EOGHAN KEOGH :: Prayer gives me life; it gives me energy and helps me make conscious contact with God’s active presence in my life. For a long time, through study, retreats, pilgrimages, spiritual direction, and many other experiences, I arrived at a place where prayer was regularly fruitful and, dare, I say, easy to connect with. At one stage, a subtle attachment formed, and I found myself thinking I have gotten good at this, setting a space, wondering about a piece of scripture, and allowing myself time to enter a scene in the Gospels. This method comes from the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola.
I work as a chaplain and have been involved in various ministry aspects, traveling to Lourdes regularly, taking groups on the Camino, and spending extended periods in nature and on retreats. Being married, my wife encouraged this, and often we walked this path together. Fast forward a couple of years, and we have two small children; one is three the other just turned one. Gone are the days of long quiet nature walks, prolonged periods of silence in the morning and evening; gone are the extended periods for retreat because of the responsibility of being a parent and the various tasks that come with that. As I wake, I must be switched on straight away.
My youngest has little or no patience when it comes to her morning porridge, my son is full of life and energy, and from first light or even before that, some days, he likes to be up and engaged with us. They have little or no time for extended periods of quiet and prayerful reflection in the morning, as it should be with children.
Suddenly, I find prayer hard, difficult to connect with, and time is scarce; reading scripture seems laborious. I am faced with the realization that prayer is quite a challenge. So, what now? Well, after many attempts to recreate my old way of praying, I find myself at square one, on my knees, needing God’s intervention.
The subtle idea that I was getting good at praying comes up; I realize prayer is not a skill; it is a gift in each moment; it is an attitude of understanding the need for God’s consistent intervention. A feeling of humility returns. The need I see in myself for prayer comes back. I am tired, in lockdown, struggling with a very full day, craving some quiet. I notice all sorts of retreats happening online, of which I find no space to partake in. I see that the idea that I have of prayer has become an obstacle to prayer, and I have been attached to the idea that I could recreate an old experience today if I only applied myself more.
My eyes are opened, and my deepest desire is to feel that deep presence of God with in me. I realize God is shaping me, moulding me, calling me to look at this blockage in a new way. St Ignatius Loyola says in his opening meditation of the Spiritual Exercise, The Principal and Foundation, “that all things are created so that we may come to know God better.” So, I begin to look at this situation in this way, what is God giving me to help me know him better? If all things in our life are to help us better understand and know God, then this situation is a gift; he has sent me beautiful children so I may know him better.
The love and commitment I feel towards caring for my kids is the same affection God has for me. What was missing from my prayer was the depth of my need. It is not an intellectual idea; it is a desire; it is a deep desire within. I was praying with expectations of a certain type of consolation from prayer; I was attached to ideas about what prayer should be; it was like driving a car with the hand brake on.
Prayer now is in the moment, connecting with myself, getting in touch with my own needs. Finding God in the business of parenthood is a challenge for me, it can be a struggle, yet when I sit back and look at what is happening as a parent, it is all prayer. Being part of God’s plan to shape and form children is a blessing, partaking in his mission. This can be hard to contact when you feel exhausted. It can be hard to feel like a prayer when you are cleaning up after your one-year-old launches her bowl of porridge of the table and smiles; it can be hard to get in touch with prayer when you so tired, you have just dressed one, and they spill something all over themself, and then you wrestle with them to get them dressed again. It can be hard to get in touch with prayer on a morning like yesterday when I dress my youngest, I am just about on time to drop her at our childminder to get back to my laptop to to teach my first class in the morning, and she decides it would be a good time to play with a bucket of coal in the living room. As I write and reflect, I see God in her excitement, her desire to explore, her curiosity about what is in a bucket, and her desire to touch different textures are all part of her development. Yet, at that moment, it felt like the world was conspiring against me.
What have I learned? This new busy life is God’s invitation for me to drop my attachments to how I think prayer should be. There is a temptation to want to stay comfortable in prayer, stay where I am not challenged, or retreat. There is a temptation to think prayer is not prayer if it is not all perfect peace. As I grab a moment to examine myself, I feel that depth of transforming energy that, to me, feels like the hand of God. I realize prayer is not just about a zen-like state of being it is a back and forward; it is a dialog. The days spent sitting in quiet looking out on beautiful sites of nature and peace, and the energy that often came with them experiences such as pilgrimage, retreats, and travel can seem a stark contrast to the busy life of making food, cleaning up, playing with Thomas the tank engine for the millionth time. It can seem one experience of prayer is better than the other, but what God is showing me is prayer is not about seeking comfort; it is about seeking guidance to live the life he so chooses to give us. Both experiences are important; one not better than the other; they are simply different.
In my brief moments of reflection, it becomes clear to me that my attachment to my ideas about what prayer is or should be was what the blockade was. Granted, it felt easier when sitting sipping coffee on a break on the Camino or glancing out the window of a retreat centre, but here I am locked in my house immersed in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine with my little boy. In a way, I have been on a little retreat, months with no distractions or lofty spiritual ideas, only the reality of life. The presence of God comes to life in a way that I never thought. Building a wooden train set and letting God guide the prayer, playing with the trains with my son, suddenly feels prayerful. At the end of the day, a quick glance back reveals this. God is in all things, not some things. The Principal and Foundation come to life for me and the freedom to let God guide the prayer returns.