Prayer as Eucharistic Identity

A few months ago a shared some thoughts about prayer and identity at Wineskins magazine:

For most of my life prayer had been a stumbling block. Prayer always raised more questions than it provided answers. Whenever I prayed I was filled with doubt.

To be sure this was mainly due to how I approached prayer. I approached prayer pragmatically. The critical question was: Did prayer work? Did prayer do anything? Accomplish anything?

And if it didn’t, what was the point?

Here and there, when I voiced these questions and concerns, people would quote me the lines from C.S. Lewis:

“I don't pray to change God…It doesn't change God. It changes me.”

That’s a fine sentiment, but the question no one took the time to answer for me was this: How, exactly, was prayer supposed to change me? I’d prayed a great deal and, as best I could tell, it didn’t seem to have a profound or lasting effect upon me. Prayer mainly left me feeling bored, sleepy or self-conscious.

So if God wasn’t being changed and I wasn’t being changed, well, what was the point?

And so things stood for many years. I prayed, but not all that often. And when I did pray the doubts and questions filled my mind.

But a few years ago things began to change. While I remain confused about how prayer may or may not change God I think I’ve begun to glimpse a bit of how prayer is supposed to change me. And that, to quote Robert Frost, has made all the difference.

To be sure, prayer is still hard. When I do pray I require support. I use tools like prayer beads and structured prayers. I generally lean heavily upon the Psalms.

(BTW, if you’re looking for some help here let me recommend to you the Paraclete Psalter. The Paraclete Psalter has you pray through all 150 psalms in a four-week cycle with psalms each day selected for Lauds, Midday, Vespers and Compline prayer. This psalter is a great resource for those wanting to pray the Psalms.)

I’ve come to think, because of an argument I make in my book The Slavery of Death, that prayer isn’t so much a tool than it is an identity, a mode of being and relating to the world. Specifically, prayer is the practice of what David Kelsey has called doxological gratitude. Which is to say that prayer is both renunciation and receptivity.

In prayer I renounce the idolatrous ways I grasp at significance, the ways I try to justify my existence and worth in the eyes of the world. And in prayer I learn to receive life as a gift. In these ways—in renouncing and receiving—the anxious knot at the core of my selfhood is slowly untangled. I find myself turning outward with joy and love.

In short, prayer cultivates a Eucharistic identity, a life that flows out of gratitude, joy, peace and thanksgiving.

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8 thoughts on “Prayer as Eucharistic Identity”

  1. Wm. James held that "The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find is only adequate Socius in an ideal world." Here's a bit of context:

    "Of all these...[selves], the potential social self is the most interesting, by reason of...its connection with our moral and religious life. When for motives of honor and conscience I brave the condemnation of my own family, club, and 'set'; when as a protestant I turn catholic; as a catholic, freethinker...I am always inwardly strengthened in my the thought of other and better possible social judges than those whose verdict goes against me now. The ideal social self which I thus seek in appealing to their decision may be very remote... Yet still the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self , of a self that is at least worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion, if such a companion there be. ... This judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the 'Great Companion.' We hear, in these day of scientific enlightenment, a great deal...about the efficacy of prayer... But in all this very little is said about why we do pray, which is simply that we cannot help praying. ... The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius in the ideal world." (The Principles, Vol. One, 315-6.)

    All of Christian theology--all of it--can be applied directly over this underlying structure. Christ becomes the ideal social self we seek to identify with. The Kingdom of Heaven becomes the ideal Socius. Conversion becomes breaking with the priority of social ties to family, friends, etc., to commit oneself to the ideal Socius. And so forth.

    I love that by means of this structure there in no space between science and faith. There is no metaphysical overlay to concern oneself about. The essential business of humanity per se is the essential business of the Church, per se. This insight has been crucial for me in keeping my faith alive.

  2. One of the most compelling things about your blog is the way I identify with your experiences in youth... and - yes - my experience with prayer was very similar.

    Its funny, now. I feel like I spend very little time on so-called petitionary prayer. I don't usually have a very long list of stuff I want God to do, like I used to.

    Its much more about developing a stronger connection to things that are transcendent which, in turn, changes the way I see the world around me. Its a way of grounding the Spirit in something more stable, and - like you say - stepping out of otherwise inevitable self-absorbtion.

  3. It seems to me that this is an intellectual endeavor. What about the uneducated?

  4. This really interested me. I play around with the idea that Christians have an intellectuality/spirituality duality. (At least one too many "ity"s, sorry.) I guess I mean that for most, one path or the other is easier or more natural, while both are helpful for deepening our relationship with God. I think about how often mystics and doctors have these strong symbiotic relationships. Teresa & John, Francis and Bonaventure, or Bev and Marge (some local saints).

    For me, prayer is about being in God's presence, so when you describe prayer as an identity, it really resonates. I encourage you to keep the supports that are necessary, but drop the ones that are not. Especially given what you say about idolatry.

    Thanks for the post!

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