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.