by Br. Vincent Mary Carrasco
I remember, one Monday morning, one of the brothers came up to me. He was tired, looked exhausted, and as he was looking around for something to eat for breakfast, he turned to me in his thick Ethiopian accent and said, “You know, Monday is like climbing a mountain” There’s truth to that, and I think the same can be said about the prayer life. Similar to climbing a mountain, it involves work and sweat. We have baggage, things that should be thrown out along the way. We experience doubts and fears, even temptations to turn around. But in the midst of it all we are being led to a peaceful, serene and breathtaking place where we are able experience the sublime presence of God: the Summit
What I’ve noticed throughout my personal experience of prayer is that it really involves four components. Without these four things, my prayer life is nothing. Think of climbing that Monday-mountain.
- Longing - Our prayer life should involve a type of longing. We should desire a unity with God with all our heart. We should long to see God face to face on this mountain journey (Deut 5:4). The psalms use the word ‘longing’ as something necessary or vital for us, like a thirst that needs to be quenched; the deer that longs for running water in Psalm 42. By longing to experience God we also make it clear that we want to experience what will give our souls true fulfillment and completion. This is only found in God and the longing for that encounter is the start of every prayer. If we aren’t longing for God in prayer, it can be very easy to dismiss ourselves. At that point, prayer becomes a ritual where we get in, do what’s necessary and get out. We go through the motions, say what needs to be said and leave. It’s true that God can also work through that, but part of longing for God in prayer is also recognizing that God longs to be with us.
- Ascent - By ascent, I mean a movement of the heart and mind. There’s an emotional investment involved and it’s more than words. In fact, St. Therese of Lisieux writes that for her, prayer is a “surge of the heart”. The Catechism says that prayer should be a “rising of one’s mind and heart to God” (2559). Even our very own Capuchin Constitutions describes prayer as the “breathing of love stirred into life by the Holy Spirit through whom the inner man begins to listen to the voice of God speaking to his heart.” (Capuchin Constitutions 45.1) Our prayer life needs to be an ascent toward Christ. This part of the mountain journey involves time and perseverance through pain, struggle, weakness and doubt. In order for us to make that ascent in prayer, it requires constant care, effort, faithfulness, dedication and strength. Remember, you’re climbing a mountain! it’s not going to be easy. It involves the work that St. Paul describes as praying unceasingly (1 Thes 5:16). During this ascent, we begin to realize our flaws, our imperfections, distractions become apparent, we struggle, and because of our fears and doubts we are tempted to turn around and head back. The crisis is that in the suffering and pain that we experience, God appears not in anyway present to us, we lose sight of his love, his faithfulness and we stop praying. The solution is perseverance, constant use of the sacraments, patience in prayer, time in prayer and again, remembering our longing to experience God. This leads to the third.
- Honesty - It’s important to pray with honesty. Be honest with God in your prayer and be honest with yourself. Take a look at your fears, the things that bring you shame or doubt and present that to God in your prayer. Take it to Jesus. Take it to the Cross. Honesty in prayer is about recognizing your own brokenness, admitting to it and allowing God the time to transform it. The beauty is that God knows everything that is on our hearts, He knows us through and through. But just like a father’s love, He gives us the opportunity to come to him on our own. An honest prayer is being able to own up to our imperfections with humility. That means admitting to ourselves that we need the help of God each and everyday. God wants us to be able to turn to him in our every need. He wants to enter into those voids and heal everything that keeps us from a prayerful relationship with him. At this point in the journey, it would be easy to give in to the voices that remind us of our brokenness. Those voices tell us that because of our imperfections and flaws, we will never be accepted nor can we ever be loved. We become dissatisfied with ourselves and we let that determine our worth. But that’s not true! God is a God of mercy who seeks to transform every one of those imperfections that we see in ourselves.
- Presence - Presence in prayer is about allowing God the chance to reveal himself. It is being completely immersed in the workings of God in the now. I like to compare this part of the journey with the experience of finally reaching the summit of the mountain. In that moment, you feel victorious, confident, a sense of freedom and invigorating peace. God asks us to remain there and completely surrender our distractions. It’s there that we unpack, we encounter, and experience God by simply recognizing God in our stillness (Ps 46:10). God asks that we be present to him in prayer, that we recognize his presence in our lives and whole-heartedly allow him to reveal himself to us. During the transfiguration, after Peter, James and John had experienced the glory and dazzling brightness of God, they were completely moved by the experience that they didn’t want to leave (Lk 9:28-34). In our prayer life, we should have the heart of Peter, totally moved by the presence of God that we desperately want to prepare a tent for Him within our hearts, begging him to spend the night. Recognize God’s presence in your life, and prepare a place for him to remain.
Basically, what I’ve come to understand about my own prayer life is that it requires a certain type of longing; a longing for peace, maybe answers, a longing to be always united with God. It also involves an ascent of the heart, mind and soul; like incense rising up, it needs to be a movement that perseveres through any doubts or discouragements, it needs persistence. Thirdly, prayer should be about honesty with myself, coming to terms with any imperfections; an element of affective prayer that can help unveil our identity in Christ. Lastly, prayer demands a whole-hearted presence, one that involves surrender and seeks an encounter with God by reflecting on the ways he is present in the now. Try these out next time you're in prayer.