Jan Walgrave once commented that our present culture constitutes a virtual conspiracy against the interior life. He wasn’t suggesting that somewhere there is a deliberate force that is consciously scheming to keep us from interiority and prayer, but rather that an accidental flowing- together of forces and circumstances in history are making it difficult for us to live the examined life.
What are these forces? They’re simply the daily headaches and heartaches that afflict us.
First, the headaches: Thomas Merton was once asked what he considered to be the major spiritual disease in the Western world. His answer: “Efficiency. The major spiritual disease in the Western world is efficiency because from the government offices down to the nursery we have to keep the plant running and, afterwards, we’ve no energy left for anything else.” He’s right.
The first problem we have with prayer is that we’re too-busy and too- preoccupied to make time for it. There’s never, it seems, a good time for prayer.
Always we’re too-busy, too-stressed, too-tired, or too- preoccupied to sit or kneel down to pray. We rise early, groan as our alarm-clocks startle us from sleep, rush through breakfast, ready things for the day, fight crowds and traffic enroute to work, settle into a task that’s demanding and draining, gulp-down a quick lunch, end the work-day tired, commute back home, ready another meal, tend to the needs of loved ones, share a meal with others who are just as tired and restless as we are, then, often enough, have still another meeting or event to attend in the evening. The day simply takes us, consumes us, drains us, and leaves us, in its wake, sitting on the couch before a TV set, tired, dissipated, needing still to prepare some things for tomorrow, and wanting a mindless distraction rather than the discipline of prayer. It’s hard to pray in our over-busy lives.
But we’re not just too busy to pray, we’re also too restless. There’s a congenital disquiet inside us. Moreover this natural restlessness is fanned to a high flame by the culture: Five hundred TV channels are within our reach, the internet brings the whole world into our private rooms, there are new movies that we haven’t seen, new songs we haven’t heard, colourful magazines whose covers beckon, sporting events that seem on everyone’s mind, and every kind of special event from the Olympics, to the Academy awards, to World cups, to celebrity gossip programs, to distract us. Beyond that, everyone around us seems to be travelling to interesting places, doing interesting things, meeting interesting people. We alone, it seems, are missing out on life, stuck, outside the circle, with nothing interesting to do.
It’s hard to pray when we are restless and, mostly, we are. Henri Nouwen puts this well: “I want to pray,” he says, “but I also don’t want to miss out on anything – television, movies, socializing with friends, drinking in the world.”
Our deepest greed is not for money, but for experience. We don’t want to miss out on life. Thus, to pray is truly a discipline because when we sit or kneel in prayer so many of our natural cravings feel starved and begin to protest. Restlessness is a great impediment to prayer.
Finally, beyond the headaches and restlessness, there is the ambiguity of prayer itself. Simply put, prayer isn’t easy because we don’t understand it, don’t know how to do it, and don’t understand how the experience should feel. Talking to God, hearing God’s voice, and centring ourselves in God is not as easy as we sometimes make it out to be. God’s reality, while massively real and the ground of the whole universe, is not physical and tangible like the things of this world. The world seems more real; family and friends can be hugged, touched, and talked to, and physical sensation of all kinds doesn’t leave us doubting its reality. But relating to God demands something else and it’s easy to find ourselves bored, doubting, distracted, and anxious to get on to something else when we try to pray.
What we experience in prayer is just as real as the physical world, but we need to be at a certain depth of prayer to know this – and that’s the paradox: Because prayer can seem unreal we often stop doing it, but it will only seem real if we persevere in it long enough and do it deeply enough. We often give up too soon. Prayer isn’t easy.
By definition, prayer is a non-pragmatic, non-utilitarian activity. It’s hard to sit still and (seemingly) do nothing when so many necessary tasks demand our attention and when so much inside us aches for activity and involvement. It’s hard to pray when we suffer from the kind of headaches and heartaches that cannot be eased by taking an aspirin. Walgrave is right, there’s a certain conspiracy against the interior life today. But prayer beckons us beyond, asking us to lift even this up to God.