Prayer is aimed at our deepest problem: our tendency to forget our freeing, liberating and loving connectedness with God. When we don’t connect we may become lost in a sense of separation from God. From our narrow outside-of-God place what arises are our worst fears, cravings, pride, greed, restlessness, and personal and social sinfulness. . . Connectedness to God is the state that every one of us wants to live in, really. That’s why we suggest that people go and pray for some set time each day, because when we do, we slowly learn to live in this place of union and communion with God. We learn that we aren’t the center of the universe, it is not just about ourselves. If we don’t try to connect with God, we may become a reflection of our own personal experiences, living for our own selves—yet, in prayer, the Spirit of God may rub off on us.
When we pray—when we breathe with/in God—we may become part of the interconnectedness of God’s life. The Franciscan theologian, Saint Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274), wrote in his Soliloquy, “God is the One who is closer to you than you are to yourself.” Prayer then, is for recognizing the intimate in-dwelling of God in our lives, in our very person, the One who remains faithful in love even when the world around us may fall apart, or when we step away from Him due to sin.
Our true self is in communion with God. It is a self that exists in God’s eternal love. Likewise, the false self is the self that stands outside this created, existing communion with God that we struggle to overcome. As Thomas Merton puts it: “When we seem to possess and use our being and natural faculties in a completely autonomous manner, as if our individual ego were the pure source and end of our own acts, then we are in illusion and our acts, however spontaneous they may seem to be, lack spiritual meaning and authenticity.” In other words, another way to see it is: in sin—there’s always an “I.”
In our zeal to become the landlords of our own beings, we cling to each and any achievement as a kind of verification of our own realities. We become the center and God recedes to the fringe. Other persons become real to the extent they become significant parts in the designs of our own egos. In this process God’s influence dies in us and our desires become our God. But the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is illusion, a fallacy. We are no island or land unto ourselves.
In our false self, our body image, our job, our education, our clothes, our money, our car, our sexual identity, our success, and so on become the drive in our lives. These are the trappings of ego that we all use to get us through any ordinary day. They are a nice enough stage to stand on, but they are largely a projection of our self-image and our personal attachment to it. But none of those trappings last or really matter. When we are able to move beyond our false self—we will find we haven’t really lost anything, and it will feel like we have been set free. When connected to the Whole we no longer need to protect or defend the small, false parts of us because we are now connected to something bigger than our small selves. To keep our false self is what it means to be stuck, trapped, and addicted to ourselves, to power, prejudice and pride. If all we have at the end of our life is our false self, there will not be much to enter heaven. The false self is transitory. St. Paul told us that the only things of heaven are eternal; the things of earth will pass away. Only our True Self lives forever.
The writer Joyce Rupp offers different metaphors for discovering the True Self, a journey that requires opening a door from within (through prayer), creating a Godly portal. The Sufi poet Rumi (1207–1273) describes our soul-space as a magnificent cathedral where we are “sweet beyond telling.” Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) views it as a castle. Another way to speak about this inner space where our truest self and God dwells, St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) Rupp says that “opening the door of our heart allows us entrance to the vast treasure of who we are and to the divine presence within us.” Whatever building you are, you need a doorway to enter into that Godly space…
Our authentic, real self which is in union with God, may seem out of reach, but we are never separated from God. He is with us in all of life, in and out of our hearts. Our purpose for opening the inward door is to help us know and claim who we are so we can more completely join with God in expressing this love in every part of our outside world. This is redemption. Prayer is the doorway to our connection with God—but opening the door takes courage and practice and focus. It is an inward journey of reconciliation and love, and worth the work. Keep praying! Keep breathing in God.
David J. Conrad, M.A. Theology. Our Director of Faith Formation.