Yesterday our senior pastor preached a thought-provoking sermon on prayer based upon Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6. He talked about the way that prayer is a privilege, not just an obligation, and that it can encompass a variety of behaviors that are done intentionally in the presence of God. What hit me today as I sat in mass at the basilica is that we are always praying; we just often aren’t praying to God.
In the past few months, I’ve been going through James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom which basically makes the claim that humans are more fundamentally liturgical creatures than rational creatures. To put that in civilian language, our behavior is shaped more by our practiced habits than the rational beliefs we think we have. Liturgy isn’t just what we do in church; the set of routine things we do when we wake up, get into our cars, arrive at the office, etc, are all liturgies that shape us in varying degrees.
In any case, we could use the word “prayer” very generically to refer to the basic liturgy we are living at any given moment, or how we orient ourselves to the universe around us. Are our thoughts and actions shaped by the assumption that a loving God is in our immediate presence and by the constant desire to experience this presence more richly? Or do we walk through life as though God lives in some buildings but not others and has particular office hours but is otherwise unavailable for chitchat?
To put it differently, who or what is the orienting entity or being outside of ourselves whose presence dictates our behaviors on a very basic level? Is it an imaginary audience in the reality show sitcom we star in, an abstract set of career goals, a need to be physically comfortable at all times? Or is it our Creator who loves us? That orienting entity or person is the one to whom we are praying.
I was torn about even getting on my cellphone to write this post because I’m concerned that I pray more to the idol of my writing vocation than I pray to God. I am extremely utilitarian about my use of time in one sense and very inefficient in another sense. Every free moment is part of my writing career. I devour books; I write blogs; I journal; I tweet clever little nuggets. When I’m unproductive in my other responsibilities of my life, it’s usually because I’ve been “wasting” time writing without an adequate sense of boundaries or discipline.
That’s another way of understanding who or what we’re praying to. How do we “waste” our time? Our Methodist Bishop in Virginia, Young-Jin Cho, has challenged us clergy to spend at least an hour a day in prayer. I wonder if any pastor actually has prayer as part of their job description. I can cheat and say well I know that God is in the room with me while I work at the church, so my work can be my “prayer” to Him, but unless I’m willing to be utterly unuseful and anti-utilitarian with my time in His presence, then I’m praying to my to-do list. Often I end up wasting way more time surfing the web aimlessly out of anxiety than I spend sitting and listening to God without distraction; I’m praying to the Internet.
So for me the challenge is to learn how to “waste” time with God not having any agenda other than His presence. In other words, not looking to snatch an insight from him that I can then blast out to the world. If I come to Him always to acquire knowledge that is “useful” for building up myself, then the frantic pursuit of useful knowledge and the resulting self-satisfaction is the god I am praying to and God is just a piggy bank that I’m shaking to get to what I really want.
Of course, the difficulty here is that my vocation really is to teach and proclaim God’s mysteries as He reveals them. It’s weird because I feel like God has harnessed my sinful pride in spite of myself for the sake of His glory. In any case, I imagine that I would have richer things to say about God if the time I spent with Him wasn’t spent cajoling Him into giving me rich things to say about Him, which He being gracious hasn’t stopped doing yet. I just long to embody liturgically what I say that I believe, that there is no greater sweetness than to delight in the presence of God.
Do I really believe that one day in His court is better than a thousand elsewhere? Could I really say that my life has been worthwhile if I don’t publish a single damn book ever but actually delight in God’s presence every day? The idol remains; I pound it with my fists until they bleed but I cannot smash it on my own. So I will go and waste some more time with God in the chapel of the blessed sacrament and ask His forgiveness again for spending an hour writing about what I could have spent an hour doing.