There is a mental health symptom common to a number of disorders called “rumination,” or the tendency to repeatedly worry about real and projected problems to the point of exhaustion. Patients have often expressed to me the wish that they could “turn their brains off,” so to speak, so that they can relax, sleep, or enjoy the better things of life.
I suspect that many of us have more than just a trace of ruminating minds. I do. I also suspect that when people speak of distractions in prayer, public or private, this is what they are talking about. During my first or second year as an on-the-go priest at a busy college, I decided to make a guided retreat at the Cenacle Retreat House in Rochester, N.Y. I arrived at lunch time, and after lunch I reported to the religious sister who would be my private guru for the week. I immediately asked her what I should be doing that afternoon. She laughed and said, “Go to bed and get some sleep. You look exhausted.”
When you think of it, prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading produce nothing of material value. Put another way, prayer is “wasting time with God.” (Thank you to the Benedictine blogger who provided that nugget of wisdom.) In fact, a sociologist might say that both playing and praying have a lot in common—both involve losing touch with space and time. Have you ever become so engrossed in a movie that when it is over the time of day and the location of your car are totally foreign to you? In this case you have “lost yourself” in art (play), which Aristotle in his Poetics argues is necessary for the health of the emotions. (Aristotle termed this “catharsis.”)
True personal religious experience, then, has elements of passivity and escape. Passivity defines our relationship with God, the first cause and ultimate judge of all that is. Escape is the distancing from self importance, pride, a false sense of control. So, to even begin prayerful time, disengagement is necessary, which is probably why the good sister recommended I let go of my Type A approach to ministry and during my prolonged nap let God take care of business.
In 2011 I was fortunate enough to come across a remarkable little book, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk from Australia. Don’t let the elongated title put you off. The term Lectio Divina applies to all sacred writing, notably the Scriptures and the long history of the Church’s writers. Of all the richness of spiritual advice in this relatively brief work, the lesson that has stayed with me the longest is the need to approach all sacred writing—whether it be the Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, venerable spiritual direction from the ages—with not just openness, but obedience. Let me explain.
One of my serious shortcomings over the years (perhaps a professional liability of preachers, teachers and writers) has been my tendency to “use” sacred texts. I approach religious texts with an eye toward how I can use them in my work. Now we all have to do this in our church capacities, but I was not making the distinction between feeding my own soul and gathering tidbits for book reviews.
Casey emphasizes the need for profound obedience in taking up any legitimate spiritual text. We are not to critique, contrast, evaluate, assess or debate a sacred author. Rather, we take a book into our hands (or a Kindle, I guess) as a religious novice sitting at the feet of a teacher wise in the ways of the Lord, and open our minds without reservation. And, we listen until the teaching is complete. In doing this, we lose ourselves in the treasury of the Church’s wisdom. The ruminations that trouble us will decrease when we put ourselves in a position to hear God’s Word and subsequent sacred commentaries. We will learn to pray by the wisdom of passivity before the holy men and women who have tasted God’s divine life.
The first step toward true prayer is giving up our imaginary reins of control and opening our ears to the wisdom of God All Powerful.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything