Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Desire for Prayer

Prayer is something every person of faith struggles with. The saints often speak of "dry periods." Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta went through many, many years of such a dry period. St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, as well as St. Therese of Lisieux experienced different versions of this dryness.

In his excellent book, How to Get the Most Out of the Eucharist, Michael Dubruiel tells a story about cultivating a desire to pray:

One day a boy was watching a holy man pray on the banks of a river in India. When the holy man had completed his prayer the boy went over and asked him, "Will you teach me to pray?" The holy man studied the boy's face carefully. Then he gripped the boy's head in his hands and plunged it forcefully into the water. The boy struggled frantically, trying to free himself in order to breathe. Finally, the holy man released his hold. When the boy was able to breathe, he gasped, "What did you do that for?" The holy man said, "I just gave you your first lesson." "What do you mean?" asked the astonished boy. "Well," said the holy man, "when you long to pray as much as you longed to breathe when your head was under water--only then will I be able to teach you to pray." (p. 58)

Don't try this at home. Despite the resemblances to waterboarding, there is an important message here. One of the Acts of Contrition includes: "In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things." We certainly do not act as if we love God above all things. When we are drowning, what we want above all things is to breathe. That is how we are to love God.

Of course, as people wounded by Original Sin, we cannot love God to the fullest in this way. But it is an ideal for us to strive toward. Obviously, the holy man in the story is using hyperbole. Like infants, we must crawl before we can walk, walk before we can run. Baby steps.

It is often said--because it is true--that if we pray when we do not feel like praying, that is some of our most powerful and edifying prayer. So let us reach for the holy man's example but find solace if we only have the boy's curiosity at this point. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus started out at one level of relationship with Jesus, but they finished that road trip at a very different level.

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