The palpable discontent that normally grips the American electorate during the political high-season seems to have given way to a soul-rattling restlessness. The evidence for this is that the standard right-left wedge issues have been replaced by the even more fundamental question of the relationship of the voter to God, himself, his fellow man and the state.
“Though mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. (Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965, §3)”
While these concepts seemed too lofty to expect the average voter to consider as he entered the voting booth in the past, we are now being reminded that these are the questions we ultimately face every day. Simply put, there is hope to be found amidst the fevered political discourse this year because the larger body politic is beginning to remember that a vote is not merely a political decision, but a personal one, and therefore a deeply religious and spiritual one.
Of course we’ve known this for years vis-à-vis abortion, assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. The difference now is that the questions seem to be forcing Americans to ask, “What’s next for me, my family, my country and the world? How will my decisions now impact my end and our end?”
In order for people to answer these questions properly, not only must they be catechized, but they must be properly prepared for and disposed to a sincere prayer life. If we accept that the single most important goal in this life is to achieve union with God in the next – theosis – then our prayer lives must necessarily be the single most important “thing” we “do”. And yet, we spend so little time understanding true prayer, let alone actually engaging in it. This is important to our lives because communal prayer (liturgy) and personal prayer are the means by which we communicate with God (in terms of dialogue and union).
Unfortunately, too few parishes around America are truly preparing their people to understand that the human capacity for participation in the divinity of God is prayer itself (which is the state of intimate communion with God) and that the spirituality we embrace (which is the type or degree to which one desires and/or seeks a more intimate communication with God) determines our commitment to a life of prayer. Think about it: when was the last time in your parish that a priest, monk, nun or deacon publicly took a long, sober, traditional look at what needs to be present in the Church in terms of prayer? And when was the last time a multitude of believers gathered to learn how to pray using Scripture and the authentic Tradition with depth and sincerity?
One reason this has rarely taken place over the last four decades is that the province of prayer and spirituality has been hijacked by those who, amidst the burgeoning egalitarianism that arose after Vatican II, sought roles (e.g. spiritual director) that could exert enormous influence over the laity. Another reason spirituality and prayer are in bad shape is that these same people have sought to mold the ancient and venerable practices of prayer into a modernist, quasi-psychiatric or therapeutic discipline.
To illustrate this point further, simply peruse the websites and newsletters of far too many Roman retreat houses across America. For example, one retreat center in the South, run by Catholic nuns, works awfully hard to avoid using the word “Catholic” in its publications and boasts the biographies of the 46 contributors who lead their various programs. The problem is that this list includes a registered yoga instructor, a trained “psychodramatist”, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Lutherans, a minister from the United Church of Christ, and a host of psychiatrists and therapists.
Aside from the obvious scandal this has caused, what we have been left with, it seems, are the people on one side for whom spirituality is a communal activity, marked by feel-good slogans and soft, self-affirmations. It would be equally imprudent to endorse those on the opposite side who would reduce spirituality to a merely individual activity marked largely by intellectual pursuits and quasi-ascetic disciplines. Neither version leads to a healthy understanding of prayer, which was modeled for us by Jesus Christ, or spirituality, which was and is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.
The bottom line is that the importance of prayer cannot be overstated. Tradition has time and again reaffirmed that the life of prayer is the most powerful of all realities. “The principal fruit of prayer is not warmth and sweetness, but fear of God and contrition (Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer, p. 124).” And this is why Scripture originally described the spiritual life in terms of fire, water, a pillar of cloud, a thunderous noise and a rushing wind.
In order to reignite this kind of bold intensity in our spiritual lives we must set our minds on what comes next. “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth (Colossians 3:1-3).”
We also must be vigilant. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).”
And, finally, we must do our best to overcome the obstacles in our world: “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My father on His throne (Revelation 4:21).”
Even though the political discourse will assuredly plummet to new lows by the time this election is over, because of the topics that have been broached this year we no longer have an excuse not to engage people at their core, which is about man’s origin and his destiny. Doing so will continue to push people to grapple with what it means both to grow in communion with God by deeper communication with Him and how this life in God ought to determine their every decision (even in the voting booth!). Hopefully these considerations will move mankind a little closer to taking more seriously the need to spend dense periods of time with God in prayer.