful, is prayer, and what I desire to offer to you until I enter fully into your peace. And then “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Remember: “Your life work is to have such experiences, and to seek to understand them.” “Do not forget the deeds of the LORD,” but remember.
--Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
13 June 2013