Year for Priests: Praying outside the box

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Over the past couple of weeks, I have met with a number of people about prayer, and since Lent is around the corner it seems fitting to pass along a few fruits from the conversations.

For most of the people with whom I speak, prayer is a conundrum.  We are told that prayer is essential to our spiritual life, but just about everyone I know feels that prayer is a struggle.  We are told that prayer is how we dialogue with God, but most of the time, it feels awkward and one-sided.  In my own past experience, I found that priests often had very little to say on the subject, seemingly because they struggled as much as everyone else.  So what are we to do?

I have always believed the first step is to take the whole idea of prayer out of the 12th-century box in which we keep it.  Whether we know it or not, most of us have a mental picture of what “good” prayer is supposed to be like, and usually it is contemplative, ritualized and originated in a monastery. However, prayer is much more than all that.

Second, we have to understand that there are as many different kinds of prayer as there are traditions in the church.  We can use broad categories like formal, informal, collective, individual, contemplative, active, introverted and extroverted (just to name a few), but even those hardly grasp the vast treasury of prayers prayed by the church.

I should note that throughout my formation, I struggled immensely with prayer, largely because I did not feel the presence of God at 5:30 a.m. in a dimly-lit, absolutely silent chapel.  As an extrovert, I wanted to sing, write and “voice” my prayer.  I eventually discovered that 90 percent of Religious men and women are introverts, so it makes sense that the adopted prayers of Religious are more contemplative.

Ultimately, I believe that prayer is anything that makes us more aware of, and increases our ability to accept grace.  It is anything that reminds us that we are not our own saviors.

Most of us are not called to live in a cloister, so if we take St. Paul’s words, “to pray without ceasing,” to heart, it means that prayer is not so much an action, as it is a disposition – a state of mind.

This means that not only is a rosary a prayer, but so is Mass.  Not only is a chapel a place of prayer, but so is nature.  Prayer can be a discussion about God in a coffee shop, a good book that makes us aware of our need for God, a beautiful song, journal time, and so on.

But all this is not to say that prayer is not a discipline, because it is.  Prayer is not a series of random thoughts, but a concentration on the presence of God in our midst in that moment.

In the end, my favorite quote about prayer comes from Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who once wrote, “Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving.”

No amount of prayer will ever earn us our salvation.  Prayer is our response to God’s grace.  But the more that we pray, the better we become at saying “thank you” and asking others for help and recognizing their needs beyond our own.  Through our prayer, we not only improve our relationship with God, but we also improve our relationship with those around us.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil last May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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