Thursday, August 29, 2013

Prayer is Boring

The mystical is of the essence of Christianity, not the privileged way of the few. To be more precise: it means being wholly possessed by God and that is holiness. One cannot be holy unless one is a mystic and if we do not become mystics in this life we become such hereafter. This is the same thing as saying we cannot come to God by our own steam, he alone can bring us to himself.

Now the vast majority of spiritual authors, St. Teresa [of Avila] among them, claim that there are two paths to holiness, the mystical way and the ordinary way. This we cannot accept. The notion of the dual-carriage way derives from a misconception which another modern insight has led us to correct. The mystical has been identified with certain experiences. When these are present in a person such a one is a mystic or contemplative; he or she has received the gift of infused contemplation, not essential for holiness but undoubtedly a great help towards it.

Inevitably you get overtones of a high road and a low road… Firmly we deny the identification of this experience with the mystical grace of God.

Reflection – So now we come to more controversy… albeit not the kind of controversy that’s likely to generate scores of furious comments down below (deo gratias). That we are all called to be mystics, and that mysticism is not to be identified with the specific experiences it has traditionally been identified with, such as the prayer of quiet, ecstasies, trances, interior or exterior visions or locutions and so forth—this is not the majority opinion.

The ‘we’, by the way, of this and other passages is not a royal affectation but reflects that Burrows wrote this book in collaboration with two of her Carmelite sisters who she considered to be in living in a state of mystical union and whose insights were invaluable to her. She used pseudonyms for them, but I understand that one of them was Sr. Wendy Beckett who later attained fame for her art history videos. But I digress.

I agree with Burrows on this point. Elsewhere she clarifies that God is so utterly transcendent, so completely beyond and above us—which is a matter of Christian dogma and beyond dispute—that what we experience in prayer is at most the effect of his presence and not the presence itself. There is a presence, there is a touch, there is an action of God going on in our prayer, but the emotions, movements, sensations, and so forth that we may have at prayer are not God, but at best the effects of his hidden action and love.

This is a crucial insight, and most helpful. We go to pray and we don’t ‘experience’ anything. If we are unwary or badly formed, we conclude that our prayer ‘didn’t work.’ ‘I can’t pray’, we might conclude, and if we are really badly formed and don’t have anyone to help set us straight, we will conclude that we are ‘Marthas’ and not ‘Marys’, suited for service and work, but not for this sitting around with a rosary or a prayer book or a bible, bored out of our minds and wondering when it will be time to get up and do something again. So of course we won’t bother with that any further but just keep working away. This is a dreadful mistake.

You see, God wants us to be bored out of our minds with Him on a regular basis. Without this ‘pointless’ boredom, our work and our service will bear little fruit in our lives. God wants us to just be sitting there, at His door, waiting, trusting, trying to fix our minds on Him, but never dreaming for a minute that the real action of prayer lies in that. Rather, it lies in our trusting waiting, our choice to simply be in his presence, our feeble efforts, themselves only possible by his grace, to open ourselves up to his action and merciful grace.

Meanwhile, most of the time nothing much is going on, and we are distracted with our own thoughts, and feeling mighty dissatisfied with the whole process, and about as mystical and exalted as a sink full of dirty dishes. And that’s quite OK. That’s prayer.

And meanwhile what God is looking for is not someone in some exalted state of mind, but a humble contrite heart, open to his will and surrendered to it. That, and that alone, is the raw material out of which he can fashion a mystic, and that and that alone is the necessary human attitude that attains for us, all and always and entirely by his merciful grace, the kingdom of heaven, union with God, and salvation.

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