Inclinations vs. Intentional Prayer

Well, the holidays have taken a real toll on my blogging efforts. But I suppose that isn't such a bad thing. I've been escaping the books for a few weeks—and most intellectual-ish activities along with them!

But now I'm back. And after all this time away from thinking (at least thinking critically), I have a few thoughts that are probably long overdue.

First and foremost, I've been thinking quite a bit about prayer. My understanding of prayer is something that has, over the course of my life, taken drastic turns...for better and worse. 'Knowing' how to pray is just as hard as trying to figure out what it means to say, "I prayed." I'm sure that I won't get any solid 'answers' anytime soon—it's rather a mysterious thing—but there are some fundamental truths about prayer that are not dispensable, and these can guide us to seeing just how we can grow in a life of prayer, no matter our vocation in life.

In my mind, prayer seems to fluctuate between appreciating God's presence in a mystical, sacramental sort of way, and appreciating his presence in human interaction. On the one hand, there are times where the only place God seems present is in the tabernacle, in the Eucharist, and there is nothing I want more than to be alone with him, seemingly isolated from the outside world, and to pray. On the other hand, sometimes that is the last thing on my mind; sometimes I want nothing more than to be with other human beings, and to experience the affection and love their presence draws out from the depths of my personhood. Both inclinations are directed at some form of prayer, whether it be meditative or active. Neither inclination is, however, in itself a prayer.

What seems to be necessary for real 'prayer' to occur is that, recognizing these attractions of the heart, I actually do something about it. "To pray" is, most basically, a verb. It requires action.

Whether it be an affection for Christ in the Eucharist, or the indwelling Trinity in others (or even oneself), truly praying means that we are realizing that desire to be from God, and pursuing it as God would have us pursue it: by glorifying him, and seeking to give him our fullest and deepest attention. This sort of 'intentionality' that happens with prayer is the same sort of thing that happens when we see something new, or when we find something interesting that we want to know more about. The focus of our attention—the focus of our 'self'—becomes directed at another. We engage another being with our undivided intentionality. Whether that 'other being' is a book, a pencil, another human person, a divine person, or the Trinity united, the importance of our intentionality is unchanging. We examine it, inspect it, note the impressions it presents us with, take it in, process it, meditate upon its true meaning, and engage it for what it is. We bring to this encounter just as much as does the other. And we bring to prayer just as much as does God. Prayer is the unity of two autonomous persons in a conversation of the heart. If we are not fully present, how are we ever going to pray?

With all this in mind, we can see how prayer can occur either meditatively or actively. It becomes clearer that "to pray" does not simply mean to drown out distractions, but rather to intentionally move toward the object of our affection. It means to discover the revealed God by endeavoring to approach him genuinely, and out of the affection of our hearts. We do this at church, before the Eucharist; we do it in our lives, in being and living with others. The presence of God is everywhere, and our affection towards this presence can be prayerfully transformed anywhere and everywhere. How else could St. Paul have commanded Christians to "pray without ceasing?"

Of course, realizing this and actually doing it are two different things. Understanding the theory of prayer is just the same as understanding that "I am affectionate toward this or that thing, but refuse to do something about it." Reading (or writing) about prayer is not praying. At least not in itself. However, it can be prayerfully transformed if the focus of the understanding is actively directed at coming to know God more fully, and discovering his Truth more plainly. It's not always easy to tell the difference between 'knowing' something and 'doing' something. I suppose the tell-tale sign, though, is that action will always issue a change, while knowing is the foundation for that action. "Do I see myself changing because of my prayer life, or am I simply learning more about what praying might mean?" In more philosophical terms: "Am I simply inclined to goodness, or am I intentionally disposed to it, seeking it actively, and desiring it with my entire person?"

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    # by Fred - December 30, 2008 at 8:24 PM

    thank you for this.

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    # by Andrew Haines - December 31, 2008 at 12:14 PM

    Thank you for reading. I appreciate the feedback!