Fr Kevin Alban is the Prior Provincial in Britain.
Chatting with God…
During this time of lockdown, social distancing, closed churches and a great yearning for familiar forms of worship, there is a tremendous opportunity to explore other forms of communication with God. In an earlier reflection, I mentioned that while the external, communal dimension is important and necessary, nonetheless, each one of as an individual is called to live a personal relationship with God. In this Easter season, the gospel of John is used extensively in the liturgy. In chapter 14, Jesus explains the relationship between the Father, the Son, and each one of us: “The Father lives in me, and he is doing his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (vv. 10-11) So there is complete unity between the Father and the Son, without removing the distinction between them. This unity is shared by each one of us: “He [the Father] lives with you, and he will be in you.” (v. 17) and “You will know that you are in me and I am in you.” (v. 20)
St Teresa of Avila expresses the same idea most beautifully: “The soul of each one is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight.” So, we have the Lord himself within us, or perhaps better, the Lord has chosen to live in each one of us.
This points to an intimate connection with God which again St. Teresa describes in simple terms: "We need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to look upon Him present within us." Finding God does not mean exalted flights of imagination, not hours of silence, nor focusing on some object like our breath, but it is an interior process of discovery. The search for God is the search for our true selves, and finding our true selves means finding God. Put in basic terms, when we discover that the centre of our lives, of our selves is love, then we have discovered God. When we are able to let go of our self-centred, selfish attitudes, then we can focus on others. She writes, “One needs no bodily strength for mental prayer, but only love and the formation of a habit.” The driving force then is the desire to find love for others within and the best example of this is in God.
St Teresa also likens the relationship between God and humanity in terms of friendship: "Contemplative prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." She is not the first writer to use this image: Aelred of Rievaulx, a monk who lived in Yorkshire in the 12th century, wrote a work entitled Spiritual Friendship, for example. But arguably, Teresa’s phrasing is the more striking since it seems to go to the very heart of the matter and is very much in line with Jesus’ words in John’s gospel.
What are the implications or the consequences of looking at prayer as an expression of friendship? It’s not possible here to explore all the various answers to that question. However, I would like to point out maybe two ways that thinking about our relationship with God as friendship changes our approach to prayer.
Friends are there to listen to anything we have to say. We can get things off our chest with a good friend. But even with our closest friends, we sometimes avoid controversial topics that would cause strong disagreement, or even anger. We try not to “push people’s buttons”, as we say. The beauty of our conversation with God is that he has no buttons to push!! St Paul had a more elegant way of putting this:
Yes, I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not death, life, angels, or ruling spirits. I am sure that nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us or nothing below us—nothing in the whole created world—will ever be able to separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Sometimes I like to make a slight change from “nothing” to “no thing” to make the point more forcibly. There is no thing that we can say or do that will turn God away from us. Put positively, we can say anything we like to God. There is no approved list of topics, no off-limit subjects, no emotion that cannot be expressed openly and honestly. This is the liberating aspect of prayer seen as friendship. We are totally free from all inhibitions, all taboos, all blockages.
The second way our approach to prayer can change is related to the first. If there are no topics off the table or prohibited, then there is a freedom in the way that we pray. Better perhaps, anything that brings God to mind and draws our attention to him, is a way of praying. Many people who would like to pray, wonder how they can begin. Many people who do pray, wonder if they are doing it correctly or if there is a better way. It is true that there are methods and techniques that can help us to pray. There are measures we can take to facilitate our relationship. Finding space, time and silence are very helpful. But there is no “magic” method or sure-fire way that we must follow f entering into this conversation.
This aspect of seeing prayer as friendship is also very liberating: we do not have to worry if we are “doing it right” – there is no right way. Anything that makes us think of God and consciously turn towards him and begin to talk to him is a way to prayer. A sunset, a flower, a child, but also fear, doubt and anxiety…so many ways to God. How could the infinite God confine himself to one method of discovering him?
That’s why I’ve called this piece “Chatting with God”. When we talk, we don’t follow a script or get in the right posture or frame of mind to speak to our friends. We just pick up the phone and get on with it. In the same way, we can chat with God and that’s prayer…
In the next reflections I want to look more at what we can say to God and what effect that might have on us.
SAINT JUDE, PRAY FOR US.