As Bread ...

As Bread That Is Broken

© Peter G. van Breemen SJ

Prayer is to be in God’s presence with open hands and an open heart. There are many things in my life to which I cling as with a clinched fist—my possessions for sure but the immaterial things as well—the work I do, the position I hold, the friends I have, my ideas, my principles, my image. If I should open my fist, they still remain. Nothing drops out. But my hands are open. And that is what prayer is. After a while, if I am willing to remain long enough with open hands, the Lord will come. He will have a look and roam through my hands to see what I have. He may be surprised—so many things! Then he will look at me and ask:

            “Would you mind if I take out this little bit?”
            And I answer: “Of course you may take it out. That’s why I am here with open hands.”
            And perhaps the Lord will look another time at me and ask:
            “Would you mind if I put something else in your hands?”
            And I answer: “Of course you may.”

            That is the heart of prayer. The Lord may take something out, and he may put something in. No one else can do this, but he may. He is the Lord. I have only to open my heart and my hands and just stay there long enough for the Lord to come.

           Prayer is not so much a searching. Searching suggests a kind of impatience, an activity. I have to do something. Prayer is a waiting. Waiting places the emphasis on the other person who is coming. I can only wait for this person. To wait is to, express my powerlessness, my insufficiency, and that is my attitude towards God. I cannot force God to come. All I can do is wait and be present. To pray means to lose my grip. I am no longer in control when I pray. God is in control. He will come when he thinks it is time to come. Prayer is the courage to listen, to give up my self-determination.

           Much is expressed just by waiting. Suppose four of us plan to meet at nine o’clock for an outing. Nine o’clock comes and only three of us show up. We wait for the fourth person—fifteen minutes… thirty minutes… a whole hour. Our waiting says that this fourth person is very important to us. We cannot do without him. So, too, in simply waiting for God, I admit that God is important to my life. I cannot be without him. Edward Farrell in his book, Surprised by the Spirit, tells of asking a hermit (Brother John on Cat Island in the Bahamas) to give him a ‘word.’ But the hermit gave him no answer. He had no ‘word’ to pass on. Four or five days later, when Father Farrell was leaving the island, Brother John had this to say: “When you go back and talk with your people, tell them to be patient with God, to wait for Him.” (Denville: Dimension Books, Inc., 1973, 18).

           Prayer is waiting. It is this waiting which stamps, shapes my personality. When I am willing to wait, I become different. Prayer makes a person attentive, contemplative. Instead of being manipulative, the prayerful man is receptive in this world. He doesn’t grasp, but he caresses; he doesn’t bite, but he touches; he doesn’t question, but he admires and adores.St. Johnof the Cross defined his ideal in life “to live in loving, attentive expectancy.” This is the right attitude of a man towards God. Bonhoeffer reflects, “If you refuse to be with yourself alone, you are rejecting Christ’s call to you.” (Quoted by Farrell, op. cit., 114). One has to be alone to stand the waiting. One has to wait—not try to run away—but wait with one's whole being.

           The heart of prayer is the realization of God’s love for me and my response in total surrender to his love. This personal interaction between God and man we know as adoration. It demands the involvement of one's whole being. It is the ultimate act of man. Once a person has become completely adoration, he has reached the utter fulfillment which we call heaven. This will last forever. There is nothing beyond it; it is the very end. Adoration, therefore, can never be used as a means to an end. It is, by its very nature, disinterested. It is not efficient nor does it achieve anything. That is why it is so difficult. Our lives are purposefully planned and meant to produce results. Even our moments of relaxation must achieve some-thing! Prayer is the one big exception. It is the still point, the axis around which all other activities rotate. When that axis is missing, our lives become pointless. But the axis itself serves no useful purpose in the strict sense of the word. As long as I aim at something in my prayer, I am bound to be disappointed. This is one of the major difficulties in the life of prayer; I fail to see the “usefulness” of it at a certain stage and feel tempted, then, to give it up.

Many a sermon has tried to convince us why it is “useful” to pray:

     — God hears our prayer of petition.
     — Prayer gives a wisdom and insight which can be found nowhere else.
     — Prayer brings about a deep peace which the world can neither give nor take away.
     — Prayer is a source of strength which pulls us through all the difficulties of our lives.

           All these motives to pray are valid but they do not touch the ultimate depth of prayer. They are secondary to the “why” of prayer. Prayer cannot be measured in terms of “usefulness.” It can only be understood as a complete surrender without wanting “to get something out of it.” The time will come when the secondary reasons for prayer break down, when they no longer convince me enough to want to continue to pray. The time will come when I feel that my prayer is not heard. The time will come when I experience prayer as a total waste of time, when I discover no insights to relish, no feelings of fulfillment. Then I might be tempted to turn my prayer into a half hour of reading or a nature walk. At least I can get something out of that! And the time will come when prayer brings no peace, when it consumes my strength and makes me realize my weakness. How do I resolve these difficulties? What is prayer? Prayer is a waste of time. And more than that—it is a waste of self This waste of time is a very real and sorely needed symbol of a far deeper loss and surrender that “happens” in every authentic prayer! “Who loses his soul will find it” is the heart of all true prayer. This is not to say that prayer has no fruitful effects but only that its “usefulness” cannot be the end of prayer. A friendship can offer many “useful” benefits but if they are the sole purpose of the friendship, then there is no friendship at all. In the words of Meister Eckhart, a spiritual writer of the Middle Ages: “To use God is to kill him.”

           The life of prayer can be explained in three stages. In the first stage the prayer centers on the realization that God is love, that he loves me as I am (not as I should be). He knows my name; it is written in the palm of his hand. He loved me first. Prayer is basking in the sun of God’s love until it finally penetrates my whole being, until I know it in my heart (heart understood as the center of myself, above and beyond the intelligence, will and emotions; that which makes me myself). Prayer means to be utterly secure in the presence Of God. Prayer, therefore, can never be an attempt to make God change his mind: this is a pagan concept. To pray is to surrender to the love of God, to abandon myself and to say whole-heartedly without fear: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

           It is not enough to know that God is love, I cannot live on this. The idea which strikes me so forcibly today all too quickly dims to a pale shadow. God knows I am human. He has made his love tangible, visible in Christ: “Who sees me, sees the Father” (John 14:9). Prayer in its second stage, then, is concentrated on the person of Christ. It means that I try to know Christ better, to love and follow him more closely as St. Ignatius states it repeatedly in the SpiritualExercises and as we sing in the similar words of Gospel: “Three things I pray: to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day.” This knowledge will grow into a personal relationship with Christ and eventually mature into the most profound relationship of my life as it was for St. Paul who could write: “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20) and “Life to me, of course, is Christ” (Phil 1:21). A more recent example of this friendship with Christ is found in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote in a letter of August 21, 1944:

The key to everything is the ‘in him.’ All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could do or ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus... In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand. In these turbulent times we repeatedly lose sight of what really makes life worth living. We think that, because this or that person is living, it makes sense for us to live too. But the truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then, and only then, has life a meaning for us. If Jesus had not lived, then our life would be meaningless, in spite of all the other people whom we know and honour and love.

           Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edit. by Eberhard Bethge, rev.ed., New York: The Macmillan and Herder, 1969, 213-214.

           The third stage of prayer is finding God involved in the whole of reality. Not only in Jesus Christ can I find God but in every person and, in fact, in every thing. Prayer now means to say “Yes” to reality, to have a positive attitude towards life, to confirm what is, not for shallow reasons but because God is the deepest Ground of all being. Prayer means that there is a personal relationship between the deepest Ground of everything that exists—and me. Prayer means that I realize that the deepest Ground has a name, and that I pronounce that name. Only then do I pray in the true sense of the word.

           Prayer touches the deepest Ground. It implies waiting—as before any birth—in darkness and expectancy. Since prayer takes place at the root of my life, my whole life is at stake. Prayer can never be a part of my life nor an attempt to bribe God. I can never pray unless I am willing to commit myself completely. Many difficulties in prayer stem from the fact that people really do not want to commit themselves. Yet unless we give ourselves totally, our prayer is not authentic. Prayer can never be a substitute for the real gift of my entire self. Take, for example, my time. Every night at midnight I receive a gift—twenty-four hours. Prayer means that I let go of those twenty-four hours, that I use them in the way that God wants me to use them. When my prayer is sincere, I always say one way or another, “Your will be done.” Consequently, I can never claim my own time. Buber explains it well when he says: “prayer is not in time but time in prayer… to reverse the relation is to abolish reality.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937, 9). The twenty-four hours are rooted in prayer. And when I am bold enough to pray even for five minutes, those twenty-four hours are no longer mine. Intuitively I feel the struggle. When I pray, I have to make a choice, a very fundamental choice: namely, will God be God of my life or not. I have to give an answer to this question when I pray. When I do not pray, I do not have to make that choice yet. I can postpone the choice until…

           Prayer transforms me into bread that is broken. It is in the breaking of the bread that I am made available often in ways which remain hidden to me. As bread I am given not once but many times, over and over. Prayer both demands and instills the willingness to accept this mystery as a call to which I respond with my whole being. It is in the breaking of the bread that I realize the paschal mystery of death and resurrection. If I am to live this mystery, then I must pray; otherwise, I will never be able to live it. On the other hand, if I want to pray, I must be open to live this mystery; otherwise, I can never pray.

           I must live in such a way that I can pray. Difficulties in prayer are often would be difficulties. The real difficulty is not so much prayer but the way I live. Sometimes I complain that prayer makes me tense, I cannot pray regularly. This is surely an escape. Prayer doesn't create tension. My way of life simply does not agree with my prayer. When I pray without open hands, when I do not give God complete freedom, when I refuse what I know he is clearly asking of me—then my prayer is dry and empty and desolate. I cannot say "Your will be done." This type of prayer is like playing a game of tennis on a court in which there is a one-foot iron pole somewhere in the middle of my half of the court. With the fear of running into that pole constantly on my mind, I cannot enjoy the match. Instead of being relaxed I become tense and , frightened. The whole game is spoiled. I either give up in a short while or I finish the game, not gracefully, but with a dogged determination, an achievement of just not having given up. In somewhat the same way prayer can turn into an achievement, something which I do faithfully every day (like watching TV, eating three meals a day). This prayer is inauthentic. It is an illusion. My life is not at stake. Such a habit of refusal, such blind obstinacy nourishes a deep-seated hypocrisy which gradually penetrates every aspect of my life. Thomas Merton describes this inauthentic prayer as “bogus interiority.” It gives a semblance of pious sanctity but in reality it is something achieved and not lived. And, Merton continues, “It is unfortunately all too true that bogus interiority has saved face for pious men and women who were thus preserved from admitting their total nonentity” (Contemplative Prayer, New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, 135). Worst of all is the harm these people do to others who want to learn to pray. They take away the appeal of prayer—“If that is prayer, I do not want it.” They create a tremendous antipropaganda for prayer. Why? Because their prayer is not authentic. But who can find that out?