I always felt self-conscious and wishful when I prayed. I couldn’t stay focused. I hoped that a class on personal prayer would help me, so I took a course in the spring of my first year at Union, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, with a Jesuit professor, Roger Haight.
Embarking upon the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, I was pleased with the structure: mindfulness meditation, gratitude contemplation, scriptural reading, statement of desires, and the colloquy, or, “resting in God’s presence.” At first I luxuriated in my prayers. I rested in God’s presence and I formulated my desires to God, which helped me to hone in on which were deepest and which were most deserving of my energies and focus. I asked for God to help me engage my discipline with schoolwork, and to forgive my enemies. Sometimes, when I grew weary of my earnest, sorrowful prayers, I talked to God as my best girlfriend. Giiiiiirrrrrrl, I would drawl, I know I was a real bitch to you last week when I didn’t believe in You. Sorrrrry! But could you kick me another favor, Lady?
But then I couldn’t escape my guilt about fashioning my very own disingenuous God. I realized that whether I am being irreverent, respectful, demanding, angry or worshipful, whether God is a cosmic concession stand or my best girlfriend, I was always praying to a God of my own making. On days when I felt like a big raw nerve, I asked to be let into God’s heart. The silence of the room was my answer and I felt more alone than ever. On good days, I felt just grand about God and we’d talk for an hour. It eventually grew obvious that my prayers were never really about God. It became obvious that, especially during the colloquy, I was merely talking to myself. I drew deeper into non-believing, which felt like despair until I read more Tillich, when it felt like questioning, or until I read more about Buddhism, when it felt like resting with uncertainty or looking at Enlightenment from the outside.
I tried praying in different places at different times. I prayed in bed, on the subway, in the Union Pit (the student lounge), while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I tried to see God in the lights and bluster under the bridge, in the labor of the many hands that built it, and in the lonely tucked-in faces that rushed past me on windy days. On days I didn’t have my class worksheet or my Bible I made up my own structure for the Spiritual Exercises: play a song, breathe, list my gratitudes, ask for what I want, do a lectio divina with a psalm, meditate on what is being asked of me in the world. On days I couldn’t stand the charade of talking to a God I didn’t believe in, I did yoga or played music on my guitar. I started writing down my prayers in order to stay focused; when I didn’t write, my prayers turned into to-do lists and I would realize ashamedly that I had stopped praying and forgotten about God in my rush to finish a degree about Her. But when I tried to pray freely without my journal I missed the security of it and felt my prayers would fly away unremembered, and certainly, as always, unanswered. Using the violent and anti-Semitic New Testament as an anchor for my daily prayer exercise became unbearable, and guaranteed a conflicted prayer—I always identified with the character that was doing the wrong thing or asking Jesus the wrong question—and I had to turn back to the Psalms. Then I stopped closing with the Lord’s Prayer. It felt too Christian, too parental, too personal, too hallowed, too grand, too apologetic. I complained to a friend about the New Testament and she speculated that the parables aren’t written to makes sense; they are like Zen koans, to be savored, considered, imaginatively entered, synthesized into one’s worldview…but never definitively understood. This comment seemed to encourage me to rest in the uncertainty of Scripture and the words of Jesus. I returned to the Bible and tried again.
My prayer experience got even worse when I started trying to hear God, feel God, speak with God, interact with God, understand how God can love or forgive. None of these things made any sense to me. It started with the intellect, when I could not accept that the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” God is propulsive or decisive, or how the Tillichian “Spirit” God actually translates into an outpouring of divine benevolence. I do not accept a personal, conscious, supernatural God-the-acquaintance. I found myself suddenly unable to address God as “you,” or even with words.
Despite my difficulties with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, I discovered that they are accessible to the least theologically-educated or the most logical seekers. I’m in the latter category, and what I gained from that semester of anguished and seemingly impotent prayers is a sense of the gap between the logical and the theo-logical. Union Professor Paul Knitter describes prayer as “paying attention to the inbuilt task.” The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius evoke concerns and considerations that might otherwise be buried in the daily morass of external tasks. Still, it’s hard for me to understand why God, everywhere and everything, loving and powerful, is so hard to encounter. I thought, if we draw closer to God in silence, is that because God is silent? Why does God have a very small voice?
It took an act of humility to make real progress with God. It took The 5 Love Languages, a perennial New York Times bestseller by Dr. Gary Chapman, for me to figure out what the heck people meant when they spoke of God’s love for me, or my love for God. The 5 Love Languages presents five different ways of expressing and interpreting love. Figuring out how I perceive and how I communicate love brings me a long way toward accepting the abundance of care in my life. I found that this model works for a relationship with God. The 5 Love Languages are as follows:
1) Words of Affirmation. 2) Quality Time. 3) Receiving Gifts. 4) Acts of Service. 5) Physical Touch. (www.5lovelanguages.com)
I imagined these languages in terms of a hypothetical mutuality with this hypothetical God. I thought words of affirmation might take the form of expressed gratitude, or perhaps invoking liturgy that was bearable to me, such as the Lord’s Prayer or any number of Jewish prayers in Hebrew. I thought it could also mean restructuring my internal monologue so that I was kinder to myself and less focused on any number of tragedies or sad stories. Quality time, I devised, was this very type of contemplation; time spent in spiritual practice with an eye focused softly beyond the beyond. Receiving gifts was not only the acknowledgment of the abundant blessings of my life, but an employment of said gifts for the betterment of others; this would be my way to give gifts back to God, in service of my namesake, Jennifer, gift from God. I myself could be a gift from God to God. My acts of service to God fell into the same vein: I figured that if this God were my creator, then my life has a purpose and I’m here to be God’s hands on earth, discerning what could be ultimately right and true for myself and others, then taking action to create it. Finally, physical touch. I thought hard about this one. I came up with a plan to honor and strengthen my body and stop thinking of it as the annoying carcass that houses my fabulous mind.
The 5 Love Languages is a bestseller for a reason. Three years after first using it in my personal prayer practice, God and I practically leave love notes for each other on the bathroom mirror.