Saturday, May 24, 2008

Prayer is not introspection...

Still thinking about the strangeness of prayer that I wrote about yesterday, I stumbled across a wonderful passage from Henri Nouwen's Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer and Contemplation at Inward/Outward:

To be continually in communion with God does not mean thinking about God in contrast to thinking about other things, nor does it mean spending time with God instead of spending time with other people. As soon as we begin to divide off our thoughts, we separate God from our daily life. At that point God is allocated to a pious little niche in some corner of our lives where we only think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.

Although it is important and even indispensable for our spiritual lives to set apart time for God and God alone, our prayer can only become unceasing communion when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of the One who dwells in us and surrounds us. By trying to do this, our unceasing thinking is converted into unceasing prayer moving us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue.

To do this we want to try to convert our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts, because to pray unceasingly means to think and live in the presence of Love. To pray unceasingly is to channel our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God…

Prayer, therefore, is not introspection. Introspection means to look inward, to enter into the complex network of our mental processes in search of some inner logic or some elucidating connections. Introspection results from the desire to know ourselves better and to become more familiar with our own interiority. Although introspection has a positive role in our thought processes, there is a danger that it may entangle us in a labyrinth of our own ideas, feelings, and emotions and lead us to an increasing self-preoccupation.

Introspection often causes paralyzing worries or unproductive self-gratification. Introspection has the potential to create moodiness, and this moodiness is a very widespread phenomenon in our society. It betrays our great concern with ourselves and our undue sensitivity to all our thoughts and feelings. It leads us to experience life as a constant fluctuation between 'feeling high' and 'feeling low,' between 'good days' and 'bad days,' and thus becomes a form of narcissism.

Prayer is not introspection. It is not a scrupulous, inward-looking analysis of our own thoughts and feelings but it is an attentiveness to the Presence of Love personified inviting us to an encounter. Prayer is the presentation of our thoughts to the One who receives them, sees them in the light of unconditional love, and responds to them with divine compassion. This context of thinking in the Presence, of conversation and dialogue with Love, is the joyful affirmation of our gentle Companion on the journey with God who knows our minds and hearts, our goodness and our beauty, our darkness and our light.

In this context, our life of prayer - apart from the necessary and shared liturgical framework which must always remain to hold our own together - comes down to discerning how to "think... in the Presence." For me it has become the Jesus Prayer; but there are many alternatives, the Rosary, centring prayer, the Kyrie, the Trisagion... the list goes on. What seems to be essential is that we should be willing to be naked before God, to let go of the pretences, the "pious little niche" mentality; to stop even trying to stop trying, and just "come as we are", full of the thoughts and fears and longings that define who we are at this moment. That we be still, at last, and know that he is God.


St Edwards Blog said...

This is brilliant Mike, thank you.

I loved this Nouen piece from Inward/Outward... and have been trying to write about it as well.

Peace to you dear brother and friend.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I love this quote. What a beautiful little piece of instruction. I will re-read this several times and try to live it.

Thank you!