Post by Ed Cyzewski
One of my most intense moments in prayer started on a whim.
I sat down to pray in our living room one morning, and for some reason my mind kept venturing back to the moments of my deepest shame.
The relationships I’d messed up in college.
The many stupid things I said during our first year of marriage.
The time (times?) I placed unreasonable expectations on a good friend.
As I squirmed and fretted over my shame, I had a “revolutionary” thought: “What if I just prayed as if God knew all about this stuff already?”
We Bring Our Vulnerabilities to Prayer
I’m not breaking new ground when I say that we can’t hide anything from God or that we don’t have to be perfect in order to approach God. That’s pretty much covered from most pulpits on Sunday morning.
Actually living as if we have nothing to hide and God still loves us is quite another matter.
As I finally warmed to the idea, I realized that God didn’t just see my shame and weaknesses. God wanted me to bring those very things I feared about myself into the light. God wanted to start with my fears, shame, and “secret” sins.
“Fine!” I said aloud. I then spoke out loud everything that I’d been obsessing over. Every source of shame, every failure, and every uncertainty—I spoke them all out loud right there in our living room.
In a flash, I was overcome with a sense of God’s love and acceptance. It’s not that God sweeps our failures and vulnerabilities away. God embraces us and heals us through our shame and weaknesses once we come clean and admit the truth. The shame we feel becomes the conduit for God’s healing. God transforms shame by redeeming it with forgiveness, love, and acceptance.
By the way, as I reflected on that moment later in the day, it hit me that God works a bit like good art. We create our best art through honestly confronting our pain. Perhaps the thought of that makes my experience in prayer sound a little less crazy (although, writing it all out, it still sounds pretty crazy, right?).
Self-Awareness Guides Us Into Prayer
While our shame and failure provide one place to begin with prayer, we can also practice regular (if not daily) self-reflection and self-awareness in order to identify a starting point rather than waiting for a breakdown like that moment in my living room. For instance, I’ve found that awareness of my body and thoughts provide critical gateways into prayer. Here are a few questions that may help you get started:
- What is my body telling me when my teeth are clenched or my shoulders arch up?
- What prompts worries when left to my own thoughts?
- Would writing help me sort out the thoughts swirling in my mind?
- Do I need some silence to sort my fears and worries out?
As you may have guessed, practicing this kind of awareness means turning off the television, putting your smart phone away, or flicking off the radio. You need to face your thoughts and the tension you’re carrying in your body in order to identify the symptoms of your stresses or fears. Only when you see these symptoms with clarity can you begin to identify the root causes and approach them in prayer.
Regularly practicing Examen has helped me pay attention to my sources of encouragement and discouragement each day (I use the “Examine” app). However, the real value of Examen has been the insights I’ve gained after months of this practice.
For starters, during the first year of using the Examen I noted that I was worried about money. It was the thing that kept me awake at night, that prompted me to keep pushing my work hours into our family time, and even stole my enjoyment of leisure time. I reasoned, “How can I enjoy myself when our income for the next year is uncertain?”
I’m a freelance writer. Uncertainty is part of the deal. There are up months and down months. If I was going to keep at my line of work, then I needed to arrive at a place of acceptance and deal with my fears. The Examen prompted me to continue praying and asking for help so that I could end my chronic worrying.
Fixed Hour Prayer Guides Us
I’m one of those “holier than thou” Protestants who thought the only way to legitimately pray was to freestyle my own prayers from scratch. I had grown up praying the assigned Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s after confession, so I didn’t see how praying the Psalms or written prayers in the Divine Hours could help.
Here’s the thing, my mind often engages in a swirl of ideas, worries, and items on my to-do-list that need immediate attention that very second I try to pray. Reciting prayers from the Divine Hours offers a basic starting point or a place to center my thoughts. Even the practice of centering prayer relies on a “sacred” word that gently guides us back to prayer.
I typically end each day with the Examen and the Divine Hours Compline. The first exposes my worries and helps me voice gratitude to God, and the second directs my prayers before falling asleep.
I still struggle with prayer some days—perhaps most days. Perhaps I don’t leave enough time to pray. Perhaps my mind is filled with worries. It’s not that I have a “successful” prayer life. Rather, I have a few simple tools available that make prayer a bit easier and more likely to happen. You could say that I’m learning to create a bit of space each day for prayer, and now I’m learning to trust the results with God.
This post is adapted from Ed’s new book Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together.
Order the eBook version for $1.99 between now and March 16:
Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Coffeehouse Theology. He’s a freelance writer who regularly addresses the intersection of faith and writing at www.edcyzewski.com and tweets as @edcyzewski. Get two free eBooks when you subscribe to his newsletter.