Where is it that we are when we pray? We are, obviously, in the place where we are. However, we are often in many places. We are saying to ourselves ‘I should be somewhere else’ or ‘I should be someone else’ or ‘I am not where I say I am’. In prayer, to begin where you are not is a poor beginning. To begin with where you are may take courage, or compromise, or painful truth-telling. Whatever it takes, it’s wise to begin there.
-Padraig O Tuama, In the Shelter
[…]prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of prayer.
-Simone Weil, Waiting on God
It’s not easy to admit that prayer is sometimes boring. In religious community, prayer is the primary work, the magnum opus, but it doesn’t always feel like the most pressing issue. It seems much more important (and interesting) to reply to that email, or make that phone call, or go on that walk. Our minds wander to other things we need to do, things we’d rather be doing, and we disengage.
I’ve found the fourfold office especially difficult to keep recently. I’ve sat in chapel bored almost to tears by reciting the same 50 verses of psalms that we said just 3 or 4 weeks ago, by saying the Angelus 3 times a day, by singing the same cycle of hymns every 2 weeks. I felt sick of getting up so early to sit in chapel for an hour to do exactly the same thing we did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Even Mass started to feel a bit dull. I read books on why Christianity was exciting, why the Psalms are beautiful, why Deuteronomy is fascinating, but it didn’t change anything. I still found myself zoning out.
The chief challenge I faced wasn’t just working out how to sit through services that bored me. That was relatively easy. The real challenge was working out just why I wasn’t managing to engage. I’ve found it difficult to pay any attention to the prayer I say and act out, but for no apparent reason. I would turn up at the appointed times, say the appointed words, sing the appointed hymns and songs, yet I would leave feeling totally unchanged. This isn’t an easy thing to do day in, day out: to worship without feeling. Nor is it entirely comfortable to admit to oneself that it’s happening: initially, I felt like I must be doing something wrong. I’m not holy enough to pray, I’m not praying ‘properly’, the liturgy is at fault. But none of these come close to the reality of why I, and many others, stumble in prayer.
I have been to confession once in my life, and the advice I was given was to say the Lord’s Prayer, paying attention to every single word. I’d said it hundreds of times before, but had never really thought long and hard about what exactly it meant to say those words. Or, to put it another way, I hadn’t paid attention, and I hadn’t been present. Prayer is the act of being fully here, fully now, in the presence of God, and this requires much more than just being physically present. We have to feel ourselves to be present in every sense. We have to break down the walls that we put up separating us from others and, most importantly, from ourselves. We have to say the Lord’s Prayer and mean every word. There’s a danger in Christianity of forgetting just how remarkable what we’re saying actually is. Jesus rose from the dead. God loves us, no ifs, no buts. Once we slow down, paying attention to the here and the now in our lives, it becomes much easier to listen. And Christianity is a listening faith: God listened to Abraham, Jesus listened to the Canaanite woman, and we should listen back. Through being spiritually present, and really paying attention, we may be able, one day, to hear God.