Prayer is easy only for beginners and those who are already saints. During all the long years in between, it is difficult. Why? Because prayer has the same inner dynamic as love, and love is sweet only in its initial stage, when we first fall in love, and again in its final, mature stage. In between, love is hard work, dogged fidelity, and needs willful commitment beyond what is normally provided by our emotions and imagination.
As we grow deeper and more mature in our relationships, reality begins to dispel all illusion. According to Ronald Rolheiser, it’s not that we become disillusioned with the one we love, but we begin to recognize that many of our warm thoughts and feelings we thought were about the “other” were really about ourselves – What we thought was prayer was partly a spell of enchantment about ourselves.
At this critical moment of recognition in any relationship, disillusionment sets in. It’s easy to believe we were wrong, misguided, deluded in feeling as we did. Here Rolheiser is brilliant: Disillusionment is a good thing. It’s the dispelling of an illusion. Disillusionment in love is actually a maturing moment in our lives!
In the spiritual life this is when we typically stop praying. Oh, we likely will not call it that. We are apt to disguise our avoidance with excuses or explanations – not enough time, just taking a break, my work is my prayer, too busy serving others. Fill in the blank! We will fight tenaciously to cling to our familiar preconceptions, a pleasing appearance, “reward” as the economy of grace, and our self-satisfied illusion.
What is needed when the bottom falls out – and it will – is just the opposite. We need to just show-up, minus warm thoughts and feelings, stripped of our enchantment with ourselves. Rolheiser sees this as the beginning of maturity. When we say, “I no longer know how to love,” or “I no longer know how to pray,” then we begin to really understand and grow in our capacity to love and pray.
These words of admonition and encouragement brought me back to something I first heard fifteen years ago as a reflection during Evening Prayer at St John the Evangelist (Anglican) Monastery in Cambridge, MA. It is a text I keep nearby and resort to with some regularity:
Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then, can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again–then, at last, we are ready to worship God.
Initial quote and following references to Ronald Rolheiser are from Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013, pp 45-6. Final quote about “Silence” is from Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent. Cowley Publications, 1998.