LOCAL VOICES Growth in holiness is a transformation that comes through the Lord
by Sister Joyce Diltz, PHJC
Northwest Indiana Catholic guest columnist
What is prayer, and why do we pray?
In the old days, we tended to see God as far away in heaven; we said prayers and did good deeds to catch God’s attention and to gain “points” with God. We called those points “grace,” and the more grace we had, the better place in heaven we expected to receive. While many of us grew up with this sense of the spiritual life, it tended to make prayer and growth very much about ourselves and our own efforts rather than about God.
There has been a shift happening in the Church and in Christian spirituality toward a much more mature understanding of relationship with God and thus, of prayer. We’ve come to understand God as much more personally interested in our lives, one who lives with us and invites us into ever deepening relationship. In this understanding, the indwelling Holy Spirit initiates any authentic desire for growth, any desire to go beyond ourselves, to reach out to others, to share life, to be supportive, to expand our capacity, to grow, to live forever. All are prompted by the Holy Spirit at the heart of our experience, and it’s this Holy Spirit who draws us to pray.
In this understanding, prayer requires learning to wait on God, learning to recognize the ways that God is with us and speaks to us. Each of us is led uniquely, and the Holy Spirit leads us in surprising, sometimes unconventional ways. So there is no one way to pray! There are many ways. We each need to find the ways that help us hear and respond to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and transforming us more and more into who God dreams us to be.
If the Christian life is about transformation and it's the Holy Spirit who does that transforming, then prayer is response to this indwelling Spirit. Prayer is also listening, so we know how to respond, and what to respond to. It is learning to listen. . . to the events and relationships of my life; to what happens when I sit in the quiet, what thoughts come, what feelings; to what happens when I read a Gospel story and watch and listen to Jesus. What do I feel? What am I moved to?
All this has bearing on our prayer. If growth in holiness is transformation, God does it. We don't. We just dispose ourselves and get ourselves ready for the action of God. That's hard for us Americans raised in the work ethic. We tend to think we are self-made and forget that God also shapes our lives; that it’s not all up to us.
So prayer is first of all a waiting on God. It's readying ourselves to hear God, to perceive God's presence leading and forming us. Prayer is a spirit of wanting to be shaped and led by God, a prayer not so much of "Give me" but of "Do what you want with my life." Anything we do for prayer - meditation, centering, reading, journaling, rosary, liturgical prayer, whatever we do - is to dispose ourselves for God's action, to make ourselves good ground, as it were, for the seed of God in our lives.
Rather than doing good deeds to get God’s attention, prayer becomes our loving attention to God present and at work in each of our lives, loving us, inviting us to growth and fullness of life, and accompanying us in life’s disappointments and tragedies.
An important aspect of prayer is to develop ears to hear and eyes to see God present so we may respond wholeheartedly. Advent, especially, invites us to this kind of waiting and listening. Ongoing spiritual direction can also be very helpful as we engage in this kind of prayer.