Pray As You Can*

There are so many things that I wish I could do better than I do. Every night at dinner time, I wish that I knew better how to cook. Every Sunday in church, I wish that I could actually sing. On the rare occasions that I find myself at a party or wedding, I wish that I could dance. On outings like our visit to the Renaissance Faire this past weekend, I wish that I could take better photographs. Whenever we have people over to our apartment, I wish that I had a better eye for interior decorating. And on, and on, and on. If only I could make my life as beautiful as I can imagine it being: excellent food, beautiful music, exquisite furnishings and photographs, elegant dancing.

And then, of course, there's myself. If only my clothes were more fashionable, my hair more manageable, my features more photogenic, my voice more pleasing, my carriage and gestures more graceful. No, I'm not going to show you a photograph; I hate seeing photographs of myself. Very rarely one comes out looking like I imagine myself to in my better moments. Most of the time I see only a slightly dumpy, frazzle-haired, droopy-faced stranger, not at all the woman I wish I could be. Why is it so hard to be even the best version of myself, never mind as beautiful, graceful, and talented as others seem to my constantly-jealous self-critical eyes to be? Surely if I can imagine it, it is possible, right? Isn't that what we're always told? "Just imagine...and all your dreams can come true."

I'm exhausted with dreaming. What if this, who I am now, is already "the best" I can become? But how would I know? Maybe--just maybe--I've been spending my time trying to be somebody else's best, not in fact my own. Now there's a sobering--and yet, somehow oddly comforting--thought. Perhaps everything feels so difficult because it is not, in fact, what I am meant to be doing. Another lesson from centering prayer, this one related by Basil Pennington: "There is a story told of a rabbi--Rabbi Zuscha. On his deathbed he was asked what he thought the Kingdom of God would be like. The old Rabbi thought for a long time; then he replied: 'I don't really know. But one thing I do know: When I get there, I am not going to be asked, "Why weren't you Moses?" or "Why weren't you David?" I am going to be asked "Why weren't you Zuscha?"'"*

"Pray as you can," Dom John Chapman used to say, "not as you cannot." How much energy have I spent in my life trying to pray--live, be--not as I can, but only as I cannot? Maybe that is why personality tests are so tempting: deep down inside, we keep hoping to be told what it is we are actually already good at so that we can stop struggling with things which we can never hope to achieve. I wish I could remember which Facebook test it was that told me recently that I would actually be best suited as a graphic designer (actually, second-best; first was something in bioscience). Historian was fairly far down the list, but what was most interesting was what was way at the bottom: philosopher. And yet isn't that what I most want to become? Wise in the ways of arguments and words, able to pierce the veil of seeming to see the reality beyond?

Sure, I'm good at designs, at least I think I am. Certainly, the times when I am designing something--my webpage, this blogsite, a course syllabus, a diagram of an argument--I typically find myself feeling more energized, eager to keep on with the work, than I sometimes (not always) do when I'm writing. I like presenting things visually; if I had lived in the twelfth century, I could easily imagine myself working on something like Herrad of Hohenburg's Hortus deliciarum or Lambert of St.-Omer's Liber floridus. How cool to be able to diagram the relationships of the seven liberal arts or the way in which the world will end! So why don't I? I feel like I ask myself this every summer, as the illusion (or reality?) of being able to choose to do whatever I want to do with my work comes most clearly into focus. But then, with the return of the academic year, I fall back into the usual mode of writing academic prose, summer's fantasies shelved yet again as impractical, not really what a serious scholar or historian should be doing.

I still can't quite believe how much trouble I've been having with my writing these past couple of months. I'm going to have to stop talking about it eventually, I know, and simply bite the bullet and get back to work, but think about that metaphor: "bite the bullet." Is this something I actually want to do? Or does it seem simply an occasion for yet more pain? Have I been trying all along to pray as I can't? Certainly, some of my colleagues (I won't say all or even close to all, that wouldn't be true) seem to find writing or, at least, writing for publication much easier than I do. I'm still waiting for it to get easier, less fraught, less frightening, but it never does. I'm struggling right now with trying to write a short description of the history and liturgical practice of our parish and even that is giving me anxiety fits. I'm supposed to be a writer, for goodness sake! WHY IS IT ALWAYS SO HARD?

I'm hoping that if I keep practicing centering prayer, the answer will come. Not, as I've said, because there is somehow a goal to centering prayer other than to do it, but rather because, in doing it these past couple of weeks, I have started (it seems) to catch a glimpse of what Pennington means when he says centering prayer is about letting go of our false self simply in order to be to God (p. 92): "The reality of what is, of who we are, is so tremendously wonderful. The sad thing is that most of us are running away from our own reality. We experience our contingency and desperately want to create or find something on which we can depend [e.g. the above list of talents that I wish I had; the sense of actually "being a writer"--FB]. Unfortunately we look in the wrong direction. We look outside ourselves or seek to construct a false self, a very fragile shell, whose all-too-obvious fragility leaves us in a constant state of fear and defensiveness. We need to reverse our direction and to see and accept our true selves. With the discovery that our contingency rests on a God of infinite love, intimately present, what security, what affirmation we experience!.... And what could be more affirming than the fact that at every moment the infinite God is present to us, bringing us forth in his creative love? If we are so loved by God, how lovable we must be!"

How sad must God be to see me so continuously criticizing myself, not for my sins, but for my very accomplishments! Talk about wasting one's talents. It's not humility but pride that makes me think I'm no good. If I were truly humble, I wouldn't be comparing myself to myself or others all the time. Imagine that: if I were truly humble, I might even be willing to believe that God loves me; even better, that God loves me because I am me--the me that He made and wants to be me, unable to sing or dance or cook as well as I'd like, frizzy gray hair and all. Because, of course, that is not what God sees. God sees not just a soul like so many other souls, but a soul that He made to be uniquely itself, not a copy of some other soul. Certainly, He wants me to be the best me I can be, but even more important, He wants me in order to love me. Presumably He knew what He was doing when He made me; who am I to reject such a precious gift?

This is the way Thomas Merton described the mystery of being truly ourselves (cited by Pennington, p. 88): "A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying him. It 'consents,' so to speak, to his creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree." I love that last line: "A tree imitates God by being a tree." Which must mean that I, middle-aged woman who can't cook or sing that I am, imitate God by being a middle-aged woman who can't cook or sing. But (my false self resists) I don't want to be a middle-aged woman who can't cook or sing or write best-selling books. I want to be that other middle-aged woman who can. Ideally, she should also be able to go into ecstasies after sitting meditation for hours upon end, say the Divine Office in full every day, keep a perfect house for her family, have earned enough money to buy several houses, and, of course, did I say?, write best-selling books.

Pennington calls this aspect of our false self--the one constantly critiquing what we have become, how much we have produced, whether we are doing everything we can to become as successful/famous/spiritually-advanced as we can--the monitor. It is the monitor that makes centering prayer so hard (p. 104): "The monitor, the servant of false self-love and pride, is going to put up a long fight before [she] dies. [She] will be the most relentless enemy of Centering Prayer, because [she] wants to be [herself] at the center. Centering Prayer is very simple, but it is not easy, precisely because it does involve death to self--the false, fabricated self--in order to be able to be and to live wholly unto God." Interestingly enough--"Pray as you can"--I find this advice much easier to take than that which I have been giving myself or, rather, which my monitor has been giving myself about what it means to pray. My monitor wants ecstasies and feels like a failure if she hasn't achieved them. My true Self who lives in God knows this is nonsense. God loves me and simply wants me to be in His love.

Pennington again (p. 122): "Our true self is a participation of the Divine Being. It is an image of God himself. It is a person of immense beauty, held in tenderest and unlimited love. Far different is this true self from the one which which we have so sadly and painfully identified ourselves for so long." It really is that simple to be our true Selves: it is holding onto our false selves that is what makes everything we try so difficult. But oh, what a fight my false self is still putting up!

Breathe. Return to the word. Be to God in faith-filled love. Let the prayer pray itself. Breathe.

*M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form (New York: Image Books, 2001), p. 99.


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