Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, June, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask June to describe her prayer, and she responds thus:
When I pray, and I start out meditating on a Bible passage, sometimes I can’t concentrate. My mind wants to wander. I may be thinking about good things, but I just can’t make my mind focus on what I’m reading. It’s like a mental fog. I just want to relax and let it wander. Yet I still feel like I am seeking God.
Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?
What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that June is seeking?
June seems to think that when she sits down for prayer and meditates on a Bible passage, if it goes well, she will concentrate, and think clear chains of thoughts, and perhaps figure out or learn something about God or the Christian life or the world. Here she is unable to do so.
Discernment is necessary. Is she sleepy? Depressed? Suffering from indigestion? Is she simply distracted, with the concerns of life that had been running through her mind earlier now returning, unwanted, during prayer? That she feels as though she is still seeking God is an important clue; it indicates that her will is engaged with God even if her mind is clouded and confused.
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
After you have been a Christian for a while, after you have spent time trying to figure out how to live for Christ (and fallen), or how Christ can live in you (and failed), or how to be obedient (and were frustrated), you come to the heart of the matter. The heart. In trying to give your heart to God, you learn what the heart is, and what is in it, and what it is to give it. You learn to love.
And, eventually, if you also have faith and hope, you may find freedom. We in this country have an external notion of freedom: that freedom means that no one tells us what to do. No one else controls us. We are free. This is not the Biblical notion of freedom: it’s more like will-worship than freedom. It’s clinging tightly to our own selfish wills.
Biblical freedom is freedom from inner compulsion. It’s no longer being ruled by our own passions. It’s freedom from the desires that darken the mind. When we desire to acquire and possess things, or desire that others would think well of us, or desire power, or food, or anything that is not God, that desire occupies our will and tends to drive our thoughts and loves.
To truly give ourselves to God, to love him with our whole heart, we must turn away from such desires and turn toward God. But of course that is not easy: they are the things that we love. We must watch our hearts, guard them, notice what it is that they desire, and turn it if necessary. This is death of self and rebirth in Christ. It is to love God above all. And if, for a time, we love God with our whole hearts, we have freedom. We have peace.
June’s expectation and desire to pray in a certain way is an example of a (small) lack of freedom. If she were free of any kind of desire apart from whatever God wants for her, she would be at peace.
June, you are aware that you are seeking God. Pay attention to that desire. Thoughts will come and go through your mind. Rather than trying to control those thoughts, pay attention to what it is that you desire. Desire God.
If you do wish to better control your thoughts, notice what you are thinking about at other times of the day, before prayer, after prayer, during the night. These thoughts, especially if attached to desires, will come back to you during prayer, just because of the way the mind works. If you want an undistracted mind during prayer, you have to be careful of what you think about at all other times.
But the heart is the heart of the matter. What you love. What you desire. Can you watch your desires at all times, and turn them toward God when they go astray? If you can, you will be at peace at all times.
Conversely, if you find that you are not at peace at any point in the day, if you can, stop whatever you are doing and take a few moments to calm your unruly desires and love God with your whole heart. Your goal should be uninterrupted peace, and trust, and hope, and love.
In prayer, love God. Desire God. Have no expectations or measures of successful prayer. Feel free to spend time with him in peace, forgetting the world, letting go of your anxieties, letting thoughts run in the background like a movie that you aren’t paying attention to, noticing your breathing, or noticing the beauty around you, or pondering the beauty of God himself. (What is Love? Who is Love?)
The Spirit will pray in you, leading you into the many, many different types and moods and experiences of prayer, with groans too deep for words. In order to avoid illusion or deception, though, you should be sure to describe your thoughts and your prayers and your experiences openly to your spiritual director.