Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thoughts on prayer, and a holistic approach to it

This is carrying off part of my ideas in the last entry, namely that spirituality, especially in the Christian tradition, necessitates a holistic approach. Ultimately, we as human beings, and especially human beings in the Western World, fall into two camps when it comes to the question of faith and spirituality--believers and non-believers (believers in the sense that you believe in SOMETHING, be it Christ, Buddha, Allah, YHVH, or Tom Koppel). For Christian believers, spirituality isn't treated as a holistic part of the life experience. It sits apart as something extra, something, like a plant, to water only when we remember, or only when we really, really need it.

The best way to feed spirituality and help it grow into something holistic, something that informs every part of your existence, is through prayer and meditation. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is a part of the ritual. But this meditation has an objective focus on the self, and so can be seen (superficially to the outside observer) to have some kind of tangible benefit. Christian prayer and meditation, however, lacks this, and so it makes it hard for us to commit to feeding our spirituality daily. And often times, it leads us to paying only lip service to it.

The end result of this? The ego takes precedent over the spirit. Physical, mortal concerns become more important than immortal, spiritual concerns. "I attend Mass every week," or "I pray the 'Our Father' every night before bed." Yes, that's well and good, but how do you pray? And when you do, what are you asking for?

Christ said nobody can reach the Father except through [Him] (Christ). What does this mean? Most Christian dialogue on the topic says that you have to accept Him as your Messiah to be saved. Ok. But what does that mean? You have to accept that He is your personal Lord and Savior. Ok. But what does that mean? And on and on. When you get to the nitty gritty of it, what emerges is the understanding that accepting Christ into your life isn't just accepting His sanctifying grace. To accept Christ in your life, you have to make room for Him. And the only thing that He is willing to replace is the ego.

Catholicism gets a bad rap for its support of the monastic tradition because Paul said to live in the world. But these men and women have done better at suppressing the ego and making their entire lives about Christ than anyone else. The Trappists, in particular, have a stringent rule of prayer that wakes them every morning at 4 am to being praying the Liturgy of the Hours. They do this all day, saying a daily Mass in the mean time, going about their business in relative silence, praying when they do speak, and praying the final hour before retiring to bed. Pray without ceasing, and suppress the ego while you do it. With your mind focused on Christ, you don't have time to ask for the new job, the new car, more money, etc. You only have time to be praying and worshiping Christ.

Question: That's all well and good, but what about people who are genuinely struggling and they have no where else to turn?

Answer: Christ never told us to pray to Him for things we want. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Not the Want, the Whine, the Complaint. This may sound harsh, but listen closely and read along. The Way implies a one-way street. You go in one direction, you reach your destination. You go in the opposite direction, you will never find where you want to go. The Truth implies only one possible interpretation--the Truth. There is no wiggle room. There is no falsehood, there is no deviation. The Life is the vita, the essence of existence. What these three things have in common is necessity. Want and necessity are two very different things. I would love a new car. I would love the extra money to pay on student loans that I've fallen behind on. I would love to finish my college degree tomorrow. These three things are within Christ's power to give me. But He won't. And I won't ask Him for them. Why? I do not need a new car to live. My student loans not being paid? My paychecks might get withheld. Money is not necessary to my existence as a creature of God. My college degree? With or without it, I will still live.

What Christ wants us to pray for are the things that He is--necessity. Christ says that He is necessary in our lives like food and air. He is necessary for our spiritual fulfillment, which, once achieved, allows us to be happy with what we have, rather than what we want, and more willing to help those who do not have what they need. Man does not live on bread alone. If he feeds his ego, he will be forever hungry. If he suppresses his ego, he will be filled. That is the message here, and the guide to prayer.

Suppression of the ego and the part of ourselves that desires above all things to be constantly happy leads to a holistic application of the prayerful life, and the holistic appreciation of spirit. But this suppression begins the moment you begin to pray. The moment the words "Our Father..." or "Hail Mary..." or "Glory be..." leave your lips, the attitude is set. Are you focusing on your ego, or are you focusing on your spirit? Are you watering your mental need for stimulation? Or are you feeding the soul? Nobody can tell you how to achieve the latter. Everyone's spiritual, like their bodily, chemistry is different. In your journey, you will find what works for you to focus on the spirit and turn your attentions to Christ. But once you do, the transformative change experienced by historical mystics and used as the litmus test for the validity of mystical visions will begin to descend. And it is up to you to continue to water the seed that you have planted. It is up to you to pray without ceasing.

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