Prayer and Prerequisites
To recollect oneself in prayer, in meditation, is so easy! Jesus doesn’t make us wait. He doesn’t leave us in the waiting-room. It is he who does the waiting. You only have to say,”Lord, I want to pray, I want to talk to you!” and you are at once in God’s presence, talking to him.
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
The Forge, no. 539
Prerequisites are built into some of the most significant things we do in life. University admissions, job applications, marriage, and entrance into religious life all have their prerequisites: things that have to be in place before you can begin. Without them, something you’re about to do might either be altogether invalid (like marriage), or simply a failed enterprise: bluffing on a job application or to a college admissions officer might get you in the door, but not a promotion or to graduation—and certainly not any closer to the kingdom of God.
It isn’t too far off the mark to see Advent as the Church’s way of establishing a ‘prerequisite’ for Christmas. The mandatory liturgical waiting period teaches us the art of Christian waiting. It stimulates growth in hope while purifying our intentions as we await the Lord. The distractions that typically divert our attention from Him appear more obviously during an intentionally prolonged wait. Lent is an even more intense version of this.
What about prayer? Prayer, like nothing else we encounter, tends to make us feel both incompetent and ill-equipped; unprepared. If having a particular skill set for employment, or a certain level of academic achievement for higher studies makes sense, then the same prerequisite can apply to choosing the type of preparation that keys us into successful prayer. What makes prayer a ‘success’ certainly isn’t the feeling of satisfaction we have when getting something we’ve always wanted, or any particular feeling at all. The measure of prayer’s success is found closer to home, in the attitude it creates in us.
Before Saint Therese entered the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux, her blood sister (already a nun of the Lisieux Carmel, Sr. Agnes of Jesus) wanted to equip her with the right attitude for entering the convent. “Prepare yourself [to enter Carmel],” she wrote to Therese, “by not preparing yourself, that is, by admitting that you are not capable of preparing and adorning yourself [for Jesus].” That is a close companion to St Paul’s, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26).
The first prerequisite for prayer seems to be an admission of weakness, an inability—our need to receive it as a gift. You could see it as another version of the words of Christ, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). No ‘religious’ feelings are required before people get down to the business of praying. This is why classing prayer as a ‘come as you are’ activity doesn’t downgrade it into just another casual, jeans-and-t-shirt activity. The point, as St Josemaria reminds us, is to be as natural and quick about turning to the Lord as you would to your best friend sitting beside you.
The gospel parable of the king’s wedding feast shows us how both sides of prayer can and must go together: the Lord’s continual invitation and our response. God is so eager to establish communion with us that Jesus shows the king of the parable commanding his servants to “invite to the marriage feast as many as you find” (Matthew 22:9). In Saint Luke’s version the king even insists on people who, at that time, would have been unable to fend for themselves:
“Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” And the servant said, “Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.” And the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:21-23)
God’s eagerness compels us into His house whether we feel ready or worthy or not. But don’t stop reading there. Some additional sorting takes place within the banquet hall: not everyone called dresses appropriately, suggesting a final screening of candidates. You could come to the feast for all the wrong reasons: to eat your fill, pocket the party favors, but without allowing the generosity and love of the Master to impress you, and so change you.
Such is the man whose attire—not a wedding garment—showed him not only clueless about his surroundings, but ungrateful for the invitation. One who appreciates the weight of the invitation is the first to ask: What do I wear? Can I bring anything? How you come reveals your grasp of the call.
Often we feel a call to prayer in times of distress—leading some to doubt the sincerity of their prayer because it is often too need-based. Or sometimes the experience of beauty or grandeur lifts the spirit upward. God seems to be doing all the work, and we’re just (happily) going along for the ride. What St Josemaria wants to teach us is a prayer that doesn’t come and go, that doesn’t just happen as circumstances dictate. Prayer is conversation, dialogue, and God is most glorified when following the Spirit’s lead we cry out “Abba! Father!” as naturally as filling our lungs with fresh air.
The more we allow God’s desire for us to sink in, His free and insistent invitations, the more we change into souls of gratitude, prayer, surrender, and obedience. We know the success of our prayer from these—not from feelings. The attitude created by prayer says everything about whether our prayer is ‘working’ or not—whether we belong in the banquet hall or not.
If our feelings tell us anything, they tell us what we need by spelling out what we lack. If I lack inner peace, then I will probably want to avoid silence and solitude. They would make me feel my restlessness too much. But it is into silence that the living God invites me, not into more noise and activity.
At other times when my expectations have fallen through, when I have failed both myself and others, then prayer might make me feel my helplessness even more. But when I am nothing, and have nothing, then I realize: I need the poverty of spirit that inherits kingdoms. I am where I need to be to receive the invitation.
Or if I feel alone and do not want to be alone. If I cannot save myself from the oppressive feeling of loneliness, then I understand: I am making Jesus wait. He needs me to open the door.
At any given moment my feelings might protest against the stillness, the focus, the vulnerability needed to turn Christward in my heart. Even then, I can read my resistance and repugnance as an invitation from the very One who reads me better than I do myself. In the end, the Lord means to leave us without excuse. Every feeling, or no feeling, every handicap, is the voice of the King who can’t wait to hear our voice saying the most natural and childlike thing: “Lord, I want to pray, I want to talk to you!” And you are at once in God’s presence, talking to him. Nothing further required.