Again, as I tend to do, I read a book that I had for a class in conversation with another book. I was assigned Armchair Mystic: How Contemplative Prayer Can Lead You Closer to God by Mark Thibodeaux. And I read it in conversation with How to Pray by Pete Greig. Mark Thibodeaux is a Jesuit parish priest in New Orleans. The version I read was the 20th-anniversary edition, and he wrote the book based on the graduate school research into contemplative prayer. However, it is oriented toward a non-technical approach toward prayer.
Both books are very story heavy and use many illustrations to talk about prayer. In both cases, they are talking about various types of prayer, and they both agree that the main priority of prayer is a relationship with God. Prayer is often challenging to talk about, not just because it is mystical, but because prayer is experiential more than theoretical. But prayer, as much as it is experiential, tends to be talked about in theological terms. And in many cases, it seems to me that we frame our experiences in regard to the theology so that even if the experience of prayer is similar, the theological perspective on that prayer may be very different.
One of the places where there is tension is the role of our work in prayer and God’s work in prayer. Both Greig and Thibodeaux emphasize that prayer is God’s work. It also talks about the importance of making prayer a habit and something we do daily, even if for a short period. We are transformed through prayer, not through occasional but extended periods of prayer, but with consistent daily prayer over years. I want to affirm that prayer is God’s work, but I think that there are points when this is overemphasized because we do have a role.
Once, at a youth Mass, I noticed someone wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m not a saint yet, but I’m working on it.” What a contradiction in terms! The saints don’t work at being saints. The saints are those who give up! They are the ones who admit and accept their failure to be holy, and allow God to do holy things within them. They do not “achieve” sainthood; they receive it as a free gift from God. Like Archbishop Romero, they say to God, “I can’t. You must.” Like Saint Paul, they joyfully proclaim, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).
Thibodeaux is right to say that sainthood is a gift from God. But as Paul says in 1 Cor 9:24-27, we have a role. Paul uses sports training metaphors to suggest that there are things that we should be doing to ‘not run like someone running aimlessly.’ I do not want to use too strong of language here because Thibodeaux is countering a real problem: trying to manipulate or achieve a type of status that is not centered on a relationship with God.
A tragic irony of prayer is that many people censure themselves with God more than with anyone else. Many people feel they need to say just the right thing to God in order to keep God happy, or at least in order to hold back his wrath. They do not believe that God loves them unconditionally and will accept anything they say. Those who flourish in this type of prayer are those who can peel away these layers of censorship. Consequently, they find this type of prayer a freeing experience. (Here is is talking about the helpfulness of fixed prayer like Prayer of the Hours or the Book of Common Prayer)
And then later in a series of chapters on problems in prayer he says:
[We] must remember that prayer is not an assignment from God wherein I must accomplish some task. I trust in God and relax because whether I catch any fish or simply watch the passing critters, I will do it in God’s presence, and no time with God is wasted time.
His assurance that even when we are frustrated or distracted or feeling like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling, there is a value in prayer because we are with God is helpful. In many ways, the book emphasizes that prayer is about being with God and that we should not worry about our preconceptions and meeting some goal or task or achievement, but that our job is to show up. Day after day, throughout a lifetime.
On the whole, I found Armchair Mystic helpful. It’s story-oriented practical advice, like, “I would say that beginners often make the mistake of praying longer periods inconsistently rather than adopt the wiser strategy of praying shorter periods consistently,” makes it easy to read. However, I did read it slowly because it is full of suggested exercises and concepts that require some time to digest. I did not do most of the activities; although I can see the value of many of them, it is still a book oriented toward slow reading.
I thought that both How to Pray and Armchair Mystic were similarly weak was a lack of focus on prayer’s communal aspects. Both talked about prayer as a means to energize us toward action. Both suggested that there were times when we would pray with others. Neither spent much time on how communal prayer works or why you would pray with others outside of corporate worship.
I know that I have been thinking about our faith’s communal aspects because I have been reading Misreading Scripture Through Individualist Eyes. Still, prayer in group settings has played a significant role in my spiritual development. When we overemphasize individual prayer, we alienate people that are more wired toward corporate and communal aspects of prayer. We should all be praying individually at times. But that is not the only type of prayer that is important to develop. Armchair Mystic is primarily focused on contemplative prayer, which is more individually oriented. But even contemplative prayer is not solely about individual prayer.