Overcoming Estrangement

He was in a certain spot praying. When he stopped, one of his disciples said to. him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”. He said to them, “Whenever you pray, say, “Father, may your name be holy!  May your kingdom come!” 
Luke 11: 1-2

In the Xaverian Fundamental Principles we read:

It is through your life of gospel witness 
lived in community with others
that God desires to manifest
care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness; 
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed 
of this world.

Perhaps the greatest suffering in the developed world is the result of a pervasive experience of estrangement. The absence of community and a sense of the common good is due in large part to the widespread experience of alienation, from our neighbors but also from ourselves. Adrian van Kaam would often speak of the spiritual impoverishment of “abandoned souls,” that is, those in highly developed societies who suffered this alienation from self and others. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are acknowledging the truth of what we all experience, a tendency to become estranged from our very selves, our own uniqueness and the desire to regain intimacy with ourselves, and so God.

We recognize that we are dissociated or alienated from ourselves because we have experienced times, or at least moments, when we are not. We all know of experiences in life when our self-consciousness disappears and we, without affectation or compromise, are merely living out who we most deeply are. At such times we are being, speaking, and acting from the inside out, rather than communicating to the world an image of ourselves that we are seeing, as it were, from the outside.

It is in prayer that we draw close not only to God but to ourselves. In her reflections on the Our Father as given in The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila says, “However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” For St. Teresa, prayer is the way to and expression of the ultimate truth of intimacy with ourselves and communion with the God who is “present within us.”

In my earliest years of religious formation, my prayer was an attempt to reach a God who was far above and beyond me and my humble, and what often seemed petty if not shameful, experience. In retrospect, I can almost still feel the effortful nature of my attempts to be before God in prayer in the way that I felt convinced God wanted me to be. As I would kneel or sit in chapel, in personal prayer or in vocal common prayer, I would be attempting to dredge up, out of a place in myself that I felt was all of what I was unable to be in ordinary life, one worthy to be with and address a God who was “in heaven.” To be who I felt I had to be in prayer meant that I would have to leave behind and distance myself from all that I was that was displeasing and shameful to God. My very attempts to be who I thought God wanted me to be and to pray as that imaginary person were actually acts of estrangement and self-alienation.

In retrospect, I can see that this sincere enough but mistaken sense of God and prayer is actually the source of the hypocrisy that we far too often witness in “religious” persons. St. Teresa says that, in fact, it greatly matters where we think Heaven is and where it is that we are to seek God. If we see it as far distant from and above our actual life, then we shall be becoming, when we pray, increasingly self-alienated and “estranged from our own uniqueness.” As we attempt to “reach up” to God, we shall leave more and more of ourselves behind.

On the other hand, when we very simply “find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us, we discover that “where God is, there is heaven” and there is “fullness of joy.” It is truly in our own uniqueness that joy and God are to be found. Prayer is where we enter and express that truth. Teresa’s teachings on prayer are clearly explications of her own experience. So we recognize immediately the truth when she points out that there is no need for us “to feel strange in the presence of so kind a Guest.” She tells us there is no need to feel strange because to be so honest with and in ourselves and before God does, at first, feel quite strange. The reason is that we have over time become estranged from ourselves.

So unpracticed are we, for the most part, in such prayer and self-awareness, that there is little to us that is more mysterious and inscrutable than the source of and so reasons for our own behavior. We have ideas about our motivations and desires, but at least most of us have very little real knowledge of them. Our reasons for our actions and reactions are, at their depth, quite unknown to us. We tend to know much more readily who we want to be or want to be seen as than who we truly are. This is why, far too often, we replace real prayer with a flight of the imagination. We busy ourselves creating an image and idol of God, to which we then pay homage, rather than merely speak very humbly and truthfully out of who we actually are to the God who is to be found only in the truth.

Prayer is difficult for us because honesty and humility are difficult for us. How often do we create situations, even with those who are close to us, to speak simply and directly from our hearts? As the story of Adam and Eve tells us, having sinned we hide from God. We also, however, hide from others and ourselves. Thus, what makes prayer difficult is the same thing that makes community and real friendship difficult. We strut and posture, busily attempting to communicate to others and to ourselves who we desire to be seen as rather than simply offering and communicating who we are.

The disciples plead with Jesus that he teach them to pray because, as we ourselves, they realize that without prayer they shall never know or live the life that is theirs. There is little in life that is more frightening than the possibility that we can run the course of our days and never live our own life. In our efforts to be what we think we ought to be, or to be what we think others will admire, or even to be what we think God requires of us, we can spend our lives “estranged from our own uniqueness.” As St. Teresa says, it matters greatly where we think heaven is. If we are searching for it far above and beyond us, we shall never come to realize that we can discover and experience heaven whenever we “find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us.”

Consider now what your Master says next: “Who art in the Heavens.” Do you suppose it matters little what Heaven is and where you must seek your most holy Father? I assure you that for minds which wander it is of great importance not only to have a right belief about this but to try to learn it by experience, for it is one of the best ways of concentrating the mind and effecting recollection in the soul. 

You know that God is everywhere; and this is a great truth, for, of course, wherever the king is, or so they say, the court is too: that is to say, wherever God is, there is Heaven. No doubt you can believe that, in any place where His Majesty is, there is fulness of glory. Remember how Saint Augustine tells us about his seeking God in many places and eventually finding Him within himself. Do you suppose it is of little importance that a soul which is often distracted should come to understand this truth and to find that, in order to speak to its Eternal Father and to take its delight in Him, it has no need to go to Heaven or to speak in a loud voice? However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us. Nor need we feel strange in the presence of so kind a Guest; we must talk to Him very humbly, as we should to our father, ask Him for things as we should ask a father, tell Him our troubles, beg Him to put them right, and yet realize that we are not worthy to be called His children.

St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 28

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