I had a conversation with a monk yesterday. His gracious demeanor encouraged me to say to him, “Can I speak with you.” He agreed and we sat down in one of the parlors. If I had to guess, I’d say he is around 80 years old.
I asked him questions. Lots. His responses were delivered very matter of factly, without much affect, though at times with a wry smile, which made them even more penetrating to me. Here are some of them, apart from the questions, as I meditatively wrote them down later.
Yes, I came to this monastery more recently. 1968.
I tell young men who express interest in our life, “If you’re ready to work 9 hours a day six days a week, pray 7 times a day, be a vegetarian, live in close community the rest of your life with the same brothers and become a saint by battling temptation to the very end (I tell them this because they can think coming here rids them of worldly temptation), then come and see who we are.” I tell them that the early desert monks called monastic life the “martyrdom of conscience,” because our martyrdom is within. If God is calling them, all of this will give them joy. If not, then not. Some these days just seem interested in whether we are an orthodox community or not, but I say this is not enough of a reason, i.e. that we are orthodox. You must be ready to die to yourself and follow the Lord.
Be careful, your prayer can become so introspective. How well am I praying? How far along am I? Am I progressing? How is God acting in my soul right now? Why don’t I feel anything? Why am I feeling this? Is that God speaking to me? What did He say? Though we might do this kind of thing with our spiritual director to get his wisdom, or maybe at the end of the day we might reflect on what happened. But if we do this frequently in our prayer time, than it is no longer prayer that we are about. It’s navel gazing. True prayer gets lost in God. Is about God. Or gets lost in the needs of those we pray to God for — though even then it’s about God as we speak to Him of them. Prayer is not a time for self-analysis or for conjuring up the right emotions that please us. That is exhausting! We speak to God, we ponder His Word, we listen in silence knowing that His voice comes to us primarily not in ideas or words but in its effects in us — joy, peace, courage, patience, chastity, a desire to forgive, a willingness to carry the cross.
As you grow in maturity in prayer, you stop overthinking what’s happening or not happening in prayer. Like learning to ride a bike, you know you have mastered it when you no longer think about all the details of how to do this or what this feels like. You just do it. You forget about yourself and the bike. The bike becomes part of you, second nature.
Prayer is not some sacred thing you do amid all of your other secular activities. Prayer is just part of your life, your whole life. Prayer is life turned upward. It’s woven into everything as you are speaking with God, listening to His voice, sensing His presence all around you. In everything. Not just sweet and nice things. But in everything. Dullness, monotony, celebration, liturgy, illness, manual labor, study, manning the cash register in the gift shop. Us right now speaking. He is here. Can’t you sense it? Nothing special about what we’re doing. He’s just here.
During the prayer time set aside each day, which you must, you use a prayer method to develop a habitual disposition that spills out into all of life. During these times you practice riding the bike, and when you get up from that prayer time to go into life you just ride the bike. St. Augustine says, “To pray without ceasing you must pray often.” This is what he means. You practice methods consistently and frequently and then all of your life catches the rhythm.
It’s easy to use prayer for things other than God. We use it to get feelings, to get results, to give us peace of mind, or for some cause we believe in. All good things. But these can’t be the point of prayer. Too easily prayer can become a subtle or not so subtle attempt to manipulate God. To use God to get what we want, to be on our side. No matter how good. We think we know already what God wants to happen and how He wants it to happen, and now we will use prayer to make it happen. And if it does not happen we become disappointed or angry, because what we wanted was not His will but ours. In the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, Satan wanted Jesus to use prayer; to use the Father to get pre-determined results. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggles between getting the result He would like — “let this cup pass” — and surrendering to the Father’s will — the crucifixion.
If you are praying for your enemies, for your ideological opponents, the greatest result of that prayer is not simply their conversion but your deepening love for them. That even as they make life harder for you, you find yourself deepening in compassion and mercy toward them. Maybe even loving them the way St Paul did and wishing that you were cursed and cut off from Christ if only they could be joined to Him [Rom. 9:3!]. The point is that prayer that is truly about God makes you like God.
This is a remarkable thing. Gethsemane means that all prayer offered to God is answered, responded to — without exception — but the divine response is surprising. Unexpected. Pope Francis frequently says this. But every divine response always leads to resurrection. To an unexpected good that surpasses what we thought was best before. God’s answers to prayer come both in this world and in the world to come — multi-dimensional. So much of what our prayer obtains we simply cannot see. We can’t see all of the dimensions God acts in. Prayer that is able to consent to God’s surprising answers is true prayer. Yes, I still must ask, beg God for whatever it is I see as good — “let this cup pass” — but I must also allow God to choose how He wishes to deal with the cup I speak with Him about. In Jesus’ resurrection, the cup overflowed beyond what was only good for Jesus Himself in the moment and flowed out into all of humanity. The Eucharist is the overflowing cup. But if Jesus had only been satisfied with being spared of the cup of suffering, we would have nothing to drink from to give us eternal life.
Such a mystery, God!