Column by Father Jonathan Dickson
I had the great honor of speaking at this year’s graduation and love seemed like the perfect topic, so I went with it. One author I quoted was Shane Wood who is a Protestant scripture scholar. If you get a chance to pick up his book Between Two Trees, I would strongly recommend it. His definition of love is as poignant as it gets. He writes, “Love is a movement toward for the sake of union.” This is clear, concise, and when really considered falls into the realm of common sense. And yet so many sermons on love mention how hard it is to love, especially the love of neighbor, and even the enemy which is intrinsic to the Gospels. But, rather than talk about practical ways to love as if some short manual were possible to write, I would like to suggest that the failure to love goes much deeper. It begins with the self. And so, what I would like to discuss in these next two articles is the importance of the interior life. In this essay I will focus specifically on prayer which is foundational to the interior life.
On many occasions I have had people suggest to me that quiet contemplative prayer, and I don’t mean “saying your prayers”, is either not for them or it is actually a waste of time. “God knows me through and through and so what could I possibly take to prayer.” This is a reasonable argument and by the way a statement of faith. “God knows me through and through…” But, if I don’t set time aside for prayer, how will I ever come to know myself through God? Meditative or contemplative prayer is more about what God is doing in us than what we are doing for God. Theologically speaking, we can’t do anything for God, because that would imply that God has needs. Rather when I set myself to pray, I am making an appointment with God free of the distractions of this world so that I may open myself up to him and see myself as I truly am. Prayer is foundationally two things, showing up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Showing up means setting aside time for only you and God. It is acknowledging that I am now for the next 20 to 30 minutes entering the truly sacred. And I am entering it completely vulnerable, holding nothing back.
There are many objections to time spent in prayer, but I would like to consider two, and suggest that maybe these are actually the core objections. First, there is no immediate reward. A half-hour of sustained prayer doesn’t necessarily leave me walking away feeling better, although it might. Prayer is practice and it takes commitment. Let me be clear, it is not about “getting better at prayer” it is the practice of getting out of my own way and allowing myself to become more vulnerable. This leads to the second great objection, which is not typically shared, but is at the heart of our resistance to prayer: We don’t want to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a noble trait in our world, but it is essential to spirituality. The unspoken objection to vulnerability leads to several other objections. We are afraid to have our true selves unveiled. We are afraid to enter into our own darkness. We are afraid to come to terms with our own brokenness, and so on… The consequence to all this is the lack of an interior life and a radical resistance to contemplative prayer.
If you haven’t quit reading by this point, you are probably asking what all this has to do with the title of this essay, When Love Seems Quite Impossible. It is quite difficult to make the move toward with the intent of union when I have not addressed my own baggage, or my own spiritual needs. The word “baggage” that I use is a generic term that could be the topic for a whole other essay. For the sake of this essay we will say that it is all the negativity that I have interiorized over the course of my life. The person that I wish to love in the truest sense of the term ceases to be the person they are and becomes a series of my own projections. They either become a projection of my own interior turmoil (baggage), and so I find them unlikeable, or they represent a deep spiritual need and so I cling to them and project this longing on to them. The first severs the relationship early on, the second creates an unhealthy relationship as I make the other something that they can never live up to.
The interior life or spiritual life rooted in prayer allows me to slowly come to terms with myself, both the good and the bad. And in doing so I begin to heal. The more I heal, the more I realize that I am loved by God and the more I take ownership of myself. I cannot give myself away in love until I possess myself. This possession of self is to become more and more the person that God intended as I allow him to strip away the false self. I realize that this may seem like it’s on the borderline of becoming a self-help essay and so I must point out that this is all through the grace of God. However, grace is freely given but never forced. I have to freely accept it. This acceptance is the result of my willingness to explore the interior life through prayer. Grace builds on nature. The search for self always leads to God. And so when I go to prayer quiet and vulnerable, the grace of God begins to strip away my baggage while simultaneously healing my spiritual neediness. I become truly affirmed, and I pay it forward. A quick disclaimer must be added. This is a lifelong process. My spiritual director reminds me all the time that this is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Quiet time in contemplative prayer is a way of life with eternal ramifications. Please don’t take it for granted.
[Father Jonathan Dickson is the Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College and the Chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg. This column was originally published in the May SJCA newsletter.]