A couple of years ago, I attended a six-day retreat given by Robert Michel, an Oblate colleague and a highly sought-after spiritual mentor. His approach was disarming. Most of us are forever looking for something novel, at the cutting-edge, outside the box, something complex, but what he offered was stunningly simple and down-to-earth. He spent the whole time trying to teach us how to pray in an affective way.
What exactly does that mean, to pray affectively? In essence, what he told us might be summarized this way: “You must try to pray so that, in your prayer, you open yourself in such a way that sometime – perhaps not today, but sometime – you are able to hear God say to you: `I love you!’ These words, addressed to you by God, are the most important words you will ever hear because, before you hear them, nothing is ever completely right with you, but, after you hear them, something will be right in your life at a very deep level.”
These are simple words, but they capture what we ultimately try to do when we “lift mind and heart to God” in prayer.
In the end, prayer’s essence, its mission-statement, its deep raison d’etre, is simply this: We need to open ourselves to God in such a way that we are capable of hearing God say to us, individually, “I love you!”
This might sound pious and sentimental. It’s anything but that. Don’t be put off by simplicity. The deeper something is the simpler it will be. That’s why we have trouble understanding the deep things, be they of science or the heart. What separates the great minds (Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Whitehead, Einstein, Lonergan) from the rest of us is their capacity to grasp the simple. Anyone can understand what’s complex, but we have trouble grasping the principle of relativity, the concept of being, the concept of love, and things about the nature of the God, for exactly the opposite reason. They’re too simple. The simpler something is, the harder it is to wrap our minds around it and the more we need to make it complex in order to understand it. That’s true too of prayer. It’s so simple that we rarely lay bare its essence. It has ever been thus, it would seem.
John’s gospel already makes that point. The Gospel of John, as we know, structures itself very differently from the other gospels. John has no infancy narratives or early life of Jesus. In his gospel, we meet Jesus as an adult right on the first page and the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are a question: “What are you looking for?” That question remains throughout the rest of the gospel as an hermeneutical colouring suggesting that beneath everything else a certain search is going on. A lot of things are happening on the surface, but underneath, there remains always the nagging, restless question: “What are you looking for?”
Jesus answers that question explicitly only at the end of the gospel, on the morning of the resurrection. Mary Magdala goes looking for him, carrying spices with which to embalm his dead body. Jesus meets her, alive and in no need of embalming, but she doesn’t recognize him. Bewildered, but sincere, she asks Jesus where she might find Jesus (something, I suspect, we do often enough in prayer). Jesus, for his part, repeats for her the question he opened the gospel with: “What are you looking for?” Then he answers it:
With deep affection, he pronounces her name: “Mary”. In doing that, he tells her what she and everyone else are forever looking for, God’s voice, one-to-one, speaking unconditional love, gently saying your name. In the end, that’s what we are all looking for and most need. It’s what gives us substance, identity, and justification beyond our own efforts to make ourselves lovable, worthwhile, and immortal. We are forever in fear of our own seeming insubstantiality. How to give ourselves significance? We need to hear God, affectionately, one-to-one, pronounce our names: “Carolyn!” “Julia!” “Kern!” “Gisele!” “Steve!” “Sophia!” Nothing will heal us more of restlessness, bitterness, and insecurity than to hear God say: “I love you!”
Moreover since prayer is meant to be a mutual thing, it’s important too that we respond in kind: Part of affective prayer is also that we, one- to-one, with affection, occasionally at least, say the same thing to God: “I love you!” In all long-term, affectionate relationships the partners have to occasionally prompt each other to hear expressions of affection and reassurance. It’s not good enough to tell a marriage partner or a friend just once “I love you!”. It needs to be said regularly. The relationship of prayer is no different.
Prayer, it is said, is not meant to change God but us. True. And nothing changes us as much for the good as to hear someone say that he or she loves us, especially if that someone is God.