Our generative years are a marathon, not a sprint, and so it’s difficult to sustain graciousness, generosity, and patience through the tiredness, trials, and temptations that beset us through the years of our adult lives. All on our own, relying on willpower alone, we too often fatigue, get worn down, and compromise both our maturity and our discipleship. We need help from beyond, from somewhere even beyond the human supports that help bolster us. We need God’s help, strength from something beyond what’s human. We need prayer.
But too often we think of this in pious rather than realistic terms. Rarely do we grasp how much prayer is really a question of life and death for us. We need to pray not because God needs us to pray but because if we don’t pray we will never find any steadiness in our lives. Simply put, without prayer we will always be either too full of ourselves or too empty of energy, inflated or depressed. Why? What’s the anatomy of this?
Prayer, as it is understood in all its best traditions, Christian and other, is meant to do two things for us, both at the same time: Prayer is meant to connect us to divine energy, even as it makes us aware that this energy is not our own, that it comes from elsewhere, and that we may never identify with it. Genuine prayer, in effect, fills us with divine energy and tells us at the same time that this energy isn’t our own; that it works through us, but that it’s not us. To be healthy, we need both: If we lose connection to divine energy we drain of energy, depress, and feel empty. Conversely if we let divine energy flow into us but identify with it, somehow thinking that it is our own, we become grandiose, inflate with self-importance and arrogance, and become selfish and destructive.
Robert Moore offers a very helpful image to illustrate this, that of a small fighter-plane having to fuel-up inflight. We have all seen video footage of a small fighter-jet fueling-up while still in the air. Hovering above it is a mother-plane with a huge reserve of fuel. The little plane has to fly close enough to the mother-plane so that a nozzle from the mother-plane can connect with it so as to refill its fuel tank. If it doesn’t make this type of contact it runs out of fuel and soon crashes. Conversely, if it flies into the mother-plane, identifies with it, it goes up in flames.
Few images capture as astutely the importance of prayer in our lives. Without prayer, we will forever find ourselves vacillating between being too empty of energy or too full of ourselves. If we do not connect with divine energy we will run out of gas. If we do connect with divine energy but identify with it, we will destroy ourselves.
Deep prayer is what energizes us and grounds us, both at the same time. We see this, for example, in a person like Mother Teresa, who was bursting with creative energy but was always very clear that this energy did not come from her, but from God, and she was merely a humble human instrument. Lack of real prayer makes for two kinds of antithesis to Mother Teresa: On the one hand, it makes for a wonderfully talented and energetic man or woman who is full of creative energy, but is also full of grandiosity and ego; or, on the other hand, it makes for a man or woman who feels empty and flat and cannot radiate any positive energy. Without prayer we will forever be bouncing back and forth between grandiosity and depression.
Thus, unless I have real prayer in your life, if I’m sensitive, I will more than likely live inside a certain habitual depression, afraid that really accessing my energies and acting on them would lead others to think I’m full of myself. Since my sensitivity won’t allow that, I entomb many of my best energies on the unconscious premise that it’s better to be depressed than be accused of being an egoistic. But Jesus, himself, in his parable of the talents, warns us strongly about the price that’s to be paid for burying one’s talents, namely, emptiness, anger, and lack of delight in our lives. Often times, if we check beneath our angers and jealousies, we will find there a buried talent that’s bitter because it has been suppressed. Virtue at the cost of suppressing our energies leads to bitterness.
Conversely, if I don’t care if people think me an egotist and I don’t have real prayer in my life, I will let the divine energies flow freely through me, but I will identify with them as if they were my own, my talents, my gifts, and I will end up full of ego and grandiosity, with those around me wishing I was depressed!
Without prayer we will always be either too empty of energy or too full of ourselves.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide