Prayer is a strange thing. It is something we are all called to do – every one of us – and yet something we frequently don’t really quite know how to do. We might look upon prayer and our experience of it and conclude that we are ‘doing it alright’. In my experience, those are usually the precise times at which I am doing it anything but right.
Many years ago, when I was at college, a lot of the other students were reading Thomas Merton. At that point, I had to idea who Thomas Merton was and I was entirely unfamiliar with anything he had written. So I had to chuckle the other day when, whilst visiting the Catholic bookstore in the city, I came across one of Merton’s books, ‘Contemplative Prayer’. Now, I go there and pick up many books – and most of them are put back down just as quickly. I’ll read the little blurb on the back cover and then read a paragraph at random – if it ‘captures’ me in that moment, I consider buying it. And even if I buy such a book, I do not always read it immediately – most commonly, it is added to the “waiting to be read” pile, which nestles quietly on a chair in the study. At some point, I will get to those books – oddly, I find that I get to a particular book from the pile at what seems to be the most opportune moment. You might almost think that a book is intended to be read in the right moment.
Anyway, the Merton book captured me and so I bought it. When it comes to prayer and the intention to improve it as far as possible, after all, I need all the help I can get. Now, after a couple of days, I’m about half way through it and I am fascinated by it. I’m not necessarily very good at understanding what the spiritual writers are trying to get at; there are many, many occasions on which I need to read a sentence or paragraph several times over, and even then I’m not always certain I have understood their intention correctly. And so I go slowly. Sometimes, very slowly.
Merton, in his introduction, describes his work as “a practical, non-academic study of monastic prayer” which “should be of interest to all Christians, since every Christian is bound to be in some sense a man of prayer”. His intention is to show that contemplative prayer – often presented to us by many other writers in terms of ‘techniques’ and ‘skills’ – is, in fact, far simpler. I’ve read some of those other books – and found them rather off-putting as they were far beyond me. For Merton, this contemplative prayer is more of an emptying of self, leaving space for the Lord to fill in silence. It is His work, then – not ours.
He makes many interesting and valid points about prayer more broadly. One such point is that we can be tempted to see our prayer life purely as an individual interior practice which goes no further than ourselves, neglecting both the communal dimension of prayer, and also the impetus of prayer which takes us out of ourselves and propels us toward all others around us. Prayer, in other words, does not reside and remain simply in the soul alone – it must have a bearing and an effect upon the whole of ourselves as human beings, and upon the whole of our lives as Christians. Only then is it truly authentic.
I couldn’t help thinking about this point as I was listening to the Gospel at Mass this morning.
Asked what is the greatest Commandment, Jesus replies that it is to love God and to love neighbour – there is, He says, no greater commandment than this. This dual-aspect love, of God and of neighbour, is the foundation of all else. And without it, nothing else can really have any authenticity.
Sometimes we can see our spiritual lives as being only about us – what we are, what we achieve, how well we do it, how perfectly we follow the rules. Christ, in that way He often does, turns this on it’s head – unless we see that is is all about relationship to God and to one another, we have missed the point. And the spiritual life within us needs to find a way to come out into the light of day and then direct and change who we are, what we achieve. This is where I saw the echo of Merton.
As Christians, our lives are not just about us – they are about us shared with others, for love of them and of the Lord. Christ puts it far more simply and eloquently, of course.
Commenting on this Gospel passage, Pope Francis wrote – “to love God means to invest our energies each day to be His assistants in the unmitigated service of our neighbour, in trying to forgive without limitations, and in cultivating relationships of communion and fraternity.. God, who is love, created us to love and so that we can love others while remaining united with Him.”
Now, having considered all of this, I need to stop and look at my spiritual life and determine how well it integrates with every other aspect of my life as it is lived amongst others – family, parish community, neighbours.
And so I pause and I ask myself; am I truly loving them – all of them, every single one, without exception or reserve – for love of the Lord?