I’m sitting in prayer, stuck. What am I supposed to do now? I wonder. I still have ten more minutes. I know that discipline in prayer is important, that it’s good to pray even when I don’t feel like it. But right now, I feel like I should be doing something different.
Underneath that mindset lurks the view that there’s a “perfect formula” out there, a method for prayer that will never leave me dry. Of course, dryness in prayer is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Method: sometimes helpful, sometimes not
Prayer is ultimately about union with God. Not perfect union with Him, of course; that’s for heaven. But union and intimacy with God are the end goal of prayer.
To aid in that goal, we have various methods for praying. Perhaps it’s praying with Scripture in lectio divina or Ignatian-style contemplation. Perhaps it’s acknowledging your thoughts, feelings, and desires, giving them to God and bringing Him into them. Maybe it’s seeing how God has been working in your day, or in your life. Maybe it’s praying out loud with friends of yours, perhaps it’s the Rosary. So many options.
The criterion is: is this helping me grow closer to God? That’s it. If it is, awesome! Keep it up. But if at any point the method becomes a hindrance to relationship, then gently let go of the method.
It also means that methods that help one person might not help another. Or, it could mean that one you used to find helpful isn’t anymore.
The prayer class I’m taking at my parish is teaching us lots of methods of prayer, not in the idea that we’ll use all of them, but that we’ll have them in our “toolbox”. Some we’ll use regularly, others infrequently. I think it’s a good idea to learn it that way, you’re equipped with the 2000 years of wisdom of the Church.
And, it means you can teach people better: you can teach them all the ways of praying that you know. If you only taught your “favorites”, then they’d have a limited toolbox. (especially a problem if they find different ways of praying (compared to you) more helpful)
Expert mode: infused contemplation
At a certain point as we journey towards God, methods become less and less helpful. St. John of the Cross calls these the “dark nights” (there are two, the dark night of the senses, and the dark night of the soul). As we experience those transitions, God is drawing even closer and wants to relate to our souls more directly.
John explains it this way: each time we pray, it’s an act (that is to say, an action). The goal of that act is to grow in love and knowledge of God.
Any act, repeated enough, becomes a habit. What that means for prayer is you’ll habitually know and love God. You’ve achieved the end goal of the act, so each individual act is no longer necessary.
That’s how we can “pray always” as St. Paul tells us to do. But first, we must pray at a certain time. Or to say it differently, prayer should become a permanent habit of our lives. But in order for that to happen, we must pray in specific acts.
Eventually, every moment of the day is union with God. John of the Cross calls this infused contemplation. Very very important note: contemplative prayer is a gift. You can’t force it, but you can receive it when He gives it.
Methods can help us get there. They can help each act become a habit. They can help us become receptive to God’s gifts, including contemplation. But they aren’t God.
Even infused contemplation isn’t the end goal. The end goal is heaven. So no matter how close you get to God in this life (or how close or far He seems), keep going. Keep striving. He wants you.
P.S. Be a hero today