I’m sure this will come as quite a surprise to all of you, but I’ve spent a lot of time in Catholic schools.
I went to a Catholic preschool, grade school, high school, college (for my undergrad and then again for my Master’s), and now have taught in a Catholic high school for the last five years.
That’s a lot of Jesus-learnin’.
I could go on for days praising Catholic education and all the blessings it has brought the world (and to me, for that matter), but I won’t. The reason I bring up the deluge of Catholic schooling I’ve received is that, for all the time I spent there, I’m still just now figuring out how to pray.
I have long known that the spoken prayers we Papists say were not supposed to be the extent of our prayer, and that “meditative” prayer was just as, if not more, important. I heard it all through grade school and high school, and after years of exposure to the idea, I finally really gave it a try my junior year.
I remember distinctly my sixteen year old self sitting on the edge of my bed at night, trying as hard as I could to clear my mind of everything, keep it as blank as possible, and wait for a voice to come. I would crack one eye every once in a while to peek at the clock, because I knew I was supposed to give it at least ten minutes to work, but other than that, I sat really still and was really quiet.
It didn’t work.
It was a frustrating and scary enterprise. I wasn’t hearing anything. I knew my teachers said that it didn’t always work right away, that we had to “learn how to listen to God”, but after weeks of doing this every night for five to ten minutes, I had heard nothing.
Now, there was some definite fruit borne from those times, but I didn’t see it until way later. And in the meantime, I was left wondering, for the first time, whether God was real, whether my faith was true, and whether the way I had always seen the world was about to fall apart.
My faith survived those years, mostly because of the witness of my parents and teachers, but I was definitely left thinking that mental prayer “just wasn’t for me”.
In college, the friends I made and books I read lead me deeper into my faith and inspired me to begin spiritual direction with a local priest. And slowly, bit by bit over the seven years since then, I have begun learning how to pray.
I found the first step to building a prayer life was letting my expectations die.
Now, anything is possible in prayer, and God will speak to each person in a unique way. I know some people have and do “hear God’s voice” in a literal way. I know God still speaks to some people in dreams. I’ve even met several people who have witnessed or experienced personal miracles of healing (one of which is being pursued by the Vatican as a possible support for a canonization cause!).
But that ain’t me.
For me, deep, fruitful prayer couldn’t begin until I stopped waiting to hear a voice with my ears or even my head. I had to quit trying to be a Buddhist, clearing my mind of all thought whatsoever. I even had to quit waiting to feel good about things after leaving prayer.
That’s not what prayer is supposed to be. It’s not how people enter into relationship with Jesus Christ (which is what prayer is all about!). Even those who see miracles or hear voices or have dreams must first till the soil of their souls with the holy mundanity of daily meditative prayer.
In the next couple of posts I will talk more about what prayer is for me (and what it’s supposed to be), but I think many people are stymied at the beginning of their attempts at building a prayer life because they place a set of expectations on God before they enter in.
If you don’t come back for the next posts, I guess I would just leave you with this thought:
Don’t limit what Christ can do or how He wants do it. Just show up, open Scripture, and let Him surprise you with His love.