By: Chaplain Mike
One of the books I will be reading and meditating upon during my sabbatical is Thomas Merton’s Thoughts In Solitude.
A well-known passage from this book has been called, “The Merton Prayer” (see below). This prayer acknowledges that, despite our human tendency to think we know what life is about and how we can manage it, we really have no clue. As the Jews say, “Man plans; God laughs.”
“The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” (Prov 16:9)
In the chapter following this prayer, Merton writes,“In our age everything has to be a ‘problem.’ Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.
“…Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.”
Merton suggests that it is learning to live in “silence” that enables us to live at peace with the contradictions that lie within us. The contradictions remain, but they cease to be a problem for us.
The prayer that precedes this counsel expresses the peace that comes from knowing and trusting in God’s presence in a life with so many unknowns and irresolvable conflicts.
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 that 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 seem to 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.
By Stephen Davey
"This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."
I read a gripping story of a godly old man whose days were coming to an end. A priest went to visit him in his hospital room and noticed an empty chair beside the man's bed. He asked, "Have you had a visitor?" The man replied, "No, I haven't had a visitor. But when I became a Christian as a youth, someone told me that praying was like talking to your very best friend. When I heard that, I decided to pull up an empty chair beside me every day and invite Christ to sit and talk with me. And I just finished my conversation with the Lord."
After the man passed away, his daughter wrote of her visit to the hospital room. She said of her father:
"He seemed content, so I left him for a few hours. When I returned, I knew that he had gone to be with the Lord. But the interesting thing was that his head was not resting on his pillow. His body had turned and his head was resting on the seat of an empty hair that had been pulled up close to his bed."
Isn't that a remarkable picture? We, who are weak and frail like this dying man, have been given the opportunity to rest our head on the loving, omnipotent breast of God. Death is only a continuation of the pursuit we begin in this life to know God. That is why prayer is a taste of heaven on earth. God, in His humility and love toward us, stepped down from His heavenly throne and seated Himself upon the chair of our heart where we can intimately and personally converse with Him.
George Macdonald, the Scottish pastor who had a profound impact on C. S. Lewis, illustrated this beautifully when he said:
"I used to play a game with my two children when they were young. I would clutch some pennies in my hand and allow them to pry open my fingers to get the coins. My children would sit in my lap and work feverishly to get the money. Once they captured the coins, they would scream with delight and jump down to treasure their prize. I loved having my youngsters laugh and play while sitting on my lap—the pennies were insignificant."
Macdonald went on to apply this truth: "While God, in His grace, does give good gifts to His children, He offers us more than that . . . He offers us Himself. Those who are merely satisfied with the trinkets in the Father's hands miss the best reward of prayer—the reward of communicating and communing with the God of the universe."
As we go to God in prayer, let's remember that the greatest thrill in praying to Him is not in seeing how He will answer our petitions, nor in discovering what trinkets He might be holding in His all-powerful hand. The greatest privilege is actually being able to have a conversation with God Himself!
Perhaps prayer will become a personal conversation . . . if you pull up an empty chair.
Prayer Point: Go ahead—pull up a chair beside you right now and tell God how grateful you are for His friendship. Spend a few moments talking with Him: tell Him your struggles, your joys, your thoughts; ask Him your questions; thank Him for allowing you to have a conversation with Him, much less a personal relationship with the Lord of all the universe.
Extra Refreshment: Read John 17
When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place… —Matthew 6:6
The primary thought in the area of religion is— keep your eyes on God, not on people. Your motivation should not be the desire to be known as a praying person. Find an inner room in which to pray where no one even knows you are praying, shut the door, and talk to God in secret. Have no motivation other than to know your Father in heaven. It is impossible to carry on your life as a disciple without definite times of secret prayer.
“When you pray, do not use vain repetitions…” (Matthew 6:7). God does not hear us because we pray earnestly— He hears us solely on the basis of redemption. God is never impressed by our earnestness. Prayer is not simply getting things from God— that is only the most elementary kind of prayer. Prayer is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God. If the Son of God has been formed in us through regeneration (see Galatians 4:19), then He will continue to press on beyond our common sense and will change our attitude about the things for which we pray.
“Everyone who asks receives…” (Matthew 7:8). We pray religious nonsense without even involving our will, and then we say that God did not answer— but in reality we have never asked for anything. Jesus said, “…you will ask what you desire…” (John 15:7). Asking means that our will must be involved. Whenever Jesus talked about prayer, He spoke with wonderful childlike simplicity. Then we respond with our critical attitude, saying, “Yes, but even Jesus said that we must ask.” But remember that we have to ask things of God that are in keeping with the God whom Jesus Christ revealed.
By Mary Ellen Dunford, affiliate
For every individual there are many different approaches to prayer. It is a personal preference with one way not better or worse than another. Yet we would all agree that the purpose of prayer is to bring us closer to God. Prayer nurtures our relationship with God and deepens our spirituality. During this past Lent a local church held a Prayer-A-Thon. For 40 hours they offered 40 different types of prayer. Each prayer session was one hour. Some of the prayer types included the rosary, Stations of the Cross, Litany of Saints, Lectio Divina, praying the 10 commandments, dance, singing, Taize, journal writing, prayer with nature, drumming, couples prayer, healing touch and walking the labyrinth. It was a wonderful opportunity for people to experience different ways to connect with God and share their experience with others.
To St. Francis and St. Clare prayer was an important part of their tradition. They set aside time for daily liturgical prayer, community prayer and praying alone. Francis felt prayer was a necessary condition for following in the footsteps of Jesus who encouraged his followers to “pray always.” Like Francis and Clare, Jesus calls us to live a life of prayer and to live in communion. To pray always is to find oneself in prayerful communion with God and others while working, playing and experiencing all of the extraordinary and ordinary activities of daily life. Our daily living activities are not distractions from prayer but the source of meaningful prayer. Quoting Richard Rohr, “Prayer is the life of the one who prays.” Prayer is a relationship with God and the universe. Like all meaningful relationships, it takes intentional time and energy. If we are awake and present to the moment, we will grow in our relationship with God through every life experience.
St. Therese of Lisieux states, “For me prayer means launching out of the heart towards God; it means lifting up one’s eyes, quite simply, to heaven, a cry of grateful love, from the crest of joy or through despair.” Her emphasis is on the simplicity of prayer and that we turn to God in times of our joys and in times of challenges and discouragements.
Prayer is the path to following in the footsteps of Jesus. The Christian life calls us not only to take time out to pray but to live a life of service and to pursue peace and justice. Those that pray always are empowered and risk boldly the future.
by Daniel P. Horan, OFM
“No one can really embrace the Christian asceticism mapped out in the New Testament unless he [or she] has some idea of the positive, constructive function of self-denial. The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return … The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. The Christian dies, not merely in order to die but in order to live. And when he [or she] takes up his cross to follow Christ, the Christian realizes, or at least believes, that he is not going to die to anything but death. The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The Cross is the sign of life. It is the trellis upon which grows the Mystical Vine whose life is infinite joy and whose branches we are. If we want to share the life of that Vine, we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning.” — Thomas Merton
Merton’s call for us to follow the asceticism of Christian evangelical life is not simply an arbitrary practice that is an end in itself, but must always be seen in the broader context of Gospel living. As Merton points out, the penitential practices of lent are not to be self-serving, but should be oriented toward freeing us up to be more focused on the important things in life. “The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life.”
There are a few things that I particularly find worth considering in Merton’s reflection here. One thing is the sense of death to self that Merton presents in association with Christian self-denial. It is the Pauline notion of “dying to one’s self” in order to be more focused on living as a member of the Body of Christ, as part of the Vine Merton describes here. St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), so too, Merton reminds us, are we called to live not for ourselves but as a member of Christ’s body.
The notion of being part of the Vine along the trellis poetically suggests that we don’t do this alone and in our own, arbitrary way. We have to look to God’s very self-revelation in Christ and in the historical manifestation of God’s disclosure in scripture. Here is the locus of our unity and communal support in living more fully the Christian life. Here is the trellis upon which the whole Body of Christ grows and supports one another as part of the Vine.
During this season of lent, we are challenged to pause and reflect on how we go about our everyday lives. Are we aware of our intimate connection to the rest of the Body of Christ? Do we try to life for ourselves alone, away from the Vine, apart from the branches, off the trellis of community where the Pilgrim People of God strive to flourish together? Perhaps we can follow the example of Merton and Paul, seeking in our daily lives — in big and little ways — to die to our own self-centeredness, our own priorities and concerns, and those things which constitute our own frivolous desires rather than the true and inherent aspiration we have deep within to be at home with one another and the rest of creation in Christ.