Someone (I don’t remember who) observed that most people don’t know how to pray and don’t know what to pray about. Maybe praying before a math test counts as prayer, but one has to wonder if that’s all there is to prayer. No, we do not have to wonder: the Scriptures testify that there is far, far more to prayer than asking God for stuff, no matter how important that stuff is to us. Even a cursory reading of the Psalms will suffice to prove the point.
Though I appreciate that the Psalms are, in essence, prayers to God, my prayers have never looked anything like the Psalms. In saying this, I am even disregarding the archaic language of the King James Version and the generally poetic structure. What I am referring to are the sentiments expressed, and the connection to God that is to be seen plainly in the Psalms.
Reflecting on his life, the Psalmist confesses in Psalm 116:
Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”.
This prayer incorporates insightful reflection on recent events in the pray-er’s life: near death, tears, stumbling, great affliction, temptation to lose faith. Because we live in a rationalistic, naturalistic culture, we have a strong tendency to read these verses thusly: that something happened wherein the Psalmist was almost killed; that he was crying, either due to pain or deep sadness; that his plans were thwarted (he stumbled) and he “fell” or failed at his endeavors; that people or events were afflicting him physically or, perhaps, emotionally.
The prayers of the modern-day Christian are consistent with this reading of the Psalm. When bad things happen to us, God will rescue us (the Lord has dealt bountifully with you). The “bounty” that we generally have in mind is the bounty of our own kingdom. This is the health-and-wealth gospel, that has no basis in reality or truth.
While a naturalistic reading of Psalm 116 may be valid, notwithstanding the egregious application by modern pray-ers, a different reading of this Psalm is more profitable. The Psalmist is describing a period of desolation, of the distance from God that all of us feel from time to time. Tears from discouragement, depression, and lack of hope; stumbling, signifying a relinquishing of our spiritual habits because they no longer have any meaning; a sense that we are dying on the inside; a struggle just to maintain our faith. These are feelings and responses to life that all of us experience now and again, some of us more frequently than others. Such feelings may last seconds, or minutes, or days, or even many months.
Significantly, the Psalmist engages an important spiritual practice: he tells himself to “return, O my soul, to your rest.” Amidst the tears and discouragement and meaninglessness, he tells, even demands, himself to return. Return to the One in whom you can rest interiorly, who can resolve the hopelessness and lack of faith. We also see a second spiritual practice: actively recall that “the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” previously, wherein he lifted you out of desolation, and so be assured that He will deal similarly with you again. So, return to Him.
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The spiritual disciplines about which the Psalmist writes in this passage have been practiced by Christians and Jews for millenia. If I am any example of the average Christian, I would have to say that such practices have been lost in our time. While writing about these practices is easy, my own experience demonstrates that doing them is extraordinarily difficult. To be clear about it, my skill level is rudimentary, at best. I could no more mimic the Psalmist in his practice of prayer than I could compete in a sport at the Olympic level. I can dream about it, but dreaming and doing are far different things.
Were I to endeavor to become a bona fide Olympic athlete, I would hope, first of all, that you would talk me out of it. Even in my tomfoolery, I would recognize the need for a trainer, someone to guide my development as an athlete, who could provide advice based on experience, who would push me hard when I felt like giving up after the first day. The trainer would have me doing exercises that seemingly had nothing to do with my chosen event, but that he knew would make all the difference. The trainer would not do one ounce of work for me. He would scream, he would cajole, he would shame, he would encourage, he would advise, he would inspire, but he would not work. That would be up to me, entirely.
A trainer; a coach; a mentor. In the spiritual realm, that is what Ignatius has become to me.
“For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.”
Every way, he wrote. Whatever it takes. Consider what is at stake: my soul and the entire reason for my existence. What lies before me is far more than an Olympic sport and the reward is far greater than a gold medal. The reward is God, Himself.
- Lift up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and mean Himself, and none of His goods. And thereto, look the loath to think on aught but Himself. So that nought work in thy wit, nor in thy will, but only Himself.1
- Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.2
- For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?3
- Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.4
- I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.5
1 Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th century. (emphasis mine)
2 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises, 16th century.
3 Matthew 16:26
4 I Corinthians 9:24, 25
5 Philippians 3:14