I get several emails daily from book publishers (at my request) and a good number of them are promoting what we might call aids to prayer. I will confess that I am not a big reader of this genre, as many seem to be “witnessing” accounts. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and who does not rejoice to see the influence of God on the human soul? The enduring power of AA rests in large part on the miracle (as members often say) in which one’s Higher Power leads to a state of recovery from alcoholic self-destruction. As Aquinas and countless others have taught, the Christian human life is oriented toward human community. The prayer witness of one builds up the Body of Christ.
And yet we owe it to God, ourselves and our neighbor to seek communion with the Almighty in the unique life we have been given, with the wonder and awe of those behind us. I tend myself toward classical spiritual reading—the texts that have stood the test of time in the Christian tradition for centuries, those works with a long record of having inspired Christians to prayer in many various times and places. When I underwent psychoanalysis as part of my therapeutic training years ago (I believe the process went on for at least a year) my own psychotherapist, a woman of considerable sensitivity and insight, recommended I read the great Western classic, The Confessions of St. Augustine from the fifth century. I have to admit that I did not quite “get it” at first read. Augustine’s sins did not seem quite so terrible to me. What I eventually came to appreciate—and this is what remains with me in prayer to this day—is Augustine’s feelings about God. In reflecting upon his own unremarkable human existence the eventual Church Father was overcome with a remorse for his lack of love and wonder toward God as manifested in Augustine’s casual indulgences in thefts and other moral breakdowns.
There is a very strong affective component here that seared Augustine to the heart and no doubt energized his prodigious contribution to the history and life of the Church. What is also very interesting about Augustine is the gradual maturation of his prayer. Reading the Confessions we see a man who is stressed; his prayer experience is one of deep and painful recollection and assessment. Contrast this to the mature man of prayer some decades later. When the Western Roman Empire began to fall (quite dramatically, with Alaric’s sack of Rome), there was wholesale panic in Augustine’s Diocese of Hippo in North Africa. Many saw these events as the onset of the last days. It was here that Augustine produced his classic City of God, an almost leisurely defense of the Church and a rethinking of God’s plan (God’s City, so to speak, portrayed as God’s reality independent of the sins and foibles of empires.)
If we make the effort to pray, we will find that the experience will often reflect the state of our moods and challenges of the present moment. Prayer is not always relief or escape, although it can be. The constant here is that prayer arises from the state of the heart, and we need not be embarrassed by this fact, so long as we follow Augustine and let God do some constructive unraveling.