Liturgists and prayer pedagogues have tried to impress upon us, actively and passively, that every liturgical celebration (such as Mass) or devotional celebration (such as the rosary) must be full of unction and fervour, and that something goes wrong when we find ourselves deflated, bored, looking at our watch or wandering inwardly among volatile images and desires.
On the other hand, in many books on spirituality we are warned about the dangers of praying, or doing a charitable deed, simply out of obligation. There is something wrong when acts of love, prayer or service become routine and cold. What is the value of doing something if you do not put your heart into it?
Surely there is something legitimate in such warnings. Heartless responsibility does not stand the tests of faithfulness. Admittedly, however, it is important to recognise and point to the fact that any relationship of love in the family, at work, in the church, in prayer… can only be maintained over a long period of time through ritual and routine. It is the ritual that sustains the heart, not the other way around.
We have lost the ritual capacity. Rituality which is awareness and order does us good. Letting ourselves be driven only by emotional states ends up destroying all relationship. Prayer is, in reality, a mystery of absence and presence, like love. Of closeness and distance. Love is not only closeness, it is also distance in which desire is generated. It should not worry us, then, that most of the time we are not at our best?
Therefore, what is essential is not the formal perfection with which a certain spiritual practice is carried out, but the purity of heart with which one gives oneself to it. This purification takes place in ritual, in gestures. One grows and matures if two basic conditions are fulfilled: humility (trusting) and constancy (keeping to it over time).
The same happens when, for example, a family sets out to make every meal an “event” in which each and every one of them is present. In this way, they become emotionally committed and bonded. The pressures of rushing and personal agendas should be overcome. Otherwise, you will soon notice that more and more members of that family find excuses not to be there. And for good reason: Nobody has the energy to hold a “banquet” every day. Indeed, no one except God. He is immune to the tiredness, distraction, absence or self-preoccupation that can make it difficult for the heart to be alert, attentive, emotionally present at any time. Love, as the language of the Marriage Encounter Movement affirms, shows itself in the decision, rather than in the feeling – which is often lacking. The decision is the freedom to remain faithful, no matter what.
The same applies to prayer. Whoever prays only when he feels affectively motivated and gratified will not keep on praying for a long time. On the other hand, the habit of prayer, the ritual, the simple fidelity to a simple practice, going to prayer without regard for feelings or desire, can sustain prayer for a lifetime and master the wandering of the mind and heart, which do not depend on us.
Juan Carlos cmf
(PHOTO: Patrick Fore)