If you think you’re a common Joe that works better in the simple and straight-shooting thoughts of a working man, Christianity is perfect for you. Let’s not forget God entrusted His Son to a common Joe of the working class. Or, if you’re intellectually stout and find delight in ascending to higher levels of truth for its own sake, Christianity is also perfect for you. One of the achievements of Christianity is introducing what we can call “deep thinking” to all people equally.
But our “deep thinking” is never meant to stop at the words of truth, but to enter relationally into the Word itself, the Person of Jesus Christ. This depth moves beyond thinking and is prayer itself. For us that are mentors, fathers, and leaders, it is paramount that we live a life that gives room for this type of contemplative prayer, which is manifested especially in the perennial practices of the Rosary and lectio divina (holy reading), and that we be able to teach it.
In practice, this has produced a civilization and culture where vast numbers of ordinary people were able to enter into a depth of prayer and thought that is a treasure to who we are. No, this is not always the case and we obviously have examples of pharisaical classes lording over the ignored or abused masses, but if we just consider the achievements of the early Church and the millions of religious communities and their surrounding cultures, Christianity clearly presumes that all men are called to deep and reflective prayer. This is part of the reason that literary life and literacy itself finds a fertile field in many Christian places (especially the monastic communities). Even in the so-called “dark ages” after the fall of Rome, it was the Christians that insisted that books be preserved and those that entered religious life learn to read – for the primary reason of being able to pray better!
But how do we teach this in our distracted era? As I’ve written about here, our new modes of communication via modern tech is still “literate,” meaning we still use words to communicate and read bits and pieces all day, but it is not “literary,” meaning it isn’t exactly the exercise of “deep reading.” Rather than slowing us down into a mode of silence and listening that allows us to be more attuned to the Holy Spirit, it speeds us up and even agitates the mind to a state of intense activity. In other words, the type of reading we do today does not easily evolve into prayerful reflection.
And, lest I sound pridefully aware of the fault of others and not my own, let me accuse myself. Because I review, edit, write, and read a number of articles in my daily work, when I do sit down for extended prayer or reading my mind easily starts to categorize and re-propose everything into possible articles, headlines, and snippets. In other words, I have a hard time being present and receiving what is right in front of me – my mind is agitated to action when I should be just sitting with something. This is particularly problematic for prayer, because I want to be receptive to God and not working in the modes of the world while reading material for devotional sake.
A Helpful Analogy
With this being said, I would like to propose an analogy I use for myself and others when learning how to enter into holy reading. Not only is it helpful practically, but it can be a way that we can understand our own training in prayer. And, while it is important to engage our intellect broadly speaking, it is essential that every Christian, especially the men of Fraternus that engage their families and the brotherhood, grow in what spiritual masters call “the interior life,” the life of God within us. And there are few practices outside of the sacraments proposed by spiritual masters more often than prayerful and holy reading. Simply put, this is something we do when we are who we are.
Holy reading is like learning how to swim. As eventually we want to be able to go out into open water and be able to freely swim and enjoy the water, so too in our prayer we want to be able to simply realize the presence of God constantly and be able to “swim and enjoy” His presences and truth. When we learn to swim, however, we need to gain confidence, ability, and strength to be able to swim. Prayer is the same. As we learn to swim, we hold on to the wall at first. The wall represents the holy books we read (scripture, saints, etc.). Holding onto the wall is the actual act of reading the words on the page.
When we want to swim, however, we let go of the wall, and then we gradually start to kick of the wall and swim on our own. These are the moments in holy reading where we are speaking with God, sitting with the truth presented, and reflecting on its goodness and application. But, when we are learning, sometimes we grow weary and may even feel like we’re sinking. That is the moment of distraction, where the weakness and habits of our mind crop up – distraction in prayer. In that moment of distraction, simply return to the wall (read the book again). When you arrive at a point where the water is good, where the truth seems sweet (the water looks good and you feel strong), kick off the wall again and enjoy the swim. Distracted? Come back. Ready? Kick off.
This analogy and practice can also remove the anxiety of prayer. We often want to go into every “session” expecting to go from beginner to Olympian in a single day. In other words, our expectation of prayer’s “quality” is silly, and for some strange reason we’re annoyed and surprised that we are distracted and shallow. We are distracted and shallow. That’s why we need prayer. But prayer, like any human activity, is learned and strengthened by the daily battle and practice, not giant leaps gained with little effort.
Obviously, in our day we have gained through the medium of modern media the constant onslaught of information and images. Many people seem to think dealing with that requires going deeper into the ethos of the screen itself to find the right sources of information. There may be some truth there. But the truly wise and awake will be those that are fully present in the place that God placed them, and in tune with the life of grace within Him. He is ready for battle because he knows that prayer is the battle. It will be the people that are free from the snared mode of thinking that shallow scanning creates, the people alive and wise in God through a deep and real prayer life.