Prayer as Desire

Lent is a sacred time in which many of us resolve to be deepened in prayer. Joining Jesus in the wilderness, we are invited to allow our heart to be captivated by God the Father, growing in our identity as beloved children of God, and claiming as our own Jesus’ victory over the evil one.

The prophet Hosea describes God’s invitation beautifully: “Therefore I am now going to allure Israel; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).

God the Father awakens desire in our hearts. Deep and authentic prayer happens to the extent that we allow ourselves to experience and grow in that desire.

Have you ever considered prayer as an experience of desire?

I would say it took me a long journey with many detours before I really began appreciating the invitation to experience prayer as desire – and this was not for lack of pursuit on God’s part! If I take the time to reflect on my life, I can recall with gratitude many moments in which God sought to woo my heart in prayer – in childhood, in adolescence, and throughout my adult years. Sometimes the experiences were profound, intense, or astounding; other times simple or subtle or sweet. There were often obstacles impeding my response.

It turns out that deeply allowing the experience of desire is not so easy as it might sound! Feeling an ache that only God can satisfy can actually be painful – not unlike the experience of intense hunger or thirst. I used to laugh at the line in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus fasting and being tempted in the desert: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” I always used to think to myself as I read those words, “Well, duh!” But the spiritual combat of the desert – whether in Jesus or in me – is not mainly about physical hunger or bread – it is about the deep desire of the human heart that can be satisfied by God alone. We are created with an insatiable longing for him – one so intense that we rarely let ourselves experience it in full depth.

Augustine of Hippo perhaps put it the best when he prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We spend much of our lives, as he did, plunging ourselves in unlovely ways into the lovely things God has created – good things which would not even exist had God not created them. But they hold us back if they diminish our thirst for God.

Jesus allowed himself to go into the depths of human hunger and thirst – both physically and spiritually. He invites us to share in his experience: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; for they will be satisfied.”

Have you ever felt a thirst for God, and allowed yourself to abide in that longing? Or to seek and receive a taste of him, only to long for him even more? This is the invitation prayer offers us.

Even now, at a season in my life in which I understand the invitation at a much deeper level, I still notice myself avoiding it. Sometimes I numb out or keep myself distracted with lesser pleasures and lesser desires. Other times I stay plunged into busyness or activity; if I don’t let myself slow down, I won’t feel the ache. Still other times I try to make things happen my own way – as though “getting it right” will somehow bend the will of the living God.

Thankfully God has substantially eased my frantic urge to “get it right” – whether with daily prayer or on retreats. I can think of a few retreats in my young adult years in which I felt much anxiety over whether I was spending the time rightly – as though God is stingy or particular about awakening love or showering his blessings! Thankfully he often surprised me and – at least some of the time – I let myself be surprised.

One of the benefits of being Catholic is also one of our greatest pitfalls – we have thousands of prayers and devotions we can turn to. Often, instead of slowing down and just being with God, we can easily pile on more prayers. We can begin to think of holiness as a matter of being strong enough, disciplined enough, or doing all the right things. In this posture, prayer becomes something we “do,” rather than time spent receiving, and the more we receive, allowing the desire of our heart to be expanded even more.

Experiencing prayer as desire includes an invitation to engage with all our human faculties – our thoughts, our imagination, our emotions, our memories, and even the very sensations in our bodies. Again, Augustine captures what the experience is like, describing how all five of his human senses were transformed by his desire for and encounter with the living God:

You called and shouted and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I ache with hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I burn with desire to attain the peace which is yours.

There are moments in which we have no doubt we have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord. Yet we resist! I know that I sometimes do. Sometimes it feels safer to put surrogates in God’s place, predictable comforts that don’t involve waiting or trust or surrender.

I find it helpful at times to pray slowly the opening words of Psalm 63, words deeply familiar to anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours. I like to emphasize the words “you” and “your” in each line to remember Him whom I truly desire:

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

I am grateful for the experience of God awakening desire in my heart, even though it can sometimes be intense. It is good to long for the living God. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that it took me a long time to experience a thawing of the desire he had placed in my heart. Scripture suggests that God waits until we are ready: “I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken or stir up love until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 8:4).

Hopefully, this Lent will be a season in which you and I can join with the Psalmist in praying, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready!” (Psalm 57:7).

God Will Be Enough

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

These opening words of Psalm 23 are familiar to most. But each of us can ask ourselves honestly: Do I really believe that?

Speaking for myself, the truthful answer is both “yes” and “no.” It is one thing to know at an intellectual level that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-loving; or to state that I believe that he will provide for all my needs. And truly, I believe these things! But I also know the bind I sometimes feel. There can be that clutch of dread or panic about impending conflict, the crushing weight of responsibility (even if self-inflicted), or the suffocating feeling that those I thought I could trust are now pulling back and leaving me unprotected. In those moments, there are parts of me that urge me to hide and isolate rather than surrender unconditionally into God’s hands. It can feel so much safer to take matters into my own hands and to feel some measure of control rather than surrendering to God – what if his love won’t be enough??

In my own case, this inner resistance I sometimes experience isn’t so much in the form of words or thoughts as bodily sensations or deeply felt feelings. One way or another, I am quite familiar with the inner cry that screams out: It won’t be enough!!

I know I am not the only one.

There is a reason why Psalm 23 is so appealing. It speaks soothing and reassuring truths to so many of us who need to hear them again and again as we internalize them. We all need to know that God is abundantly good to us. We need to know that our hunger and thirst will find deep satisfaction in him. We need to know that we will be mightily protected by his rod and always guided by his staff – never abandoned in a place of powerlessness or stuck alone in a valley of death. We need to taste and see his goodness – even in this life.

Psalm 145 offers similar strong reassurance that the Lord’s love and care will always be enough for us, and that our deepest desires and needs will be met by him:

The Lord supports all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look hopefully to you;
You give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

If you are anything like me, you may find that you strongly believe the truth of these words, and desire to live by them – AND experience inner resistance. So… What do we do when part of us screams out, “It won’t be enough!!”?

I can rattle off the things so many of us tend to do in those moments – pull out our phones, scroll through social media, eat comfort food, binge on sugar or caffeine, fantasize about ways of getting away from it all, bury ourselves in busy work, fixate on the faults of those around us, and so many more. These days, there are no shortage of surrogates we can turn to in an attempt to replace real relationships. Then we reach a point of disillusionment and realize that these things we pursued to make sure it would be enough not only were not enough, but actually depleted us. We feel frustrated with ourselves and tend to trust God even less and to want to hide ourselves even more. A vicious cycle.

Alternatively, we can open ourselves to the kindness of God and other trusted companions, and become genuinely curious about the inner conflict. Rather than fleeing the images or feelings or bodily sensations that can be so unpleasant, we can follow where they lead us. In many cases, the reason why I am having trouble trusting and surrendering to God now is because my body is remembering what I felt like way back when. If I have past experiences in which I felt deeply deprived, neglected, abandoned, unprotected, or powerless, then it makes a great deal of sense that my body would warn me in the present moment that the same danger is immanent. The situation now is radically different – but my implicit memory doesn’t know any better; it’s doing it’s just doing its job by warning me.

The ultimate answer is to be found in an experience of genuine relationships, connection and communion, abiding in love and truth, staying present to others and God – and even to those parts of myself that try to tell me that it won’t be enough.

Ironically, I think many Christians have learned how to pray in a way that keeps God at a distance – especially from the ways in which we most need his loving presence. There have been seasons in my life in which I have looked at prayer much more as a “should” or a matter of being disciplined enough or getting it right. Rather than a close connection with God, many of us either avoid the vulnerability of prayer (and shame ourselves for being “lazy”), or we stay “busy” in prayer in a way that allows us to feel safe and in control, but hinders receptivity.

God invites us to come to him as we are and receive his blessings. I have written before about the prayer of lament, in which we open up our grieving hearts to God and seek connection with him in our pain and brokenness. Whether grief, anger, lustful fantasies, overeating, bitter resentments, panic, anxiety, or deep feelings of powerlessness – what would it look like to experience these things with God? If my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, why not tell the Holy Spirit he is welcome in my body (including where I happen to be feeling dread or shame or grief or loneliness)? Why not consecrate it all to God – giving him all the pieces? If we do not, how can we say we are loving him with our whole heart?

Similarly, what would it look like to cultivate relationships with trustworthy people in which I allow them to see and know the real me – including all the parts I’d rather hide away? Many of us were wearing masks long before this pandemic began! To be fair, we may have needed to do that for a long time. The pain of deprivation, powerlessness, or abandonment is simply too much to bear until we are in a position in life in which deep prayer and meaningful relationships are genuinely possible. When we allow ourselves to experience these relationships consistently in our lives and in our prayer, real change begins to happen.

Do you, like me, sometimes fear that God’s love or the love of others won’t be enough? Are you willing to let go of your surrogates and experience real relationships? I cannot encourage you enough to step out in faith, to renounce the lie that his love won’t be enough, and to permit yourself opportunities to receive.