As Christians, we are all called to encounter and embrace God's Word to each one of us - individually - deep within our hearts. Personal prayer is simply the means by which we train ourselves to be more aware of our relationship with God and his presence in the world.
The relationship already exists; personal prayer is what nourishes it.
By this, I do not mean to imply that public or liturgical prayer is unimportant. To the contrary, it is essential; public worship is how the Body of Christ expresses itself, transcends time, and joins eternity in the praise of God. It cannot be separated from personal prayer as if they were each distinct or competing aspects of faith. They are intimately bound with one another, just like breathing requires both inhaling and exhaling. They feed one another. Without one, the other dies.
But the focus here, for now, is on personal prayer - and more specifically, that silent surrender to God's movment of grace within our hearts.
Trappist monk Michael Casey, in his book Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer, says:
"Prayer is an attempt to realize the love that unites us with God, allow it to becomemore present to us, and give it greater scope to act upon us and change us. We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us."
In prayer, we listen for the invitation, for that "tiny whispering sound" in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do this, we must surrender, let go of our preoccupations, our preconcieved notions, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, and redeemed us - the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. After all, "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) in God alone.
Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ, and we relate to the whole through each other. But each of us also has a personal and unique invitation from God. God's Word is sown in our hearts, and it is there that he calls us. We are born with this desire, or spiritual hunger, to seek God, but we must truly listen for the genuine invitation (among the myriad false and empty ones designed to distract us). We must be willing to follow Jesus into the dark and silent desert, and let him feed us with the bread of heaven.
"Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you," Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8), "Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knows, the door will be opened."
We all do well to reflect on these words and on what they really mean. If we are willing to follow Jesus into the desert to be fed, to seek, to knock, to ask, just what is it we truly desire - deep down in our souls, which words cannot begin to express?
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks a very simple question, one he poses to each and every one of us amid our busy lives, our work, our prayer, our failures, our successes, our joys, our sorrows:
"What do you want me to do for you?"
Actually, he asks the same question twice (see Mark 10:32-52). First, Jesus asks two of his apostles, James and John. They ask for power and glory. Wrong answer. Next, he asks a blind beggar by the road, who says, "Master, I want to see." In other words, "I want to see you, follow you." His was the correct answer because while he asked from his deepest need, his focus was on Jesus and not himself, nor his preconceived ideas and expectations.
What do you want me to do for you? It takes a hungry heart to answer that question truthfully. This scares many people because it means being vulnerable, acknowleging our need. We don't like to feel that way. We don't want to be hungry. We want to be full. But, too often, we fill ourselves with the wrong things and are left dissatisfied. Only the Bread of Life satisfies.
Personal prayer teaches us how to enter into the question. And it must be pure prayer from the heart, arising from that personal hunger - that need. It must be fiery prayer, beyond words, immersed in the love of God, as the ancient monk John Cassian would say.
This is contemplation, and we are all called to it. In heaven, we will spend an eternity doing it. Here, by God's grace, we are given a foretaste if we are open to it. It is not complicated, and it cannot be taught. It requires only a heart completely open to God's grace.
Christians - especially men - tend to over-intellecualize prayer and the spiritual life, to classify it, and systematize it. We make it something to be studied and taught, something to produce practical results like a good, moral life. That is all good and necessary. Our prayer must be informed, have structure, be communal, and make us better people. However, that is not all that true invitation to prayer involves. God did not become man to teach or introduce a system of moral conduct, or to inspire our involvement in a myriad of activities and programs. Jesus came to love us, to call us, to draw us, to invite us into his saving action of grace. We are called Chrsitians not because of what we do, but because of who we are. "Come to me," Jesus says, to discover who you are truly meant to be.
In this invitation, God promises his presence. "I am with you," he says repeatedly in Scripture. The gift of presence is the most valuable gift we can either receive or give. It is the gift of self. prayer is simply being present to God, who is always present to us.
"What do you want me to do for you? Ask and it will be given to you."
Whatever the answer to that question might be for you, God has accomplished it in Christ, and he reveals it through you personal hunger. Your deepest desire will be satisfied by your greatest need.
--Taken from Grace in the Wilderness: Reflections on God's Sustaining Word Along Life's Journey
© Abbey Press, 2013