How to Pray

Cambridge, MA. There is an unexpected and excellent reflection on prayer in today’s New York Times Magazine, Is there a Right Way to Pray?, by Zev Chafets. It is definitely worth a look, and Chafets' research speaks for itself.
     All I can do here is share with you a connection that also arises rather unexpectedly — to the 2nd reading from Sunday’s Mass today, from the Letter of James. This is a New Testament text not usually thought of as a teaching on prayer. But surprisingly, for me at least, James turned out to be giving us an excellent reflection on the subject — how to pray, why it matters and what it is for, and how we can assess our progress in prayer. (I must admit that for the sake of a coherent homily, I expanded the reading, from James 3.16-4.3, to a fuller unit, 3.13-4.10 — take a look.) I don’t write my homilies, but here is a quick summary on the main points:
     James reminds us that when we think of praying, even at the start, our prayer has already begun, since God is already at work within us: God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us. (4.5; NRSV) Once we notice this, and quite apart from what methods or words we might use, prayer is always already under way, and so the dynamic of prayer is really quite simple: Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you, (4.8) or, to put it another way, Turn to God and God will turn to you. But if we are still at a loss about what to do in prayer, what then? James adds: Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (4.10) or, more vividly, Throw yourself down before the Lord — surrender, stop worrying about how to pray — and the Lord will lift you up. I found, and hope my listeners agreed, that in this way James has caught elements very basic to prayer.
     But James does more, he reminds us how and why prayer matters. Ever insistent on a faith that gives evidence of itself in care for the poor, solidarity with those in need, James is interested not in a momentary act of social service or a brief period of concern, but in what makes it possible for someone to dare to change her or his life more deeply, becoming Christ-like, over a whole lifetime. So he says, Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom, not by a bitter envy and selfish ambition deep in your hearts. (3.13-14) He realizes that the work we do is not in itself the real measure, since we can seek to change the world out of ambition, or anger. Those are not enough, they will not last or bear lasting fruit. We can spend our lives trying to do the right thing without actually allowing our good deeds to be expressive of our deepest selves. Rather, better to act by a gentle wisdom — arising deep in a heart, in a spirit such as God has already touched. So we need to allow a change in our hearts to arise from that inner space where God is already turned toward us even as we turn toward God, as God lifts us up and sets us back on our feet.
     And how do we know if we are praying properly, to good effect? Between the passages I have already quoted, James has something to say on how we live in community. Some people thrive on conflicts and disputes, figuratively or literally committing murder, ruining the community, by partiality, hypocrisy, making enemies. I suggested at Mass that we might think of the pitfalls that occur when we use liberal or conservative ideologies as clubs to beat the community into going the way we want it to go, dividing it if necessary. Rather, if our energies and actions come from a wise heart, we become peacemakers: The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (3.17-18) How do we expect to change the world, devoting our lives to change, if we cannot live in peace, building peace in our communities, families, in the Church?
     As you know, I am quite interested in Hindu spirituality and its interplay with Christian spirituality. But what James is saying here seems to work on a still simpler level, since in any tradition, the same wisdom is relevant: find your heart; turn toward the God who has already turned toward you; let your community benefit from the grace arising within you; and then you can change the world. Yes, we need to admit that different traditions mean different things by “God,” but I think that otherwise James’ wisdom might be easily, widely received: first find your heart, deepened in the simple prayer that has always been going on; then make peace in your community; then reconnect with the world (from which you were never really separated, of course).
     In any case I do recommend that you look at Zev Chafets’ article — but also reflect on what James has to say, since this section of his letter indicates a very simple way of praying: a living connection to God that radiates from our hearts to our community, to our world.

Note: Three books that influenced my thinking on prayer, early on, are: Karl Rahner's Encounters with Silence, the first book I read as a Jesuit; Hans Urs von Balthasar's Prayer; and Swami Abhishiktananda's Prayer. At a more elemental level, I can add two other books: St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, the school of prayer for every Jesuit starting out, and Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, a book of poems that is itself a living prayer.

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8 years 8 months ago
Well, I had to really force myself to read past the 2nd page of Zev Chafets article; frankly I was shocked to see it ran 6 pages; glad I did it all. I first feared Zev was being led down the wrong track; not having a natural affinity for Jewish guys that know Hebrew but don't pray - sounds of Woody Allen- I wanted to stop and yell, "Zev, just be still; be just like the woman spiritual director suggested". Luckily, Zev found his own escape by instinct and ran to the Rabbi. Fortified with words of wisdom Zev then had the courage to head to the country. Zev got it right at the country church; so did the kids. But, alas, we all have to grow up. That's when we have to learn to be mostly ears; we have to hear what to pray for. It is hard to hear in the midst of Babylon.
All the above due to instigation by your fine homily on James and prayer. Just a warning; as you relate and James says, " Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom, not by a bitter envy and selfish ambition deep in your hearts." Note that the deep heart contains good and evil. Thus, the need for discernment and for not being surprised by what in silence we find there! Oh G_d, that I might see!
8 years 8 months ago
Thanks for this gentle, reflective article. I'm not a practising Catholic, though I have been trying to pray a bit. I find the English Jesuit 'pray-as-you-go' website helpful, as they seem to pose questions on it that help me pray without feeling uptight. And your article did the same.
Last year I walked the Camino of St James from Le Puy in France. In the early weeks, when there were not so many on the track, I found it easy to talk to God out in the countryside. But when I hit the baroque churches of Spain, for some reason I hit a wall. I am not sure I will ever work out my church issues. But your ideas about how James leads us to prayer I found very helpful. You reminded me about the peace of God's closeness, and how that can lead us to gently be with others. Thanks.

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