One of the classic definitions of prayer tells us that prayer is raising mind and heart to God. In essence, that says it all. The problem is that often we raise our minds but not our hearts. Our prayer tends to be intellectual but not affective and we tend to think of prayer more as a way of gaining insight than as way of being touched in the heart.
But prayer is ultimately about love not insight. It is meant to establish friendship. Friendship, as we know, is not as much a question of having insight into each others’ lives as it is of mutually touching each other in affection and understanding. Friendship, as John of the Cross puts it, is a question of attaining “boldness with each other.” When we have touched each others’ lives deeply, we can be “bold” with each other. We can then ask each other for help, ask for each other’s presence without needing an excuse, share a feeling, share an insight, or even just share a joke. Good friendship inspires “boldness”.
The object of prayer is precisely to try to attain this kind of “boldness” with God, to try to reach a point where we are comfortable enough with God to ask for help, to share a feeling, to share an insight, or even to share a joke, just as we would with a trusted friend. But to reach this kind of trust we must first let God touch us in the heart, and not just in insight. This means that prayer is not so much a question of having beautiful thoughts about God as it is of feeling God’s affection for us. Sadly that is precisely what we generally miss in prayer, the experience of God’s affection.
What is common in prayer is the tendency to talk to ourselves rather than to God. For example: When we are at prayer and we begin to have various feelings and insights, the almost-automatic reaction is to begin to speak to ourselves about what’s happening in us, saying things like: “This is wonderful!” “This scares me!” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way!” “I can’t wait to write this down!” When this happens we end up speaking to ourselves rather than to God.
This point was clarified for me recently on a retreat given by Bob Michel, of St. Paul University, Ottawa, a highly-respected mentor in the art of prayer. He suggests that perhaps the number one problem in prayer, among those who seriously try to sustain private prayer, is precisely the tendency to constantly talk to ourselves rather than to God. Quoting Leon Bloy, who once said: “There are persons who adore themselves before the Blessed Sacrament,” he suggests that too often in prayer we say things to ourselves that we should be saying to God. In prayer, he says, we should never say things like this to ourselves: “This is wonderful!” “This scares me!” We need to say them to God. The key to prayer, in his view, is to turn from ourselves to God.
And the pivotal part of that turning is that we must ask God to touch us affectively and not just intellectually. When we go to pray what we most need to ask for is to hear God’s voice within us saying: “I love you!” Nothing would heal us more and nothing would make us more “bold” before life’s mystery and goodness than hearing those words from God. Our very capacity to love depends upon it.
Thomas Merton, commenting upon our struggle to love and forgive each other, one said: “The beginning of the fight against hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is the prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved … until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, men and women are imprisoned in hate.” The gospels agree. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in John’s gospel, are a question, the most timeless of all questions, “What do you want?” (Also translated as “What are you searching for?”). Jesus asks the question at the beginning of the gospel, but doesn’t fully answer it until the end. His answer? The word he speaks to Mary Magdala early on the morning of the resurrection. She has been searching for him, is bewildered, and now when she finds him doesn’t recognize him. He repeats for her question he began the gospels with: “What are you searching for?” and then supplies the answer himself. With deep affection, one-to-one, he pronounces her name: “Mary”.
In the end, that’s what we are all searching for and most need. We need to hear God, affectionately, one-to-one, pronounce our names. Nothing would heal us more of our deep restlessness and bitterness than to hear God call us by name and say: “I love you!”