Please join me in a prayer I have often used at the start of the day, or at the start of a time of personal prayer:
“Lord, I so wish to prepare well for this time.
I so want to be make all of me ready and attentive and available to you.
Please help me clarify and purify my intentions.
I have so many contradictory desires.
My activity seems to be so full of busyness
and running after stuff that really doesn’t seem to matter or last.
I know that if I give you my heart
whatever I do will follow my new heart.
May all that I am today,
all that I try to do today,
may all my encounters, reflections,
even the frustrations and failings
all place my life in your hands.
Lord, my life is in your hands.
Please, let this day give you praise.”
-Kevin O’Brien, JS, in The Ignatian Adventure, 2011.
Today we continue this January series we’re doing on Be Still and Know. It’s a chance for us here at the beginning of the year after the busy holiday season, to slow down a little in our lives and also in our worship, and explore the quiet, more contemplative side of Christianity. Last week, Jana led us in an extended time of prayerful reflection, and as she did so, she helpfully pointed out that we come to this topic of prayer and contemplation with different levels of comfort. Some of us hear “contemplation” and we feel relaxed or curious…others feel trepidation or roll our eyes.
One of the beautiful things for me about being in ministry with Jana, and also with Becky Bosarge, who will lead our worship next week… is that we are very different people with different spiritual gifts, and we mutually appreciate our difference. And today I’m going to tell you a story about a spiritual practice Jana and I have both experienced each of us with very different results. I can only tell my experience of the practice. I hope my story will speak honestly to some of you who may be more curious or skeptical about spiritual practices and might help you to see them through a different light.
A few years ago, when Jana returned from her sabbatical, she told me about one of the ways she spent her time: a 30-day silent retreat, organized around the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola. 30 days of silence, broken only by communication with her assigned spiritual director.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius is a cycle of extended, contemplative, silent prayers that explore the life and ministry of Jesus and our relationship with him. There are four main parts, four movements, and throughout each movement, one commits to periods of quiet and focused prayer that last about an hour. If you follow a rhythm of several prayer periods each day, you can complete the exercises in 30 days.
As a working person, with four young children at home…there is a lot of noise in my life. So I was intrigued by this method of silent, focused prayer. And yet I was discouraged because I don’t intend to abandon my family for 30 days and go on a spiritual retreat. As it turns out, five hundred years ago, Ignatius himself understood this problem, so he adapted the Spiritual Exercises to be experienced in small doses over an extended period of time by people who continue with the rest of their daily schedules. I was in. I found a Jesuit priest over at Xavier to serve as my spiritual director, my coach…and I started the journey. In month nine, about half way through part 3, I quit. As the sermon title indicates, I was a spiritual failure.
Now, of course that’s not the right thing to say! I wasn’t a failure! You can’t fail at prayer! You can’t fail at prayer! God is always joyful with any and every attempt we make to reach out to God in hopes of knowing God better. God is not looking for us to “complete” our prayer exercises or “succeed” in them. God is not looking for particular words or phrases that are the right ones. Most importantly, God is not looking for what we grasp after in so many areas of our life: God is not looking for achievement from us when it comes to prayer. I am saying these things to you quite emphatically because my spiritual director had to say these them to me. He had shake me out of my sense of failure and help me to see how nonsensical it was, so that I could find my way though it. My decision to quit became part of my journey.
Even though I quit, I learned some things about the joy of contemplative prayer.
I can pray for an hour—and I really enjoy it. As the child of a typical Presbyterian Church, seminary educated at a big university, I’d never tried that before. The first 10 minutes or so is often the most difficult. It’s really hard to turn off all the noise, to quiet oneself enough to hear God and to set aside things that may seem really important in order to spend time with God. I now know I can do it, and I understand at least a few of its benefits. For me, I have to work through that initial time of growing quiet in order to get to the good part. Once the noise is set aside, I find that the time moves along much more quickly than one might expect. There’s a warmth and a peacefulness that comes over me, being intentionally in the presence of God—God is there all the time, but I’m usually not thinking about it. I’m grateful for it; I find insights I didn’t know were there. I find myself healed and strengthened and cared for, and I at the end of the hour I am grateful, and also saddened that the time is over for now.
While there is joy for me in prayer, I’ve also learned that sometimes prayer is not fulfilling. Everyone experiences this, Ignatius gave it a name, he called it desolation. For as much joy as many of us find in the first experiences of being in close communion with God, there is inevitably disappointment that follows when we realize that not every spiritual experience will be a great one. There are strategies for enduring these times of desolation.
A third gift I have found, which is no big surprise, is that I am a better person for others when I have spent time in prayer. It always seems like such a big ask to set aside a full hour of one’s day in this way, and yet when I do it, I always find myself, richer, sharper, more present, more compassionate for everything else that happens in my day. I find myself more aware of what is important and what is not. I find myself less focused on my own problems and more concerned for others. I find all of these things not because I am so brilliant or insightful, but because I have set aside the time for prayer and I receive them as gifts from God.
And nevertheless, I did need to quit. Not that I have quit all of these prayer practices, but I did quit the cycle of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I won’t bore you with my excuses but for a variety of reasons, I found it difficult to get into a steady rhythm with this particular form of prayer in this season in my life. As I had worked harder and harder to make these prayer practices work for me, an ironic thing happened. I found myself feeling so guilty about the times at which I missed my prayers or couldn’t focus on them, that I wasn’t pursuing the right goal anymore. I was trying so hard to be successful at fulfilling my self-imposed prayer obligation, that my focus had turned away from God. And in conversation with my spiritual director, we decided that the greatest opportunity for my own spiritual growth was not going to be plowing ahead to get to the finish line, but instead admitting that this was not working for me and discovering that it was ok to stop. And to receive that grace that God loved me in the midst of that difficult lesson about myself. And now, I can see on the other side of that experience of “failure” and making peace with it, that it is only because I was able to quit that I can so appreciate the other gifts I told you about. I was deeply surprised by the outcome of my experiment with the spiritual exercises. Maybe someday I will start again with the exercises and it will go differently. Maybe when my kids are out of the house and my wife needs a break from me I’ll do it all in 30 days. And maybe I’ll never try it again. But I am grateful, for it has made me curious about God in a way I was not before.
I know that we all come to this January services with different experiences, questions, and doubts, and I hope that we will honor those as much as my spiritual director honored my need to quit. I hope that if hearing my story causes one of you to want to talk to me about your own struggles with prayer and spirituality, that you will know I am eager to listen. I can provide specific guidance and suggestions if you’d like to experiment with an hour of prayer.
I’d like to conclude with another prayer, this one by Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, and it says something about the unexpected gifts we find in prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.