A Sense of Fulfillment
The easiest way for me to write about prayer is to speak of my own journey with God. I say this because prayer is a particular experience for each person. It is an experience of a conscious relationship with God that has all the ups and downs of any other relationship. In my own prayer, I recognize that I have often avoided or resisted some of these ups and downs, sometimes without realizing what was happening. However, as my journey has progressed, I have learned to consciously include everything in my encounters with God. This conscious inclusion is what has gradually brought my life and God’s life very close together, and given me the sense of fulfillment that I have today.
What impresses me most in my journey of prayer is how I have been gifted by God through the goodness of other people. When I worked in Chile many years ago, I realized that I was traveling in a parallel line with the Lord and not having much personal sharing with Him. Then, without warning, I was asked by my superior to go for studies in spirituality and spiritual direction. I was shocked. I could not believe that I was being chosen to do this, because I never considered myself either worthy or capable of such a calling. However, when I expressed my surprise and resistance, I got another shock. I was told that my community leaders had been watching me for a long time, and they could see my suitability for such studies!
After I got over these two shocks, I began to reflect on what was being asked of me, and I was able to acknowledge that I did have a deep hunger for closeness to God, and that I was actively involved in helping people who desired to come closer to Him. However, there was another matter that I had to face. Ever since my high school days, I considered myself to be academically weak, so how would I be able to cope with higher studies? The answer came from a former professor of mine who happened to be working with me in the same parish. I needed a recommendation to apply for admission to a school of theology, and I asked him if he could help. He gave me a letter stating that he always considered me to be a person of above-average intelligence, and that he had no doubt about my ability to do well in studies. That was a third shock for me, and I jokingly told him that he should not tell lies! However, later on, when I started studying in a year’s spirituality program in Berkeley, California, I found that, not only could I pass my exams, but I could even excel in some of the courses.
While in Berkeley, I met a religious sister who was on sabbatical. She had come from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was working as a staff member in an institute for the training of spiritual directors called The Center for Religious Development (CRD). She encouraged me to apply for a place, and, after being interviewed by the staff, I was accepted, and spent three years studying and working there. It was through all those studies and the practice of spiritual direction that I could deepen my journey in prayer as conscious relationship in several stages. First, I came to experience the great love and mercy of God for me a sinner. Then, I came to know Jesus as my faithful companion, friend, and teacher. This led me on to discovering, through my relationship with Him, the true meaning of friendship, of ministry, of commitment, of compassion, of suffering, and even of death. I came to understand and appreciate each of these areas of experience as opportunities for greater love and life, and, as I prayed about them, I found myself being healed of several painful memories that I had been carrying for many years, such as punishment, deprivation, exploitation, and abuse.
There were lots of other experiences on my prayer journey, some far from easy or successful, but, as I went along, I became more and more aware of how I was being led by God into a sense of being united with Him, and He was doing the uniting. One special way in which this happened for me was of learning to be myself with God, and letting Him be Himself with me. For a long time I had been hesitant to let God into some areas of my life, and therefore could not be truly open with Him.
To this day, I have been able to pray in the midst of deafening noise, unexpected encounters, disheartening disappointments, exhilarating joys, at concerts and celebrations, on journeys and at rest, in fact always and everywhere.
Joined to this, I wanted God to be as I desired Him to be, not as He might choose to be in Himself, and, as a result, I often got frustrated and angry with Him. This controlling attitude of mine seemed to place a barrier like a glass wall between God and myself. I could look at Him, but I could not get to Him. How could I remove this wall?
The breakthrough came during a retreat when I told my director about my struggle in prayer. He listened to my complaints, and then simply said, “You know, in His great love for you, God leaves you free to be as you are. Could you not, in your great love for God, let Him be free to be as He is?” To hear the word “free” made all the difference for me, and, in the resulting atmosphere of mutual freedom, I found that the glass wall was gone and there was a new closeness between God and myself.
As my prayer progressed, I began to give more attention to Jesus. I could consider Him more and more as a welcome visitor. The text about Him knocking on the door in Revelation chapter three came to mean a lot to me. It was like letting Him into my house by opening the door and making space for Him to come in. I found that, in order to create that space, I had to empty out whatever I discovered might get in the way of His entry. A large part of this emptying meant telling Him what was in my mind and heart.
In the past I had been taught that Jesus knows everything and does not have to be told anything. However, now, through spiritual direction and prayer, I came to realize that, even though He knows all about me, He wants me to tell Him about myself. He does not need to be told, but I need to tell. In practicing this way of prayer, I found the story of the Road to Emmaus in Luke chapter 24 to be a big help. Like the two disciples in the story, I found that telling the Lord what He knew already made me more able to listen to what He desired to reveal to me.
My communications with Jesus were usually through interior verbal dialogues, but I sometimes found it more helpful to write. On such occasions, I would write a letter to Him and share it with Him in my prayer. Then, after a while, I would let Him answer me in another letter that I would write to myself in His name, imagining what He was saying to me. Because I already knew Jesus through scripture and prayer, I felt that I could determine whether His replies were authentic or not. If I had any doubt, I would ask Jesus directly, “Is this really coming from you, or is it from somewhere else?” I discovered that if it came from Him, He would say so. Then, I would feel at peace, and our dialogue would continue. But, if it came from somewhere else, my question would be greeted with silence and disturbance. Then the dialogue would come to an abrupt end, and the “other” would just disappear. I got great insights about “discernment of spirits” from this kind of prayer experience, and my letters provided a record to which I could refer whenever I wanted to remember what was going on at any particular time.
When I had completed my studies, I was assigned to Pakistan, and there my journey in prayer brought me into contact with people who enriched my relationship with God even more by their sharing with me in retreats and spiritual direction.
As I continued my prayer journey in Pakistan, I became more involved in the ministry of retreat-giving and spiritual direction. I also worked in a rural parish where there was lots of work to be done visiting and meeting many people who had all kinds of struggles with poverty, injustice and oppression. I was accompanied by another priest who was actively involved in justice and peace work, and I got involved too. This had a marked impact on my experience in prayer. Previously, I used to like spending time alone with God trying to get closer to Him, but now it was not working. There were too many “distractions!” Then, one day, as I was praying in my room and complaining in frustration, I heard some children playing loudly outside my window. I grumbled to God about the noise, and suddenly an answer came in my mind: “You are looking for me inside, and I am outside!” From that day onwards, I found balance in my prayer and could experience God’s presence both alone and with the people.
God is in each and every moment of our lives. If we live our relationship with Him as consciously as we can, we will be able to perceive His presence at any moment.
After working for some years in Pakistan, I was asked to return to South America for a short time as director of our spiritual year students. While there, my prayer journey was given a special boost. One day, in Lima, Peru, as I was browsing in our Columban library, I came across a book that made an enormous impression on me. It was an English translation of a work called The Sacrament of the Present Moment (El Sacramento del Momento Presente) by Jean Pierre Caussade, a French Jesuit who lived in the 18th century. I got great spiritual energy from reading it, and found that I could open it at any page and fi nd nourishment for my prayer. I was so captivated by its message that I wished I could share it with our students, but they spoke only Spanish. However, it seemed as if God was in agreement with my desire, because right away I found a free download in Spanish on the internet, and was able to use it in our classes on prayer throughout the year.
Jean Pierre himself did not write the book. The nuns in a convent where he used to give lectures on prayer used their notes to write it. His message is a simple one. God is in each and every moment of our lives. If we live our relationship with Him as consciously as we can, we will be able to perceive His presence at any moment. The duties we have to carry out, the things that happen to us, our sufferings, our actions, our impulses will be the “mysteries” under which God reveals Himself to us. I took this message to heart, and discovered that whether the circumstances were difficult or easy, boring or exciting, challenging or comforting, distressing or relaxing, and so on, God could be found there, and prayer could take place at any time. To this day, I have been able to pray in the midst of deafening noise, unexpected encounters, disheartening disappointments, exhilarating joys, at concerts and celebrations, on journeys and at rest, in fact always and everywhere. Of course I cannot continually be explicitly conscious of God’s presence, but I find that I can tune in to Him whenever I desire, because I know He is always there.
In relation to finding God in every moment, Jean Pierre explains that there are times when souls live in God, and there are other times when God lives in souls. When souls live in God, they actively and carefully explore ways that will lead to union with Him. “All their paths are clearly marked — their reading, values, and ideas. Their Guide is by their side, and when the time comes for them to speak for themselves all is clear.”
But, when God lives in souls, they must surrender themselves totally to Him. They are guided only by what comes from God’s inspiration. “For them there are no plans, no longer any clearly marked paths. They are like a child whom one leads wherever one wills, and who sees only what is pointed out to him.” When I consider these “times” of God in prayer, I am reminded of experiences on my journey as a Columban missionary priest, especially in relation to discernment.
I have already mentioned the several assignments that were given to me over the years. Each of these required uprooting and going to work in new and challenging places and ministries. In order to decide how to respond to any particular assignment, I was allowed time to discern.
To hear the word “free” made all the difference for me, and, in the resulting atmosphere of mutual freedom, I found that the glass wall was gone and there was a new closeness between God and myself.
Sometimes, I could say that I lived in God, because, with Jesus as my guide, I could see clearly the direction to go to be in closer union with Him. An example of this was when my superiors had assigned me to study spirituality, and a short time later asked me if I would consider changing my studies from spirituality to philosophy. I had no hesitation in telling them that I knew that the change was not for me. I had never liked philosophy, and if they checked my grades from seminary days they would see proof of this fact. When I had spoken, they smiled and told me to go ahead with the spirituality studies!
On other occasions however, discernment was not that easy, but I experienced a deeper union with God in it. God lived in me, because it was by surrendering myself to Him “like a child,” and letting myself be inspired and led by Him, that I could finally see the direction He was pointing out to me. An example of this discernment was when I fi nished my spirituality studies in the U.S. and was due for a new assignment. Instead of being reassigned to Chile, where I had previously worked, I was asked to consider going to Pakistan. It was a diffi cult option. I loved Chile and its people very much and felt a strong pull to return there. However, as I gathered information about Pakistan, I saw a great need in the Church there for support and assistance. Still, I could not make up my mind what to do, and, in the end, our Superior General offered to help me to decide. I trusted in God that His representative would show me the way to go.
The Superior General came to visit me, and I asked him where he thought I would be best able to serve with the studies I had done. He replied that Pakistan was without doubt the mission that most needed the ministry I had been trained for. With that answer, I was immediately able to decide what to do, and I have never regretted my option for Pakistan.
Now, it is from Pakistan that I am writing this article. I have The Sacrament of the Present Moment with me, and it continues to enrich my ongoing prayer journey here. I would recommend this little book to all of you who read this article, with the hope that it will help you in your conscious relationship with God as much as it has helped me.
In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude to God and to the many people He has given me as teachers and supporters on my journey of prayer. Through them especially, He has taught me to pray in the way that has helped me best. I know that He will do the same for every person who wishes to pray, and so some of my final words are by Abbot John Chapman: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Too often we think that there is only one right way of praying, and this must be the way of a saint or a mystic.
However, along with the saints and the mystics, I believe that each of us must find our own path of prayer, trusting in our own conscious relationship with God, and when possible, sharing about our prayer with another experienced person of prayer. So now, keeping what I have said in mind, “let us,” as St. Paul says to the Philippians, “go forward from the point we have each attained” (Phil.3:16).
Columban Fr. Joseph Joyce lives and works in Pakistan.